And the one important thing she is focused on.
Hopefully, you’ve had a great massage experience at some point in your life, and are planning on going again soon. But this list is for those of you who are afraid to get a massage at all, or who have been too self-conscious to enjoy one. Through my own experiences and in talking with my colleagues, a few common areas of concern have emerged, things our clients or friends seem to worry about that never even faze massage therapists.
Massage therapists think the human body–every human body–is fascinating and beautiful, not gross or embarrassing. Since it’s vital that the client be comfortable for the massage to be truly effective, I wanted to help dismiss some of the most common issues that may stop some people (especially, but not exclusively, women) from getting the most out of their massage treatment.
Here are five things that may make you self-conscious, but that your therapist genuinely never cares about:
1. Your Body Hair
A common scenario: I’m in the zone, work is going well, the client is half asleep. As I finish her back and move on to the first leg, her head jerks up and she says, “I’m so sorry, I didn’t shave!” A lot of women cannot relax, or snap out of their relaxed state, just because of a little stubble that will barely register when I do feel it, which I will promptly forget the second I stop touching it.
No massage therapist cares about your leg hair. (Or armpit, back, chest, or facial hair). We don’t care if you haven’t shaved in a week, a month, or a lifetime. When we’re working, we are feeling your muscles and other soft tissues for things that may be causing you pain and limiting your movement. Body hair doesn’t do that. When clients have more than average body hair, we do have to use more lubricant so we don’t accidentally pull the hair on the gliding strokes–that’s the only thing we think when faced with body hair.
This also goes for any other perceived flaw that you may have because you are a human being, with a busy schedule and human biological functions. This includes: cellulite, birthmarks, pimples, spider veins*, moles, dry skin, ingrown hairs, wrinkles, chipped nail polish, non-pedicured feet, or if you pass gas, snore, or have stomach rumbling during the massage.
(*One note about veins: We do care about varicose veins, because we need to avoid them for your health. If you have one, make sure your therapist knows where it is before the session begins).
2. Your Underwear
I’m a bit of a Never Nude; being totally naked is just not relaxing to me. I get cold, it feels weird, I just want to doze off but I can’t because in the back of my head there’s a little voice saying, “YOU HAVE NO CLOTHES ON.” (My inner voice ends sentences with prepositions). This is not conducive to a relaxing and positive massage experience. So if you want to wear your underwear, wear it. You may end up getting some massage oil on the underwear, so don’t wear a pair you really love, but most therapists can easily work around underwear.
There is an exception to this one: If you are getting a massage specifically for issues with your glutes or hips, the massage will be more effective if the therapist can work directly on the target areas, so a thong or going underwear-free is best. However if you are truly uncomfortable, there are techniques that can be used to work through fabric. (And if you’re a guy or prefer to wear men’s underwear, briefs are easier to work around than boxers).
3. Your Butt
My first massage job was at a chic spa where pretty much every client wanted a general relaxation treatment. It was nice and uneventful, if a bit dull, until the first time a client came in with sciatica. She was in near constant pain; her eyes shone with tears as she described her symptoms to me. Despite being desperate for relief she was still nervous–just as I was beginning treatment she said, “I’m so sorry I’m making you touch my butt.” What she didn’t know was that I was psyched. Working on an actual medical condition is fun! I didn’t care that it was her butt; I cared about discovering which muscle or structure was irritating her sciatic nerve and how best to stop the pain. (I’m not totally heartless, I was also excited because I knew I could help her).
Massage therapists spend a lot of time learning about the human body and the parts most people think would be awkward (the gluteal muscles, feet, armpits) are also among the most interesting. Cleanliness is always appreciated, of course, but there’s no need to be embarrassed about needing work on any part of your body.
That client was the first (not the last) to hug me in gratitude when she was leaving. Do you have any idea how amazing it is to take away someone’s pain? That is worth touching a million glutes.
4. Your Weight
I have my share of body issues. I’m heavier than I’d like to be. My calves are “powerful” and require wide-shaft boots. Going to massage school where we did not have low lighting to hide any flaws was terrifying. And then one day, something beautiful happened: I was on the table, my classmate was practicing on me, and I suddenly became just…a body. Not a good body, or a bad body, not beautiful or ugly or jiggly. Just human. NBD. It felt trippy and disconnected, but also powerful and joyous. I was free in a way I had never been. I wish I could give every single person in the world this feeling, but I can’t. Instead, I give you my true confession in the hopes that it will help you achieve this feeling yourself:
Once the clients are on the table and I start working, they become human versions of those butchers’ charts in my eyes, for lack of a better description. I don’t care whether or not their body conforms to an extremely narrow definition of “attractive.” I care about where their problem muscles are and how best to treat them, and how they have an impact on related muscles and how best to treat those.
That’s all–you are a body, no adjective. Just a puzzle of muscle and bone that I get to unravel until you feel better. The massage room is a judgement-free zone; it should be a safe space where you can stop judging yourself and where your therapist does not judge you. Where you get to just be a body.
5. Your Income
Massage therapy can get expensive, but if you need a massage–who are we kidding, of course you do–here are ways to get one without breaking the bank.
Fancy spas, while lovely, are not the only places to receive high-quality massage. Shop around! Consult the American Massage Therapy Association’s Find a Therapist page and call therapists in your area for prices. Many massage schools, like my alma mater, the Swedish Institute in New York (what up, Swedes!), or Cortiva in my hometown, Chicago (what up, Bears fans!), have student clinics where you can receive massages from advanced students for a nominal fee. (Some schools may require you to sign up for a full semester of weekly massages; check with each facility for their policies).
If you are also in the service industry or have a skill you can trade, find a massage therapist who is willing to set up a barter plan with you. I know therapists who have traded massage for hair coloring, custom shelving units, and eyebrow waxing.
About tipping: In New York and other metropolitan areas, standard practice is around 20%, or 30% if you feel the therapist has gone above and beyond. This varies greatly by location, however, so go ahead and ask when you make your appointment. In some states, students are not legally allowed to accept any payment, including tips, so if you go to a school clinic, ask about tipping policies ahead of time.
Now, what DOES your massage therapist care about? Only one thing:
YOU! Massage therapists are healthcare professionals, and we care very deeply about the well-being of our clients. If you need massage to treat an injury or just want to lie down in a dark room for an hour, your therapist is there to help you on your journey to wellness. Our goal, always, is to be client-centered. This means that we approach you with respect and compassion, without ego or judgement, and use our knowledge to address your concerns in whatever way is best for your particular body at that particular time.
Communication is key in the relationship between client and massage therapist, and hopefully every massage therapist creates a setting where clients feel safe and comfortable voicing their needs. As good as you feel after a massage, as a therapist, I feel even better. Having the ability to provide comfort, stress relief, and pain alleviation to fellow human beings is a gift, and on behalf of committed massage therapists everywhere, thank you for letting us share it with you.
Have I persuaded you all to try massage? If not, what’s holding you back? Hit me up with any other massage-related questions!
Elizabeth Bragg, LMT
Massage Therapist at Shift Integrative Medicine NYC