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.

I dare you to watch this and keep a straight face:

The platinum blonde you see here is Greer Childers, the 60-ish founder of the BodyFlex workout. In the clip above, filmed in the 1990s, the perky, tanned, and toned exercise instructor demonstrates a face exercise called the Lion. First, she instructs, make an "O" shape with your mouth, then drop it down so you're stretching the top half of your face. Next, stick out your tongue. With your "O" mouth down and your tongue extended, look up to the sky and hold your breath. (Childers exhales and inhales as if she is sucking in the last bit of oxygen on Earth.)

If you follow her lead, Childers promises, this exercise will "lift and smooth out the skin"—an all-natural face-lift. The comments below the video on YouTube express some skepticism. "It looks like she's exorcising demons out of her," says one. "I pissed my pants laughing!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!" writes another.

Proponents of facial exercise have long been the butt of jokes. I may look like a freak when I'm squatting at the gym, but at least I have plenty of company, and I can claim I'm working on improving my muscular strength. Face workouts, by contrast, are taboo both because they look idiotic, and because women (and men) prefer to hide the things they do to prevent the ravages of age.

Illustration by Alex Eben Meyer. Click image to expand.

One of those women, I learned recently, is my mother. During a recent call home, I mentioned that I'd been watching that hilarious Greer Childers video. That's when my mom confessed: She does face exercises, in secret, in the bathroom. I never knew. Neither did my father.

My mother is mentally stable, and she has few wrinkles for a woman of her age. Does that mean these crazy contortions might actually slow down the aging process? Is it time that we pay face-exercisers the respect they've long been denied?

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Facial exercise is no recent fad—some historians even claim it helped Cleopatra keep her jowls at bay. In the early 20th century, a man named Sanford Bennett wrote rapturously about his face workouts in a book called Exercising in Bed. Troubled by how quickly his face and body had aged, Bennett began exercising at age 50; after two decades, he was a regular Benjamin Button, known by some as "the man who grew young at 70." Jack LaLanne, TV's "godfather of fitness," was also a proponent of face exercise. "You know why so many of you students look older than your years?" LaLanne asked his audience. "And why your jowls are hanging and your chin is hanging and your neck's all craggy looking? … Because the muscles are out of shape!"

That's not the half of it—the face-exercise field is full of people who market their system as the first and the best. Senta Maria Rungé, author of 1961's Face Lifting by Exercise, claimed to be the true originator—the pioneer of "the only method in the world by which one can lift the face naturally and restore a youthful contour."

There's also Californian Carole Maggio, who founded her business, Facercise, in 1981. "I was newly married to a man 16 years my senior," she says, explaining the origins of her career. "After six months of marriage, he sweetly whispered into my ear, 'You're prematurely aging.' " Maggio, already a spa owner, began putting her face through the paces. When friends and clients asked about her newly youthful looks, she spread the gospel with a trio of books. Maggio says she's traveled to 18 countries to tell men and women about Facercise and claims to have advised King Hussein and Queen Noor of Jordan. (She has also since remarried.)

Carolyn Cleaves at age 61.
Carolyn Cleaves at age 61

Then there's 65-year-old Carolyn Cleaves, the founder of Carolyn's Facial Fitness in Washington State. A former model with a degree in English literature from Harvard—she repeats this fact several times during our interview—Cleaves says the skin on her face started to sag after she lost 50 pounds. She didn't want to get a face-lift, lest she look like her expressionless mother. Cleaves' solution: designing her own facial exercise program—15 minutes, 28 exercises, three to five times a week—complete with DVDs, books, and a skincare line.

I am 22 and don't have any wrinkles—yet. Even so, Maggio and Cleaves told me that I'm already far, far behind on my exercising. To make up for lost time, I went to see Valeria Georgescu, the leading face-exercise guru in Washington, D.C. Georgescu is the creator of FACE (Facial Activation Conscious Engagement) Val-U. (Yes, it's a play on her name.) She's 46, works at the Mandarin Oriental spa, and has been exercising her face for 20 years. She doesn't have a single wrinkle.

On a recent Friday afternoon, I met Georgescu in the Mandarin's quiet, incensed downstairs spa. The first advice she offers is that I shouldn't sleep with the side of my face touching the pillow—it presses and contracts the facial muscles. Already, I'm not feeling good about my facercising future—sleeping is generally an activity I relish for its lack of rules.

I have vowed, though, to keep an open mind. And so we begin with some basics. Georgescu starts by sliding on long white gloves. It's important, she says, never to touch your face while exercising it because fingertips are textured and have a damaging grip.

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.

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.