Face exercise: Is it a scam or a fountain of youth?

The business, culture, and science of working out.
Jan. 20 2011 7:06 AM

Cheeks of Steel

Are face exercises a scam or a fountain of youth?

See the rest of Slate's Fitness Issue.

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Valeria Georgescu.
Valeria Georgescu

Georgescu tells her clients to exercise their faces for five minutes each morning and five minutes in the evening, working the forehead, cheeks, eyes, lips, and chin. First, she teaches me Greer Childers' classic Edvard Munch face. Next, we move into an eye squeeze. The goal here is to contract the side of your eye, where crow's feet nest, without moving the other parts of your face. (Give it a try—it's like a much creepier version of a wink.) After that, I'm tasked with moving my labial fold, the part near the side of my nose where lines inevitably form. (Georgescu likens this look to that weird quivering snarl on a dog's face just before he bites.) After raising my cheeks up and down to get the facial blood flowing, I repeat the phrase Oooooooh, chaaaaaaals, like I'm saying Charles in a British accent but dropping the r. Georgescu tells me to exaggerate the vowels with my face movements, puckering for the first part, then spreading into a half-smile as I contract my cheeks. Oooooooh, chaaaaaaals.

None of these exercises was easy—my cheeks actually went into spasm after Oooooooh, chaaaaaaals. I found it particularly tough to isolate individual muscles; when Georgescu told me to move the area around my eyes, I couldn't do it without flexing the rest of my face. The other big challenge was stopping myself from laughing. Thankfully, Georgescu and her cohort don't take offense. "I just laugh with them, why not?" says Carolyn Cleaves. "I'm laughing all the way to looking youthful. Go ahead and make fun of me."

While laughing is OK, Georgescu says there are some things a face exerciser is not permitted to do. "You ever see runners?" Georgescu asks me. "They have horrible faces." I stay quiet and nod. I do not mention that I run half-marathons. "[Runners] don't contract their faces," she says. "They kind of let it flop. And every time it flops, it stretches, like a breast."

Before I resign myself to a life without sleeping or running, I should probably figure out whether any of these claims make sense. When I question Cleaves, Georgescu, and Maggio about scientific research, they instruct me to look at their clients' before-and-after pictures. "Try it for a month, five minutes a day, and that's your research," Georgescu says.

What does the medical establishment have to say? Dr. Murad Alam, the chief of cutaneous and aesthetic surgery at Northwestern's Feinberg School of Medicine, says there's basically no research in the field of facial exercise. Just because we don't have hard numbers doesn't mean the exercises don't work, he says. There just haven't been any controlled, scientific studies to prove or disprove their efficacy.

Botox works because it paralyzes muscles: If you stop moving your forehead, you don't get wrinkles. Since relaxing certain muscles reduces wrinkling, it's possible that tightening other facial muscles could have a similar effect. But certain realities of aging can't be wiped away with exercise. Over time, the amount of collagen and elastic in our skin decreases, giving our faces a crepe-paper-like appearance. Malar fat pads in the face also move and thin, creating wrinkles. Make wacky faces all you want—none of this is going to change.

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But even if the wrinkle-abatement claims seem dubious, there are other reasons to exercise your face. Toward the end of my session, Georgescu confesses she is worried about me. "You have engaged nothing in your face at all when I speak," she chides. "You know how you lost that? From cell phones and from the Internet—because you're always texting and you're not looking."

She's right: My countenance is not in a constant, Lucille Ball-esque state of animation. Not only is my lack of facial engagement jumpstarting my aging process—Georgescu says it also may explain my recent dating drought. Flirting, she says, requires facial muscles. If I consciously raise and engage my face during the day, she promises I'll attract more attention.

On the Metro ride back from the Mandarin, I try to practice. An older man, his face expressionless, is sitting next to me reading a book. I try to smile at him; he stares back quizzically. I contract my cheeks, relax my forehead, and attempt to contort my muscles into some kind of Mona Lisa smile. By the end of the ride, I'm exhausted, my cheeks hurt, and no one has flirted with me. Then again, I'm just a beginner—perhaps practice makes perfect. Oooooooh, chaaaaaaals. Oooooooh, chaaaaaaals.

Also in Slate's Fitness Issue, Torie Bosch searches for a fat-girl-friendly exercise DVD, Annie Lowrey swings Italian-style tomato cans  in her "extreme" exercise investigation, and our handy flowchart  helps you navigate awkward, naked gym situations.

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Elizabeth Weingarten is the associate editor at New America and the associate director of its Global Gender Parity Initiative.