Exercise is rarely a sexy state of affairs, but face pilates – yes, you read that right – might win the award for most deeply unattractive fitness endeavour. At one point in my first taster session I turn to my instructor for help making sure I’m doing the exercise correctly: with a dopey smile designed to work out muscles in my jaw, I have the strange look of Animal from The Muppets. This, depressingly, might have been the best looking of all the faces I was asked to pull.
Yet when my instructor, FaceToned®’s founder Carme Farré, shows me before and after photos of her regular clientele, it almost makes it seem worth it: People’s jaws look changed, their cheekbones more defined than it seemed possible. Skin, too, is now clearer and healthier. “If you have an arm that doesn’t exercise you will see the skin a little bit, you know, older. if you start toning that muscle, after four-six weeks, you will see the skin fill up with muscle underneath,” explained Farre. “This is the same in the face.”
Farré describes what she does as like a “mini facelift” and “natural botox”, and when you see the results it’s hard to disagree. She also shows me pictures of her in her twenties, and her now, on the cusp of 47. There are startlingly few differences. It might sound borderline inane, but when people look this good because they’re working out their faces, maybe it’s time to listen.
Carme Farré was 35 when she first went to a facial exercise class and fell in love with it. “it wasn’t a beauty concept or anything,” she said, “it was just: actually yes. If you work your muscles in the body, why wouldn’t you do the same with the face?”
FaceToned®, her current system, exists in a couple of forms: one on one classes in her studio, and then an app which you pay to join the way one might a gym membership or telefitness app (it costs £19.) It contains recipes developed with nutritionists, and a Foundation Program of six weeks with 15-minute tutorials for facial workouts. There are also live webinars that people can join, participating in real time with Farré but with your own face invisible to all involved (which, I cannot stress enough, is a huge relief.) She has also done group sessions in person, she says, but “they tend to be quite giggly.”
Facial exercises, Farré argues, are a crucial way of battling the signs of age. “Aging is not about wrinkles, its about sagging,” she says. “You see a face that is very tight, and it has a few lines, looks younger than a face that has no lines but its sagging.” But it also has benefits outside of cosmetic change or just general fitness: she says it’s excellent rehabilitation for people with Bell’s Palsy or whiplash injuries.
Carme’s studio is a basement in Notting Hill, small and square, entirely mirrored, and stuffed to the gills with reformer pilates equipment. For our session she sits me down at a small white vanity and sits behind me on a balance ball. She pours me a water- I’ll need it, apparently- and she starts by getting me to cover my face in a serum.
Then the workout begins. Carme Farré starts with the jaw and neck every time, “because it’s the number one concern of clients when they come to the studio.” We start with a simple exercise, placing my tongue against my top lip and pushing forward with the former, and resisting with the latter. “In pilates there is always two forces,” she explains, “one that presses and the other one that goes against.” After the first round she asks me how I feel, and I’m amazed at how much effort my face has exerted just to keep certain parts in place, to move things without other things following. The face is full of these chain reactions, she explains, where we move parts of the face because we feel it’s required to achieve something else. In one, we try and find ways for me to open my eyes wider without moving my forehead at all.
Part of me wonders if it only felt like my face looked ludicrous at the time because of how new it was. Watching back footage of my session I… was entirely correct to think I looked ludicrous. Even the most basic exercises look like I’m very unsubtly trying to work something out from inside my back teeth. What was perhaps most interesting was seeing the differences in between me and Carmé’s facial musculature: some exercises she would do would expose taut, powerful muscles in parts of the face it’s very easy to forget we have muscles in. The same one, done by me, simply looked as if I was gurning. Perhaps the most unpleasant to see reflected back at me involved me putting my bottom lip over my top, and then pulsing a smile up and down, focusing on the corners of the mouth. Catching sight of myself in the mirror, I honestly looked like the face of a Chinese guardian lion. That being said: I came out feeling like my face had been through the wringer, which is a sign I probably did get a real work out.
According to a 2018 study from Northwestern’s Feinberg School of Medicine, facial exercises were shown to make a sample group of middle-aged women look younger. Based on the before and afters Farré showed me too, it’s also effective for men. Farré says her male clients have loved it, and while I can’t promise I’ll be signing up for the app tomorrow, it’s clearly having the desired effect. If you’ve been looking to combat the signs of aging, facial pilates might just be the answer you’ve been looking for: just make sure you do the exercises behind closed doors.