by Kathy Gruver

Woman surprised by awkward massage moment

Let’s face it folks, we, as massage therapists, touch people every day. As much as we love our jobs, there are some things that happen with the human body that are less than desirable. We deal with smells, body parts and sweat. Here are some ways of coping with those awkward massage moments.

What’s that smell? 

It’s a normal bodily function, the gas that escapes our bodies. Sometimes our clients become really relaxed. I spoke with therapists around the country, and everyone agrees it’s just one of those things we ignore. If massage clients make a big fuss over it and become uncomfortable, assure them it’s normal and not to worry about it. Perhaps, suggest they don’t eat right before a massage.

Since it would be a bit obvious to start spraying your favorite air freshener around the room when this situation occurs, I keep a bottle of aromatherapy oil close by. If an offending odor should start to permeate the space, I mix it in with the lotion I’m using and clients think it’s part of the treatment. You could also dab a little under your nose. Massage therapist Becky Blanton of Charlottesville, Virginia, had the right idea when she put together a pamphlet on the subject of massage for her clients. She talks about draping, gas and bodily reactions.

Body talk

Sometimes it’s not so much what comes out of the client, as it is the client themselves. That broad stretch with the arm over the head is just not going to happen that day. I keep mints, deodorant, etc. in my office just in case anyone needs them. It can be difficult to have a personal conversation about someone’s body odor, but if it gets too offensive, being very honest about health and hygiene can be beneficial to you both. Or, you can send a mass mailing to your clientele talking about body odor and solutions.

Extra charge for baggage

What about those clients who are dealing with heavy emotions? We’ve all dealt with people who are grieving, divorcing, lost a pet or are just in a bad mood. I frequently hear the term “hold the space”—and that’s exactly what we have to do. It’s so important for us to stay present with that person and just be there with him or her at that time. (Make sure to have tissues handy). We should be supportive, but it’s important to remember we can’t become a mental health professional for our clients. I feel honored people trust me with their feelings, but we have to set up strong boundaries and refer to other practitioners if the situation warrants such measures.

Parts are parts

The erection: Erections are part of being human (for males, that is), and in a relaxed state it can happen pretty easily, especially with younger clientele. Most practitioners I spoke with ignore this phenomenon and figure if the client doesn’t draw attention to it, why should they? I think pointing it out can be more awkward than just letting it be. However, be sure you don’t accidentally touch it when working on the thigh or abdomen. You can always change positions or deepen the pressure to pull focus. It’s also appropriate to have the mother of younger male clients in the room with you; it’s something to distract them from their bodies. Pia Poulson, a massage therapist in France, wrote a very informative blog post about massage and nudity.

On the other hand, if clients think the purpose of their visit with you is to have you pay attention to their erection, that’s where it can be awkward. If someone indicates he wants sex or asks you to do something you are uncomfortable with, end the massage right at that moment. Leslie (last name withheld by request) from San Francisco told a story about a client who would stare during the massage and make such comments as “You’re so pretty” and “I bet you look good in a Playboy Bunny outfit.” She refused to work on him the next time he came into the spa. Don’t accept that kind of behavior, from a boss or a client. Some people expect sex to happen with their massage. Be firm, direct and get out of there as soon as possible.

Our parts

As massage therapists, we have to pay attention to our parts and smells as well. Make sure your breath is as fresh as it can be, and when you’re in a tank top, make sure your armpits aren’t offending anyone. We also have to watch where we put our bodies. I had a client tell me that a busty massage therapist ended up with her breasts on his upper back during a particular move, and I experienced a male therapist laying his privates across the back of my head when he was trying to do effleurage down my whole back. These situations can definitely pull you out of a relaxing moment. 

Missing in action

Sometimes we can be surprised by what we find on our table. Jennifer Bowers in Colorado Springs was stunned to uncover her male client wearing lacy women’s panties on the table, and massage therapist Hali Chambers of Sacramento, California, discovered a client was missing all fingers on one hand. As startling as these things might be to us, we often can’t react. Gasping at a missing limb or laughing at inappropriate panties is sure to humiliate the client. People come to us to feel safe and taken care of. Ignore these issues, be professional and do the best job you can do.

Listen to your client and don’t think you know better than she does. Massage client Sue Chehrenegar spoke with me about an experience where the therapist kept insisting she relax. She was relaxed. Finally, he said he could tell she wasn’t by the vein in her neck sticking out. Well, the “vein” was actually her VP-shunt used to carry fluid out of her spinal cavity. She was uncomfortable, and he was embarrassed.

Dangerous fluids

Some things are awkward, while others can be downright dangerous for us, as massage therapists. Bodily fluids, such as blood, semen and urine, carry a host of germs, but also communicable diseases. I had a client whose urostomy bag broke on the table, covering everything in urine. When I brought it to her attention, she said she didn’t care and just to continue the massage. Well, I cared. I explained (very quickly) that for her comfort and my safety, this needed to be cleaned up. She obliged.

Clients on blood thinners, including Coumadin, are more apt to bleed profusely from small wounds. Know if your client is on these medications and look before you leap. I ran my hand over a client’s arm to find myself smeared with blood. I pointed it out to the client, who simply said, “Oh yeah, I cut myself earlier.” I told him that wasn’t acceptable, and I needed to be aware of these things and that it’s not good for either one of us to work over open wounds. He agreed and apologized.

In dealing with people and bodily functions, there are times to remain respectfully silent and times to talk. If the situation puts your health and well-being in danger, speak up!

About the Author

Kathy Gruver has been involved in natural health since 1990 and has a doctorate of Traditional Naturopathy. Gruver is a Medical Massage Therapist, Natural Health Consultant, Reiki Master and Birth Assistant. She is currently pursuing a masters and doctorate in Natural Health. Gruver owns Healing Circle Massage in Santa Barbara, California, which specializes in medical and therapeutic massage and was chosen as a “Best Practice” by MASSAGE Magazine. For more information, visit