Is Your Massage Practice Sending the Wrong Message?

Here’s an important article about a negative experience that a client had while on the table:

In a previous rant, I said that massage therapists causing pain—and making their clients think it was necessary—was one of the only massage-related phenomena that truly made me angry. Well, this counts as causing pain. If someone comes to me with a unique human body, anything that I say or do to stigmatize that person for their shape, or size, or sounds, or smell, is causing harm. They’ll leave that experience thinking, “I was wrong for putting myself in that vulnerable position.” In other words, they trusted us with their body, and we breached that trust.

Maybe you would never think of commenting directly on someone’s weight, which is great! With that as a given, I’d like to direct your attention to something that we’ve learned from psychological and medical studies: The power of words, and the power of symbols in general. How we speak, and even the signs and pictures in our offices, can communicate a powerful message of brokenness or wholeness to our clients.

Consider the client with back pain who walks into a doctor’s office and sees one of those “3 kinds of spinal dysfunction” infographic posters that doctors like to decorate their offices with. Cheery. As they’re sitting there waiting for their doctor to arrive, that vulnerable human is seeing a herniated nucleus pulposus pressing on a nerve, and an osteoporotic lumbar vertebra crumbling to dust. That doctor could be as reassuring and encouraging as Mr. Rogers, but the damage has been done. Is there any chance they’ll leave that environment thinking, “this is something that my body can handle”?

In the same way, think about what happens when we talk about a client’s “bad back.” Maybe they said it first and we’re just picking up on the language, but it’s not something that we have to buy into. We can choose not to pick the client apart, or to pathologize a relatively normal ache or pain. Instead, we can talk about that person’s back in the context of their return to pain-free living. We can discuss the pain without bad-mouthing the part.

We can apply that same “language of wholeness” to all aspects of our professional presentation. Most, if not all, of our clients are self-conscious about part of their body. How many of your clients have apologized to you about leg hair, or their “back fat,” or cellulite? These are all perfectly normal features for a body to have, but they feel ashamed. There are some things that we can do verbally in that situation to help them feel accepted (I’d love to hear some of your reassuring responses in the comments!), as well as through kind, accepting contact.

But, what about the other symbols in our professional environment? Think about what it communicates when a client is perusing our menu of services and sees “Lypossage: Recontour your cellulite through non-invasive massage” or “Face-lift massage: Look years younger with just 5 treatments.” What about facial treatments that offer to make fine lines disappear, and tighten up sagging skin? Or, like the massage therapist in the article, you’re advertising shakes that can supposedly help clients lose weight?

Does my body need -contouring--

“You deserve to be pain free. You also might have saggy skin, and have you considered how unsightly your cellulite is? And isn’t it about time to lose that spare tire around your midsection?”

These are things that we’d never say out loud, but we can sure as heck say them with the products and services that we offer. We can accidentally imply them when we comment on clients’ physical appearance, even if it’s just to praise them for losing weight. Maybe that’s not something they consider praiseworthy. Maybe we could stick to wholeness and kindness, and leave all the picking apart and judgment to insensitive Facebook posts and YouTube ads.

I don’t mean to make any massage therapists feel put on the spot by this post. I know that we’re all well-meaning. I know that some of you offer those “slimming/contouring” services because you find them valuable, and they help your business. Still, I want you to consider the symbology of your words and your professional environment. We can create safe spaces where human bodies can just be human bodies. Humans have hair, and zits, and subcutaneous fat. I’ve got super flat feet and a sunken chest, and I’d love for a massage therapist to help me accept them, rather than trying to change them (and, by extension, me).

Let me know what you think about this. How do you communicate acceptance of your clients in their myriad shapes and sizes? Has a massage therapist ever made you feel ashamed of your body or mind, whether accidentally or on purpose? I’d like to hear your story.

8 thoughts on “Is Your Massage Practice Sending the Wrong Message?

  1. Thanks so much for sharing this powerful story Ian. I believe that I accept each and every one of my clients as they are, make no judgements about them (feeling far from perfect myself!) and always endeavour to make them feel good about themselves. However your post highlights for me just how easy it can be for a negative message to be unintentionally conveyed. It’s a good lesson to remember – vigilance at all times!

  2. I’ve definitely made mistakes when trying to reassure self-conscious clients. The idea of using a language of wholeness will help me think this through a little better.

    “You are always welcome here just as you are,” or some variation on that is where I landed…for now at least. I feel like it has communicated acceptance pretty well, but maybe someone on this thread will have a suggestion for improvement?

  3. I loved this post. Yes we make mistakes as massage therapists but it’s important to remember the most important rule. Do no harm. So I think this is great post on the subject.
    I tend to reassure clients through humor quite a bit, I tend to draw in clients with a decent sense of humor, so that works for me. I have learned when it’s appropriate and when it’s not, but usually if someone can get a giggle out of the fact they forgot to shave their legs it’s a good day.

  4. Wonderful words Ian. Your tutorials are so very good. I find clients apologising all the time for their imperfections. When this happens I try to defuse the situation by reminding them that they haven’t seen ME undressed…. This appeals to their sense of humour and we move on. Thanks for sharing your knowledge.

  5. The same as other therapists, I constantly get women apologizing because they didn’t shave their legs. I let them know right up front that it’s a 99% chance that I didn’t either so we’ll be just fine working together. 🙂

    I just had the strangest experience of my boss actually body shaming me. I’ve never had a fellow therapist do that.
    I recently had a torn meniscus repair to my right knee and before hand, was going over how long I’ll be out, etc with my boss. I also let her know that my husband has had the same surgery 3 times so I know what’s involved with physical therapy, recuperation time, etc. She then told me that, obviously my husband recuperated much quicker than I’m able to because he’s so much skinnier than I am (I’m 25 lbs overweight and my husband is a string bean type).
    What also made this a very maddening/strange thing for her to say? She’s at least 50-75 lbs overweight.
    That was the final straw. I had had some “interesting” experiences with her in the past 2.5 years I’ve worked there but this got me mad. Really mad. So I went out and found myself a beautiful massage office and am now starting my own business. And I probably wouldn’t have done that if I had continued to be comfortable there so, in the long run, she did me a favor.
    But, still. Not cool. Not cool at all.

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