As a general rule, I try not to open P.R. e-mails. But a few weeks ago I received one that announced the arrival, in New York, of "FACEGYM, the world's first gym for your face." Face gym, I said out loud to myself. A gym . . . for . . . my . . . face. Though I have never belonged to a gym for my body, I opened the e-mail. FaceGym, a British company, promised to "tone, tighten, and sculpt the face," with the help of a "trainer," who would perform face exercises such as "knuckling, faceballing, high-speed hand whipping, flicking and pinching." The face workout would consist of a warmup, a cardio portion, a sculpting portion, and a lengthening cool-down. Special attention would be paid to the "Zygomaticus," the e-mail assured me, to give me "the most enviable lifted cheekbones!"
This sounded like a hell that I had to experience for myself.
FaceGym, the world's first gym for your face, is located on the new second floor of Saks Fifth Avenue—a futuristic, white-lit, thirty-two-thousand-square-foot enclosure. (There are two FaceGyms in London, too.) On opening day, it was a blur of champagne flutes and silver balloons. Every person and every object carried an unspoken suggestion that the teleological purpose of existence was to be photographed as often as possible. One sign hawked an "anti-aging manicure." Another encouraged me to "unlock the perfection." I walked around with sunglasses hiding my face bloat: I had spent the previous four days studiously poisoning myself at a music festival in Gulf Shores, Alabama, and had gone straight from a party to the airport, where I immediately fell asleep on the floor outside of security. There was no perfection to be unlocked within me. I became conscious of my life style as a repulsive one: I would grab all the pleasure I could get and then all the beauty I could purchase. By the time I found FaceGym, I was lightly stewing in shame.
During the last few years, beauty standards have intensified under the influence of technology: the bar of "perfection" is continually being raised. Last year, on a visit to the dermatologist, I realized that it is normal now, and perhaps even expected, for twentysomethings to use anti-aging products. Today, young female professionals have an unprecedented amount of economic and social capital; at the same time, our adulthood has been defined by constant visual self-surveillance, a market-friendly feminism that favors any female acquisitive behavior, and an overwhelming redirection of anxiety into the "wellness" space. The financial and psychological drain created by the beauty industry grows ever larger. But the pleasure and feeling of power that women derive from self-improvement often grows right along with it; the boon is both deceptive and real.
I wrote about all of this in December. In January, the Outline ran a piece by a woman in her twenties who argued that skin care was a "con," which went viral and prompted a series of rebuttals. Elsewhere, beauty brands like the Ordinary and Glossier received attentive coverage, and thoughtful skin-care discussions bloomed in podcast and newsletter form. In April, the writer Chelsea G. Summers, who is in her fifties, observed that the nascent skin-care discourse has been dominated by young women, who are dealing less with wrinkles than with norms and aspirations and the concept of time's passage. There is a "wrinkled elephant in the room, and that is me and younger women's white-knuckled terror of becoming a woman like me," Summers wrote. She was right, and that got me wondering why my generation has become so adept at acting on a fear that we refuse, for the most part, to articulate plainly. There is, as Amanda Hess wrote, in April, in the Times, a new "beauty-standard denialism": the "expectations for female appearances have never been higher," and yet it's "become taboo to admit that." Beauty, Hess pointed out, has been reframed as a mandatory form of empowerment. "Women are expected to perform femininity and feminism at once."
Hess cited the new book "Perfect Me: Beauty as an Ethical Ideal," by Heather Widdows, a philosophy professor at the University of Birmingham, in England. Beauty, Widdows writes, used to be a stand-in for goodness: in fairy tales, you can tell the morality of a character from the look of her face. But, in today's culture, beauty is understood as a form of goodness in itself. Women come to think of improving their looks as a morally important practice, the way religious believers place an ethical premium on the daily effort to live a righteous life. "That perfection remains always beyond," Widdows writes, "something we have to strive for and can never attain, does not diminish the power of the ideal; indeed it may even strengthen it."
At FaceGym, I stood at an elegant bar lined with glass bottles and filled out a quiz on an iPad. I was customizing my own "training serum"—keying in my stresses and my desires, and watching the machine generate ingredients to fix them. Then a pretty, friendly woman named Catherine led me to a chair, where she explained the motto of FaceGym—"muscles first, skin second"—and showed me the tools she would use to exercise the apparently forty-plus muscles in my face. There was a rubber ball, which she deployed in the warmup portion, stretching my cheeks and forehead back and forth. For "cardio," I was covered in serum, and then attacked by what felt like a flock of finger-size birds for several bewildering minutes. To "sculpt" my face, Catherine engaged in a vigorous, near-excruciating massage that she said would further release the toxins between my face muscles, and make the muscles sit higher on top of the bone. Finally, she pulled out a large wand that would send electronic currents into my head. She moved it around on the right side of my face in slow, small circles—it felt like a series of stress twitches. Then she paused and handed me a mirror.
"Oh, no," I said. The right side of my face looked noticeably different. Something had been lifted at my jawline, my cheek, and the corner of my mouth. "Oh, no, it works."
According to Fast Company, FaceGym is most popular among women in their thirties and forties, many of whom are looking for an alternative to Botox and fillers, or for a treatment that will serve them between such injectables. Catherine told me they were seeing women in their sixties, too, and as young as their mid-twenties. Like most of today's skin-care industry, FaceGym conveniently blurs the line between health and vanity. Exercising is one of the few beauty practices that can genuinely be conducted purely for health reasons. A "face workout" connotes a sort of virtuous striving that a syringe to the cheekbone does not.
I was given a Signature Electrical workout, which costs ninety-five dollars, plus tax; FaceGym recommends that its customers do the workout weekly for the first six weeks, and then less often after that, for maintenance. ("The great thing is that it's affordable," Catherine said.) As I left the appointment, a couple of my friends, coincidentally, were discussing laser facials on a group text. I looked at myself in my phone's front-facing camera and saw that the large under-eye bags that had formed after the music festival were gone. I thought about "Perfect Me," in which Widdows notes that there are no clear demarcations on the spectrum between minimal and extreme practices when it comes to beauty; this makes it easy for people to engage, "with little reflection," in more and more such practices, and "practices that might have previously been regarded as extreme." The overwhelming trend is toward escalation, as evidenced in the nationwide proliferation of blowout bars and eyelash-extension places. Once beauty practices become normalized, they are, for the most part, here to stay.
Self-improvement imperatives always offer the seductive notion of untapped potential: it's a bummer to feel like you have to change, but a thrill, sometimes, to imagine that you can. The trouble is that there is no feasible end to this process. There's an Instagram account called @celebface that has recently been posting images of actresses and models on the red carpet as they appear in photographs on wire services, such as Getty, alongside the Photoshopped versions that the celebrities post on their own social-media accounts. These are professionally beautiful women, the ones who define contemporary beauty standards, who, furthermore, have teams of people dedicated to making them look perfect. Still, they retouch the pictures—tucking in their tiny waists, elongating their faces. What I find most alarming is that it is hard to tell the difference between the altered and unaltered pictures. In the "before" photographs, these women already meet an essentially impossible ideal. And yet the motion of self-improvement is, evidently, irresistible. What the photos suggest is a refusal to ever be content with yourself, a near-religious adherence to the idea that we can and should use every tool available to continually strive to look better, as if this is why we are alive.