In the United States today, massage is more mainstream than ever before. Still, some people hesitate to try massage. Although drawn by its reputation to heal, soothe and relax, newcomers often don’t know what to expect. Here I address the fear that one is expected to be naked in front of the massage therapist.
This misconception is understandable. Until massage licensure began in Maine in the late 1990s, illicit sexual services often advertised themselves as “massage parlors” and were even able to list in the yellow pages under “Massage.” In Maine, massage licensure now assures that therapists are trained in their legitimate profession.
Most massage therapists work with clients on a massage table. The massage table is made up with clean sheets and often a blanket. The massage therapist leaves the room while the client undresses and climbs between the sheets. Underwear is left on or off at the client’s discretion. Massage training includes “draping,” the art of tucking a sheet to expose only the limb or area being massaged. Although undressed, the massage recipient never lies naked and uncovered on top of the massage table, and the massage therapist is always fully clothed.
It’s important to recognize that massage in fact does cross societal conventions of touch and intimacy. Not only does that play into fear of nakedness, it also touches on issues of body image and emotional safety. Anyone might feel reticent to show crusty feet or ample belly, varicose veins or other perceived imperfections. Realize that it’s normal to need to feel comfortable with the person who massages you. Ask your friends which therapist they see. Interview your potential therapist. Massage therapists receive most of their referrals by word of mouth and they understand this need.
Massage is best done on bare skin with a lubricating oil or lotion, allowing massage to reach deeper tissue without abrading the skin. But a good therapist uses many techniques, some well adapted to working through light clothing. Above all, your therapist wants you to be comfortable and will respect your decision to leave your socks on, skip your abdomen, wear leggings or whatever you might want for your personal comfort. This is your massage. Don’t be timid about expressing your needs. The therapist wants your business and will want to know what you need to be comfortable.
If you feel timid, you might consider starting with bodywork that does not require undressing. Shiatsu and Thai massage are usually done on a floor mat with the client fully clothed. Some massage therapists offer on-site massage on a special chair, others offer facials or foot reflexology. One of these might be a comfortable way to introduce yourself or a loved one to body work. Whether to address an injury or to soothe away stress and tension, massage brings us home to our bodies. Nervously scheduling that first appointment, we face our worries of imperfection only to find them melting into a feeling of wholeness during the massage. Try it, and see for yourself.