Remember your mother's warning that if you made silly faces your mug would freeze that way? People doing Face Val-U exercises clearly do not.
The Face Val-U program encourages many bizarre contortions, from a haughty, model-ish "snooty face" to a ghoulish, mouth-dropping, eye-popping "scream face." The objective here isn't to look silly (though it certainly does that). The purpose is to prevent wrinkles and reduce the visible effects of aging.
"Hello, dahling. How are you?" instructor Valeria Georgescu calls, hands on hips, nose canted upward in the aforementioned snooty face. One by one, each of the 14 adults inside Studio One at the swank Sports Club/LA in the District's West End return the expression, complete with accent.
There are giggles and more than a few ridiculous faces, but embarrassment has a payoff, according to Georgescu, inventor of Face Val-U. "The posture naturally lifts things and makes your brain understand how to move your muscles," she explained. The fitness instructor's wrinkle-free face and taut bod belie her 39 years.
"I want people to walk out of here being aware of what they're doing with their face on a daily basis," she said. "If you correct your facial posture, you're going to slow the process of aging and you won't be running for a quick fix so often." She refers to her program as "natural Botox for the head."
Facial exercises are hardly new. Many books promote the notion and some adults, mostly women in the middle years, have sworn allegiance to such techniques. And while some exercises may yield improvements, don't expect your dermatologist or plastic surgeon to prescribe aerobics for the face.
Facial exercise "is what people did before they had Botox and fillers," said dermatologic surgeon Tina Alster, director of the Washington Institute of Dermatologic Laser Surgery. "It's not going to hurt you, but I'm not convinced it's going to help you, either."
Facial exercises won't prevent or eliminate wrinkles, which are caused by skin turned inelastic due to aging or sun exposure and to the accumulated impact of hundreds of thousands of conventional facial expressions, said Michael Olding, chief of plastic surgery at George Washington University Medical Center and a spokesman for the American Society of Plastic Surgeons.
Still, he said, exercises "might make enough improvement with a patient to postpone a face-lift for a while." After participating in a recent Face Val-U session, Olding acknowledged that performing such exercises on a regular basis could produce some potential benefits, including correcting or improving facial imbalances, reducing tension in the jaw and staving off ridges that develop around the upper lip.
He also said it was "much more fun than I thought it would be."
"From my perspective, the most interesting thing she does is to force people to focus on how they look and how they move their face. Everyone is asymmetrical when it comes to their face. They have a brow that is lower on one side, or they smile asymmetrically. By being aware of those things and strengthening the musculature, I believe she can be of some assistance in equalizing those asymmetries, so you'll look better." Olding noted, though, that some minor asymmetries can actually make a face more appealing.
Despite a lack of evidence supporting her approach, Georgescu has converted some into believers.
"The lines around my mouth have definitely diminished," said Franmarie Kennedy, 56, pointing to the space above her upper lip.
Patricia Alvarez, like Kennedy a District resident, called Georgescu's instruction "a natural face-lift." Alvarez, a youthful-looking 51, said her cheeks are stronger and more defined, her lips fuller and the skin on her neck tighter as a result of following Georgescu's regimen for the past year. This includes working with a "Facial Flex," a $70 gizmo that, when inserted into the mouth, provides tension for strengthening the cheeks, mouth, chin and lips. Facial Flex is not used during the class itself, so not all participants opt to order one.
Even Amanda Miller, 33, of Ann Arbor, Mich., who stumbled onto the class while in Washington visiting her parents, thought it was "cool." "I had no idea what it was," she confessed. "I thought I was going to be doing Step."
Like other fitness classes, this one begins with a warm-up and ends with a cool-down. The difference is that exercises focus on the four-dozen-plus muscles of the head and neck. Instead of standing, participants sit. Instead of lifting dumbbells, they roll a soft plastic ball the size of an orange over their cheeks and forehead. Instead of grimacing, they smile -- often on command.
"If you look at clients in most exercise classes, they just make the most horrible facial postures," Georgescu said. "That's what creates wrinkles. . . . I try to get people to smile. Smiling is relaxing. Frowning is stressing. You use more muscles to frown . . . and the skin drags down, so everybody gets those lovely jowls and turkey necks.
"That's why you need to retrain your posturing. People go to surgeons and get their eyes lifted and their cheeks lifted, then three, four or five years down the road, they have to go back. Why? Because they're doing the same postures with their muscles."
Dermatologic surgeon Alster, who hasn't attended Georgescu's class, said facial exercises, if they provide benefit at all, are likely to do so in terms of toning.
"If you build up muscles in the cheeks, it will stretch out skin and give it a better drape, sort of like reupholstering a chair," she said.
A typical Face Val-U class starts with gentle patting of the cheeks, forehead and the underside of the jaw. Regulars can be spotted by their white gloves, worn to keep fingers from sticking to the skin and pulling it. The gloves, part of a $38.95 package, come with a massage ball, a map of the facial muscles and Georgescu's critique of your particular problem areas. Sports Club/LA members pay no additional fee for taking the class at the club.
Wearing white gloves, black tights and a black sports bra and standing on a raised platform, Georgescu resembles a mime. There's a bit of the performer on display as she instructs students to mimic her expressions, such as a sexy model pose in which she tosses back her head while seductively sliding fingers from cheeks to hairline.
Georgescu insists the postures allow for exercising and isolating specific muscles. It's analogous to extending your hamstring in order to flex your quadriceps, she said.
Most exercises feel awkward and take time to master. Try lifting your eyebrows without creasing your forehead. Not easy? It's not supposed to be, Georgescu said. Consider sucking in your stomach. This isn't natural, either, but if you work on it long enough, it will become second nature, and you'll look and feel better.
Georgescu, who also offers private sessions starting at $75 an hour, developed Face Val-U 15 years ago. "I read every book on facial pain . . . talked to lots of dentists and orthodontists. I studied Gray's Anatomy. I was self-taught," she said.
Once, while in her teens, she covered the end of a vacuum cleaner hose with a towel and applied it to her face. "I needed to create resistance in order to see how to move the muscles separately and together," Georgescu explained. "I wouldn't try that now," she says with a laugh. "After 25 the elasticity in the face starts to disappear."
Georgescu coaches students on other aspects of facial care, from advising a reporter to relax the corrugator muscles between her brows to telling a young woman that she looks tired and her skin has lost its elasticity. "You need more sleep and more water -- like a little plant."
Like any fitness instructor, Georgescu preaches a regular regimen. "Do it every day. Do it while you're driving. Do it while you're cooking dinner. Pay attention to your muscles.
"The most neglected muscles stare you right in the face every day."
Dana Scarton last wrote for the Health section on how to find a fitness trainer.