After my friend moved to Los Angeles last summer, she sent me a video of a woman with dewy skin and the voice of a woodland fairy. “Buccal massage,” said the bright-eyed, open-faced woman. Then she smoothed the skin framing her mouth, inserted both thumbs under her upper lip and massaged vigorously. I had never seen anything like it. I was spellbound.
The account belonged to Antonina Moon, a holistic esthetician, yoga instructor, and life coach whose videos are a hypnotic mashup of slick-wet, colorful face masks, crystal massage tools, and serene faces being rubbed, pinched, and plumped into shape.
Moon’s services range from custom cleansing face masks to deep buccal massages where she inserts her pink-gloved fingers into her clients mouths to release tension from their lips, cheeks, and jaw. But Moon’s signature treatment is the holistic face-lift, which she describes as an alternative to invasive surgical procedures. In her version of a face-lift, Moon massages, masks, and literally slaps the face into shape.
“There is pleasure in the pathless woods,” Lord Byron once wrote. To that, I would add there is joy in the bottomless Instagram hole. Here was the promise of skincare as self-care—a gateway to womblike serenity, a haven from our increasingly anxious world.
According to Moon, you can nix the botox and the fillers. She counsels her clients to ditch them as often as possible. She says the secret to youthful, smooth skin is working with your muscles and your skin’s natural elasticity to create a more lifted look.
Moon isn’t alone in her philosophy. Companies like FaceGym—“the world’s first gym for your face”—have locations in the U.K. and the U.S. where for $95 to $285, you can purchase workouts designed to lift and sculpt your face. Smaller boutiques like FaceLove have sprung up in New York City and Los Angeles, offering “firming face exercises” with sessions ranging from 30 minutes of “stress relief” for 40 to 60 minutes of deep massage for $125.
Despite the popularity of facial massage, in a world where Instagram filters fuel selfie-dysmorphia, plastic surgery and botox don’t seem to be in any danger of extinction. For those who want to look Facetuned IRL, alternative services like Moon’s might not cut it.
According to Dr. Chaneve Jeanniton, a Brooklyn-based surgeon who specializes in eyelid lifts, facials simply can’t achieve the same effects as “traditional” methods. Jeanniton told the Daily Dot, “The appeal of a good facial is undeniable; it’s an indulgent, non-invasive experience, without downtime or discomfort. However, there is no comparison between the degree of effectiveness of an injectable or surgical procedure for the appropriate candidate relative to a facial.”
But for those of us who squirm at the thought of surgical incisions, or who may not want to spend thousands on a risky procedure, more holistic approaches have increasing appeal. For me, surgery feels drastic. I’ve never felt the desire to slice or rearrange my features so that they sit at different angles, like they might via a PDO thread lift—a procedure that involves sewing dissolvable threads into place. A face that looks generally relaxed but firm, lifted, and youthful? Sign me up!
I could have gone to FaceGym or FaceLove, but when I scrolled their menus, their services weren’t what I wanted. I wanted magic. I wanted Antonina Moon. So I slid into her DMs and booked a flight to Los Angeles.
Unfortunately, as soon as I got there, reality set in. I caught a virus from a friend I was staying with, and it knocked me completely on my ass. Dragging myself to the bathroom to wash my face before bed each night—the bare minimum in skincare—felt like climbing a mountain. I was miserable, pale-faced, and cranky as hell. Congested and aching, I asked Moon twice if we could reschedule.
When Moon offered me a slot shortly before my flight back to New York, I decided I had to get my strength back. I was going to get this two-hour face massage if it killed me.
The morning of my “face-lift,” my friend drove me to a diner where I ate a breakfast of greasy eggs and corned beef hash. I drank two cups of coffee. Buzzy with caffeine and hot sauce, I bid my friend farewell and hauled my luggage into the trunk of a Lyft, bound for the Westside and, I hoped, the skin of my dreams.
Moon works out of her home in Venice, and as soon as I arrived, she brewed me a cup of ginger tea with drops of an elixir that smelled of herbs and spicy-sweet cinnamon. I sipped my tea in the light-filled but cozy space, and Moon asked me about my hopes and concerns. I told her the thing that frustrates me most about my face is my pores.
“Well, try to avoid caffeine and spicy foods,” she told me.
“Oh.” I opened my mouth to confess my breakfast choices but then shut it. I felt at ease with Moon. Her face was warm and welcoming, and she appeared uncritical, yet genuinely interested in my habits. And yet, I felt the familiar shame I have always felt when entering women’s beauty spaces creeping up the back of my neck, spurred by the subtext of salons and makeup stores: that if you aren’t beautiful and flawless, you must not be making the right choices. That beauty is a responsibility, and if you don’t achieve it, you’ve failed.
I swallowed my shame and asked timidly, “So, how much coffee can I drink a day, realistically?”
“One is fine,” she told me. “You don’t have to be extreme.”
I breathed a sigh of relief. Then Moon told me she’d do some micro-needling to take care of my pores, and I cringed again. Tiny needles rolling up and down the contours of my face was not what I pictured for myself during my long, blissful Instagram scrolls. I tried to hide my discomfort. “How does that work?” I asked.
Moon explained that the needles stimulate the skin. I thought back to acupuncture sessions that left me feeling invigorated and destressed. I told myself to keep an open mind. I pictured myself emerging from my two-hour session with moist, flawless skin and tiny, invisible pores. I told myself, this will be worth it.
In the treatment room, I lay on a massage table, and Moon held up what I can only describe as an enormous, flat flower. On one side, the flower was smooth green plastic. On the other, it was covered in multicolored spikes. Moon described the merits of the tool, the metals it contained, the positive effects on my gut health, and how that would impact my face. If it got too uncomfortable, she said I could just let her know, and she would remove it.
I nodded, half-fearing the spikes, half-knowing I would endure them if it meant clearer skin. Soon, the prickly weight of them was on my stomach, uncomfortable but not unbearable. The weight of it was almost comforting, and I felt a softening in my shoulders.
Moon applied a slick lube-like goo to my face. It was cool and soothing. The massage began with light rapid movements. Her touch was gentle and comforting. Then she began to go deeper, as if working grooves into me. I was surprised to discover I could feel the places where my face was holding tightness. Moon diligently worked out every knot until I entered a state of blissful relaxation. And then she slapped me. It hurt. But once I adjusted to the initial shock, my face felt awake in a pleasing way.
The next phase of the massage involved a warm towel on my face. I felt like a swaddled baby. When the towel was removed, Moon warned me that the micro-needling was about to begin. It wasn’t as painful as I’d feared. It felt a bit like pressing your fingernails into your skin. It wasn’t extreme, but it wasn’t pleasant, and I was glad when it was over.
Finally, it was time for masking. I had to keep my eyes closed, and at first, that made me nervous. But then I eased into the sensation of the mask covering my entire face. Moon released the spiked torture flower from my stomach. While the mask dried, she massaged my guts. I worried that I would feel a sudden urge to poop or regurgitate my breakfast, but Moon’s movements were smooth and thoughtful. I felt the knots in my stomach and my solar plexus release, and my body relaxed.
Moon peeled back the mask and gave me a scalp massage. Truthfully, I’m sure even a lackluster scalp massage would please me. But this one felt really exceptional.
When I finally emerged from my facial, I felt more blissful than I thought possible. I had come in with sinus pressure and pain, and I was still congested, but I felt suddenly open and alert. I went to the bathroom and studied my face. Then things got dicey.
I don’t know what I expected. My pores were noticeably clearer and smaller. My skin looked bright and smooth. But I felt suddenly intensely critical of my face, which is not something I feel often. It startled me. My holistic face-lift felt like heaven, so why did it leave me feeling so self-conscious?
As a teenager, I read in a beauty magazine that most women prefer their faces to the rest of their bodies. The conclusion was plucked from a study where women were asked to rank their body parts from least liked to best liked—a truly dystopian activity that, looking back at it, feels more like a hazing scene in a Margaret Atwood novel than a scientific study. The idea wasn’t that women actually liked their faces. They just didn’t hate them as fervently as they hated their other body parts. The people who had conducted the study inferred that women accepted their faces because they were simply more familiar with them. They saw them often, so their faces never startled them like their bodies on a beach or in a dressing room.
Looking at myself after my facial felt, in some ways, like looking at myself naked for the first time in years. Even though I wash and moisturize my face every day, I rarely gaze at my bare face. I apply tinted moisturizer and a bit of highlighter. My makeup routines are minimalist at best, yet they make my face feel put together. The massage left me feeling naked. I had an image in my mind of what my natural face should look like, and my natural self seemed inferior to what I’d hoped to see.
It wasn’t until hours later, when the friend who introduced me to Moon’s work met me for a pre-flight coffee and marveled at how fresh and youthful my skin looked, that I started to feel more secure. I asked her to take a selfie with me, and she protested. She had just gotten off a flight. I promised her I wouldn’t post it. “It’s just for me,” I said. I wanted to remember the moment and how happy we were to have a little pocket of time together.
I looked at the selfie and saw my friend—smiling and beautiful as always—and myself, barefaced. Could I call myself beautiful, too? My friend told me again that I was glowing while dismissing the image of herself. I thought about how badly we need mirrors, other people who can reflect back to us that we are not the flawed distorted versions of ourselves we imagine when confronted with our own bare faces.
After my massage, Moon told me about her methods. She explained that when she works with clients long-term, she seeks not just to improve their appearance but to teach them to love themselves. “I always look, where is the wound?” she said. “Where is that hurt?”
I felt suddenly overwhelmed with emotion. But I swallowed it, worried that she might see me.