Under the Needle

The Chinese have been using acupuncture for cosmetic purposes for centuries; while here, in the medically advanced West, we like to suffer for our beauty by winching away the years or injecting our faces with bovine toxin. But these methods give some people pause, especially when they can no longer even furrow their brows to think about it. Combine hesitancy about such invasive methods with simultaneous acceptance of acupuncture and holistic medicine and, bing-bang, constitutional facial acupuncture renewal is now offered at spas and acupuncturists throughout the Twin Cities.

The key word is “constitutional.” “Beauty is about health,” said Peggy Miller, a St. Paul acupuncturist, massage therapist, and herbal-medicine specialist. “I would take a complete history, look at your tongue and feel your pulse, and treat the whole person, not just your wrinkles. If we can improve circulation, reduce stress or pain, and generally improve your health as we stimulate the muscles and lines on your face, you’ll look better. People won’t think, ‘Wow, surgery.’ They’ll think you look rested and healthy.” Acupuncture clients are also encouraged to actively enhance the process by making dietary or lifestyle changes.

I was on the table in Miller’s office with a bolster under my knees, nature sounds on the boom box, a fountain trickling in the background, and a warm towel over my face. I’d decided to check this acupuncture thing out. Miller had put a few skinny needles in my wrists and ankles to give my qi (the Chinese term for energy, life force, mojo) a heads-up. She replaced the towel with a paper mask that had been steeped in herbal tea and anchored with a heated gel mask. Since this was the Reader’s Digest version of the process, I relaxed for five minutes before getting down to it.

Miller explained that different points on the face respond differently when stimulated—motor points can stimulate a muscle to contract (lifting jowls, for example) or they can sedate the muscle and thereby relax lines, which is the idea behind Botox. There are points that stimulate qi, bringing moisture and blood circulation to the face. Inserting needles in deep lines causes micro-trauma that the body attempts to address by pumping blood to the scene, plumping it up, and filling out the line. Some acupuncture facials involve up to eighty tiny needles, but I was happy to get by on only eight, since they stung a little at first. Peggy turned down the lights and went away for fifteen minutes, during which time I meditated about what to make for dinner and my qi visited some places it hadn’t seen for a while. Miller, who is old enough to call herself a hippie, yet has lineless, glowing skin, returned to remove the needles and paint my face with a mixture of egg whites, herbs, and flowers. This she removed with a warm towel, afterward massaging in some face food—a moisturizing herbal concoction of food-grade purity.

Technically, the two jade face rollers (like a mini paint roller, but with cool jade stones where the fluffy roller would be) massage and calm all that heat and qi that have percolated up to your face. I just liked the way they felt and the soft, clicking sound they made. Miller then spritzed me with rose water and sandalwood and said I could lie there until I was ready to leave, or until they locked the building.

Miller recommends between ten and twelve treatments, as does Bonnie West, the acupuncturist at Fusion LifeSpa in Deephaven. You may require occasional tweaks after that to perk up your liver and brighten your complexion. Miller charges fifty to sixty dollars for what is usually a ninety-minute appointment. West gets more than a hundred dollars, and word has it that New Yorkers will pay as much as three hundred dollars to galvanize their qi. But compare these prices with the three to five thousand dollars it costs to get an average facelift, or the eight hundred dollars for Botox, and acupuncture starts to seem like such a bargain that your frown lines will disappear like magic.

Daughter could not discern outright wrinkle reduction at dinner that night, but noted that the pasta seemed to have been prepared by a person with the soul and spleen of a twenty-two-year-old.