All photos by Toby Silverman
When I arrived at Face Slapping International in San Francisco's Richmond District, a young Thai couple dressed in eccentric outfits greeted me. The man wore a blazer with the American and Thai flag stitched onto the back and a gold fedora over his black chinstrap and ponytail. The woman wore a hat of plastic flowers, bright green pants, and knee-high, mismatching socks. They both had personalized, gold-trimmed sashes and sharp, angular faces.
After honoring the Thai royal family while I removed my shoes, the peculiar couple jumped into a choreographed dance as a Thai pop song blared through a wall-mounted TV. Chanalurdpattawee Wongsirodkul is 29 and goes by Mawin. He stared at me and mimed a two-punch combo in time with the music. He then turned away right as his wife, Rassameesaitarn, who goes by Tata and is in her mid-30s, faced me and did what the rapper Hurricane Chris has dubbed "the Halle Berry."
After ten more seconds of exuberant dancing, the couple simultaneously spun to face each other. Tata pointed to herself and then to Mawin and exclaimed, "Love me, love you!" and Mawin did the same. He threw a right hook into the air and screamed, "Massage boxing!" She threw a left hand slap and screamed, "Face slapping!" Then they both bowed. The routine was like a bit from the Mighty Morphin Power Rangers World Tour Live on Stage—but considering I was in a place where beauty-conscious people pay big bucks to get slapped in the face, how could I expect anything else?
Tata and Mawin opened Face Slapping International in October of 2012. They charge $350 for 15 minutes of slaps to one side of your face or $1,000 for four separate treatments. The slaps supposedly tighten cheeks, raise eyebrows, and decrease facial wrinkles. Though the couple has dubbed the treatment "Tata Massage," the goal is not rest or relaxation. The treatment promises to change the look and shape of your face by rearranging and tightening facial fat and muscles.
Considering how easy it is to get slapped in the face for free, to some people $350 might sound like a lot of cash to pay for this bizarre treatment. When I asked about the cost, Mawin just balked. "How much is your face worth? If your face is not worth that much, it's probably not for you, because we only want to accept people who value their beauty or handsomeness and take care of themselves."
Although the couple wouldn't comment on their number of customers or annual profit, Mawin assured me that "business is awesome." And though I've never seen another customer in the store, San Francisco's rent prices means that any company that can stay open is doing something right.
The inside of this corner storefront looks a lot like a Thai teenybopper's fever dream. A heart-shaped gazebo of plastic flowers splits the room in two and every tabletop is littered with small plastic figurines. The walls are covered with colorful drawings of Ganesha and life-size photographs of the couple. This is an elite service reserved for "doctors, lawyers, movie stars, models," according to Mawin. But he hopes less wealthy people will try the treatment as well.
Tata and Mawin have a monopoly in the business of slapping people's faces into shape in the Western hemisphere. Due to the novelty of Face Slapping International, it has garnered coverage from everyone from Good Morning America to Esquire. But I had to find out for myself whether or not massage boxing was a farce or the magical beautifier that Tata and Mawin claimed it to be.
Face slapping may be of a rare ilk in the States, but slapping as a form of body modification has apparently been around for hundreds of years in Thailand. Advocates of the treatment claim the face is not the only part of the body that can be improved with squeezing and hitting. In Thailand, butt punching and breast slapping are both popular ways to get a beach-worthy bod.
The most prominent purveyor of slapping is Kung Khemika Na Songkhla, Tata and Mawin's teacher, who also goes by the moniker "Madame Breastslapper." Songkhla learned how to slap breasts, butts, and faces from her grandmother when she was a teenager. She explained to me in an email that before she began to share it with the public in the 80s, slapping was accepted like any other Thai wisdom. "One family would be midwives, another would teach traditional Thai dance. One would teach Muay Thai, and another would teach Krabi-krabong... And my house taught the profession of slapping."
Songkhla's slapping has turned her into a minor celebrity in Europe and Asia. For the last 30 years, she's been making the rounds on talk shows from Japan to Germany. These programs show her roughing up cheek-meat and sagging breasts into tight, firm beauty in real time. Mawin showed me one German broadcast from a couple years ago where Songkhla smacked a reporter's 33-and-a-half-inch breasts until they expanded to 35 inches. A German doctor looked on warily in the background of the video.
A decade ago, Tata saw one of the many broadcasts highlighting Songkhla's slapping skills in Thailand. Tata became fascinated with Songkhla's method. At the time, Tata was a puffy-cheeked 28-year-old working in finance in Bangkok, desperate for a way to slim down her face. Songkhla's face slapping was so intriguing that she had to try it.
"At first, she didn't want to tell her parents, because it's quite expensive," Mawin told me. "[The procedure] is 30,000 baht, which is $1,000 here. In Thailand that's a lot of money. It's like a normal person's wages for at least one month."
Tata said that after her first treatment, people kept asking her what she did to her face, if she had lost weight. By the fourth session, she had built up the courage to ask Songkhla to teach her the art of Thai slapping. "She said she'd have to think about," Mawin said, "and consider her characteristics and what she was looking for."
Songkhla, who doesn't have children of her own, finally agreed to teach her the trade in 2011 for 1 million baht, or approximately $40,000. Today, Songkhla charges prospective students $350,000 to learn face slapping. Butt punching is $350,000. The cost to learn breast slapping from Songkhla, however, is $700,000, because "there's two breasts."
That's a ton of money, considering it costs roughly the same amount to get a medical degree from a top university in the United States. Four years at Bangkok University will cost you about $12,000.
Tata and Mawin explained that Songkhla vowed to only teach her technique to ten people in her lifetime. They claim they were chosen because she saw them as face slapping missionaries who could export the art to the Western world. Learning face slapping sounded like pretty serious business until I asked Songkhla what the main requirements for becoming her student were. Over email, she wrote,"One, having characteristics that Kung Khemika likes. And two, having the learning fee in cash piled in front of me."
Tata, Mawin, and Songkhla were all pretty cagey about what the "training" actually consists of."We can't really talk specifics about the training or the technique," Mawin said. "You'd have to pay the $350,000 to our teacher to learn all of that."
There is virtually no peer-reviewed scientific research done on the practice of face slapping that can conclusively prove it works. One study on Songkhla's breast slapping was conducted by the Thai Health Ministry in 2003. A group of Thai women ages 20 to 60 received regular massaging and slapping treatments over six months and the results showed the volunteers' breasts to be measurably larger, without any increased risk of breast cancer. Pennepa Subcharoen, head of the Thai Health Ministry's traditional medicine institute, who conducted the study, told the Shanghai Star, "It is like men going to a gym to build specific parts of their bodies by lifting weights with that part. In Khemika's case, she tries to move fat from parts it is not supposed to be to where it should be."
Tata and Mawin forced me to sign a contract right when I walked in for our first interview. Among other things, it said that I could not interview doctors or "experts" (their quotation marks) unless they came to witness the face slapping in person. During our second interview, I inquired about a good time to bring in an expert. Tata and Mawin gave me another contract for him to sign. It included a short answer about the expert's prior knowledge of the profession and a clause that said he had "no rights to comment" about the profession if he is "not truly knowledgeable" about Face Slapping. Mawin had mentioned earlier that "the only person who knows about this profession the best is our teacher Kung Khemika" and throughout both our interviews, he and Tata kept mentioning all the lawsuits they'd won in the last two years. I couldn't fathom why.
Tata and Mawin got defensive when I asked about the validity of the face slapping treatment. Mawin said that the results should speak for themselves, and that he is irritated when the media insists on having western doctors comment on its effectiveness. "It's like you have a doctor that's an eye doctor to diagnose you about another specialty, let's say your leg," he said. "They might know a little bit about it, but they won't know that much, because that's not their specialty, because their specialty is the eye."
When it was time for my face slapping, I was led into a backroom. I sat on a wooden stool, facing a full-wall mirror. Tata and Mawin told me to stare at my face for a moment and tell them what I thought could be improved. It was hard to focus, because the room that reflected behind me was so brilliant. The entire wall behind me was covered with a mural of Tata and Mawin—wearing similarly garish outfits—striking the massage boxing and face slapping poses from their welcome dance. Mawin had an identical image on the T-shirt he wore under his blazer.
I told them I wasn't sure what I needed fixed but that maybe my cheeks could be thinner. They stood behind me, whispering to each other, nodding and pointing. Finally, Mawin explained that my eyebrows were droopy and that Tata thought my left cheek was puffy. He assured me that they'd make it better.
Mawin told me to relax my jaw and close my eyes. He turned on a Thai pop song and Tata hovered behind my left shoulder. She examined my face, found the spot she was looking for, and began rapping upon my left cheek with the back of her open hand. It was soft and rhythmic at first, but the backhand slaps became harder, up and down the left side of my face, building in intensity along with the music. After a minute or so, she switched places with Mawin, who began a similar motion, only this time with a closed fist. As far as I can tell, the only difference between face slapping and massage boxing is the use of a fist rather than an open hand. The song slowed in tempo and the massage did as well. A part of me feared the next crescendo; another part couldn't wait for it.
To say it felt good would be a stretch. But it didn't hurt. And the spectacle of the whole treatment—the outfits, the music, the way Tata and Mawin slapped right on time with the beat—made it seem like something worthwhile was happening. They would stop every minute or so and point to places on the left side of my face and say, "See?" I didn't dare argue with them.
When the treatment ended, Mawin told me, "Remember when you're taking a picture: Your left side is now your good side."
They stood me against a wall to take the after-Polaroid—Before and After photographs are a mandatory part of the treatment. Tata took a few, maneuvering my head with her hands to find the perfect angle to accentuate the transformation. And I'll admit it: The left side of my face did look leaner than it had in the first picture. Mawin told me to wash my face with cold water for the next week or two for the best results.
After the treatment was finished, I got up to leave. But Tata and Mawin stopped me and asked me to wait for a moment as they hurried to a spot near the center of the room. They leapt into another dance similar to the opening greeting, but this time, they ended with a slightly different pose. Their right hands were raised, palms showing, while their left hands were extended toward us. "The right hand mirrors Ganesh," Mawin explained. "And the left hand is to accept the money."
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