A series examining the outer edges of style.
I’m a masochist, and I know it. My favorite workouts end with quaking muscles and the occasional dry-heave. My ideal weekend activities involve the risk of bodily injury. Call me a wimp, and I’ll endure just about anything to prove you wrong. So when I went to Korea a few months ago, I had to try the V-line facial — a procedure with a reputation for being so painful, it leaves grown women in tears.
Having a face shaped like the letter “V” is a beauty ideal in many Asian cultures; I’m Chinese, and I’ve been told my whole life by brutally honest relatives that my face is too “round.” The V-line facial is designed to give you that elusive “V” shape, with a pointed chin and strong cheekbones. It’s offered all over Korea and also goes by several other names, like the Acupressure Facial or the Korean Massage Facial. At the Shangpree Spa in Seoul, it’s known as the Contour Facial and lasts 80 minutes. The spa is one of the best in Korea’s skin-care-obsessed capital, with facialists undergoing three years of training before they can even touch a client.
When I arrive, the English-speaking receptionist looks appalled. A Westerner, asking for such pain? She warns me multiple times that it’s going to hurt and gently tries to steer me toward the spa’s signature facial instead. But all this deterrence just makes me want it more.
Once I strip and wrap a robe around my body, I’m led to the treatment room. Someone escorts me to a corner bed far away from other guests. Maybe they expect me to scream? I lie down and my facialist, who is tiny, introduces herself before warning me again that this will be extremely painful. I can take a break at any time, she adds. Then she tucks me under the sheets and slips my legs into sleeves that pump air in and out, giving them a gentle massage.
The pleasant whirring below my waist lulls me into a sense of calm as she begins rubbing my face. Her hands make soft, soothing circles from my forehead down to my neck and further down my chest to my armpits. I feel confident — this is going to be a breeze.
But then my facialist, who can’t weigh more than 110 pounds, begins to apply pressure to my jawline with her hands, using the strength of 20 Crossfit junkies. Hand over hand, she makes her way up to my cheekbones and over to my temples like a Swedish masseuse. It’s cool, I tell myself. This isn’t unbearable, just uncomfortable. Still, I’m mildly concerned when she mentions that she considers her strokes “gentle.”
Following the stroking comes the pressing, and this is when it begins to get really gnarly. She hits all my pressure points, including a particularly sensitive area near my salivary glands, where she pushes so hard that drool pools into my mouth. I want to suck my spit back in, but I’m too busy forcing breaths in an attempt to modulate my discomfort. A tiny puddle accumulates on my right shoulder.
But the worst is yet to come, as she moves to kneading like a physical trainer after a big game. My cheekbones are surprisingly tender, and she goes at them so vigorously that I hear muscle grinding over bone. I grit my teeth and reminds myself that I’m a masochist and pain is pleasure.
You lose track of time when you’re at a spa; even more so when you’re on the receiving end of a V-line facial. Ten minutes pass, or maybe it’s 20, and then my facialist shapes her hand into some sort of diabolical claw and jams it into my skull for one final stroke. Relief! Blissful relief. We’re finished … with one side of my face. She holds a mirror above my head to show the results, and I’m pleasantly surprised to find that my left cheekbone and jawline look more defined. I nod in approval, feeling confident that the pain is worth it.
Unfortunately, my facialist takes my silence as a sign that I can handle even more pressure on the right side. Did you know your body responds to extreme discomfort by sweating profusely from both the scalp and soles of the feet? With every stroke I clench my toes, fingers, and eyes and drench the entire massage table.
Since I’ve memorized the massage pattern, I begin a mental countdown to the finish. When she runs her hands through my hair for the final time, I break and finally let out my first and only huff of relief. My facialist pats me on the shoulder and tells me I’m her best customer, and suddenly it all feels worth it.
Following the massage is your standard facial — a sheet mask followed by a rubber mask and a gentle slather of Shangpree’s array of products. I go back into the changing room and examine my face. Much to my shock, I see a defined jawline and cheekbones. Too bad I can’t touch them without wincing. Despite all the intense pressure, my face isn’t bruised. It looks lifted and well rested. And better yet, I can brag to all my friends: I survived the world’s most painful facial.
It takes a full week before I can brush my teeth without the dull ache in my cheek, and another two for the slimming effect to wear off. As my face slowly returns to normal, I found myself weirdly nostalgic for the pain — and for the results. So until I can find a way back to Seoul, I’ll be searching YouTube for massage techniques to figure out just how much torture I can inflict upon myself. Pretty hurts, and I think I love it.