Youth. Thinness. Beauty. Health.
We are bombarded multiple times every day, via television, advertising, magazine articles and the internet—especially social media—with the message that we don’t measure up.
You’re not curvy enough, mainstream media tells us. Or, you’re too fat. You’re too old. Too wrinkled. You have a disease. Your hair is too thin, or too thick. You need Botox—or a nose job, new clothes and liposuction. In a culture where Kim Kardashian’s selfies are front-page news, is it any wonder body dissatisfaction pervades our culture?
About half of Americans ruminate about their weight at least some of the time, according to a recent Gallup poll, up from one-third who did so in 1990. Twenty-one percent of women ages 18 to 29 worry about weight all of the time, while 9 percent of men do so.
The belief that we are not good enough is beginning at an increasingly younger age: More than half of girls and one-third of boys in the U.S. ages 6 to 8 believe their bodies are larger than the ideal; and by the time they are 7 years old, one in four American kids has dabbled in dieting, according to the report, Children, Teens, Media, and Body Image, released by Common Sense Media this year.
Between 1999 and 2006, hospitalizations for eating disorders among children ages 11 and under rose by 119 percent, according to the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services’ Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality.
Weight isn’t the only point of dissatisfaction. A survey by beauty-product brand Dove found that “images of models which have been digitally altered are causing more than two thirds of women to suffer low confidence about their bodies.”
Digital altering—also called airbrushing or Photoshopping—smoothes wrinkles, nips waistlines, clears bloodshot eyes and erases acne scars from skin, turning photographs into an unrealistic—and unattainable—reflection of humanity. Now, apps allow us to alter our own selfies so we look more like an idea of ourselves than who we really are.
Massage therapy can bring us back to ourselves. Massage can ease not only the tension in muscles, but the tension that can accrue from swimming in a sea of unrealistic images and negative messaging related to appearance and physicality. Massage can create healthy self-connection.
Healthy touch can help a person appreciate his or her body as it is—bulges, scars, wrinkles and all. Massage can help a client take pleasure in the body, perhaps for the first time, and has the profound potential to boost self-confidence, self-connection and self-care.
For this article, three clients share their stories—of weight gain and loss, cancer treatment, and disordered eating—and how massage therapy helped them develop a healthier relationship with their bodies.
Erica Bartlett was used to being told she didn’t fit in. At just 5 feet tall and weighing 240 pounds by the time she was 18, she was morbidly obese—and had suffered judgment from her family, bullying from fellow students, and the insidious message that she was not good enough from society at large.
“Once the internet started coming along, all of those things became inescapable,” she says. “Not just images of people, unrealistic images of how women appear, these airbrushed and manipulated, false images of what is normal or what the human body is really like—but going through the grocery store, it was all about low-fat foods and all of these ads for Weight Watchers and Jenny Craig, and everything conspiring to say, ‘This is what your focus should be.’”
She hated her body. She couldn’t imagine anyone touching her without their being disgusted. Even after losing 130 pounds in her mid-20s, Bartlett couldn’t make peace with her physicality.
“I always had this image of what I would look like, post-weight loss, in my head,” Bartlett, of Portland, Maine, says. “[But] even after I lost weight, I didn’t feel very good about it, since I had loose skin and stretch marks. I had this weird sense of almost not being true or real about what I really looked like, because under my clothes I still had all these issues.”
Then one day, she saw a flier posted by a local massage therapist on a message board at her gym.
“This was four or five years after I’d lost the weight, and was getting used to my new self,” she recalls. Bartlett says she imagined that the massage therapist would touch her body just because she was being paid, and that there would be a sort of distance present during the session. Instead, she says, she realized during the massage that the therapist was treating her body with respect and care, “as if it were something important and precious.”
Although booking that initial session was difficult for her, she says, “Once I did, and realized that my body could feel good, and that people wouldn’t refuse to touch me, I began to feel better about myself.”
Massage became an unexpected way of connecting with her body as something she could enjoy, appreciate, and take pride and pleasure in, Bartlett says. Today, she works to inspire people to be healthy, and is the author of Winning the Losing Battle: A True Story of Weight Loss and Transformation. Now, she receives massage regularly.
Learning to Stop
When she was diagnosed with breast cancer at age 41, Christine Egan decided to commit to self-care, which took the form of morning smoothies, juicing, resting, walking in nature, watching comedies and receiving massage weekly. Prior to her diagnosis, she had received massage every couple of months.
For Egan, of Bayport, New York, receiving healthy touch served as an antidote to the 14 chemotherapy treatments, 33 radiation treatments and lumpectomy she underwent during the course of her treatment, in addition to blood tests, shots and other types of medical touch.
“There were two main reasons that I used massage as part of my treatment,” she says. “One reason was, I was touched in such a clinical way, week after week, that it was important to my body to have a gentle, caring touch. The other reason I committed to receiving weekly massages was to quiet my mind, connect to my breath and experience pleasure in my body.”
Massage allowed Egan to stop, rest, and learn to be quiet and present. “I could feel good when someone touched me, instead of cringing,” she recalls. The benefits extended past each session, as she would take time to reflect on how good the massage had felt, in order to increase her sense of happiness and relaxation during her days between sessions.
Egan, now 46, has been cancer-free for five years. She authored a book, The Healthy Girl’s Guide to Breast Cancer, which includes a section on massage. “I always felt better emotionally and physically after a massage,” she wrote. “My mind always seemed clearer. I had more sense of clarity and calmness, which was something I definitely needed during this difficult time.”
She says massage therapists who work on cancer survivors should be prepared for psychological reactions to touch. Egan has a scar on her chest where a port had been inserted, and she flinches when she receives work on that area, even though she knows there is nothing there now that can hurt her.
“Being cognizant of emotional scars is important,” she says.
Massage therapy served as an important component of Egan’s healing journey, she says, and she believes more people should receive it.
“I think people feel so guilty about getting massage, they think they don’t deserve to spend the time and money on themselves,” she says, “but the feeling of, ‘I deserve this, my body deserves to feel nice, my body deserves to feel this relaxation’—that’s part of the healing process.”
Cheryl Kerrigan, 46, began developing disordered eating habits by the age of 5. “I weighed 3 pounds when I was born, and people called me Little Cheryl or My Little 3-Pounder,” she recalls. “My eating disorder told me, ‘To be loved and special, you need to stay small and little’—and my eating started to change.”
As a child, she decided candy was “bad.” As she grew older, the eating disorder grew stronger. She was diagnosed with anorexia nervosa in her late teens. In college, she would cut an apple into a few pieces and eat some for breakfast, some for lunch and some for dinner. She was hospitalized in her 20s and 30s.
“I didn’t want any connection to my body, because I had a completely distorted image of my body,” she says. “I had anorexia, but I [also] had body dysmorphia, so I thought I was fat.”
When she looked at or thought about her body, she felt disgust, she says. “I didn’t want people to look at me, I didn’t want to be touched or have a massage, not any of that, I wanted to distance myself from my body as much as I could.”
Then, eight years ago, when she was 38, Kerrigan’s family staged an intervention, and she checked into Walden Behavioral Care’s eating disorder program in Waltham, Massachusetts.
“I was at my lowest weight, depressed, tired, abusing laxatives and exercise, and isolating,” Kerrigan says. “I was a mess.”
Massage therapy was not part of Walden’s treatment program, but upon her discharge, Kerrigan began receiving massage from her friend, massage therapist Erin Sweeney, L.C.M.T., who runs BodyWise Therapeutic Massage in Waltham.
“I knew the benefits of massage, but didn’t want to be touched,” Kerrigan says. “The thought of someone touching me [made me think], “Oh, god, she’s touching my fat.”
Receiving massage was difficult for Kerrigan in the beginning. She despised her body, and as she received touch, the voice of her eating disorder went on attack.
“I would take some deep breaths, and Erin would tell me what she was doing,” Kerrigan says. “I would replace the negative thoughts with positive ones, and after a while my mind was in tune with what Erin was doing for my body.”
Kerrigan, who lives in Woburn, Massachusetts, received massage twice a month for eight years. She says she had never really felt her body before receiving massage. She hated looking at herself in a mirror. Receiving massage was “very intense, but in a good way,” she says. A massage therapist who works with an eating-disordered client needs to be prepared for the session to be about more than touch, she adds.
“I would encourage the massage therapist to not be afraid of talking to the client about the eating disorder,” she suggests. The eating-disordered client’s anxiety will be very high, and the massage therapist can help make the client comfortable by checking in with her more than she would with another client, Kerrigan says.
“Every person with an eating disorder is different,” she says, “so have a conversation with the client about what would [be] most helpful for that person to have a loving relationship with her body.” Take it slow, she says, and be patient.
Today, Kerrigan gets massage at least once a month, and has published a self-help book about overcoming an eating disorder, Telling Ed No!: And Other Practical Tools to Conquer Your Eating Disorder and Find Freedom, which includes a chapter on massage therapy.
“I needed everything in my recovery, including massage, to get to where I am now,” she says. “I love my body today,” she adds, “and massage helped me get there.”
Massage can help people feel deep self-acceptance no matter what their physical condition, negative self-talk or body size; it can also inspire people to take action with healthy habits. Sometimes, massage can turn people’s lives around when other therapies cannot.
“Any number of people have endured trauma or have psychological troubles that beset them at a very young age, well before they became verbal,” says psychotherapist and clinical social worker Annette Poizner, M.S.S.W., R.S.W., of Toronto, Ontario, Canada. Oftentimes, she says, people will seek out psychotherapy services for help with their various issues, but it doesn’t work.
“When the wound was experienced in a preverbal level of development, it is often very difficult to use words to heal,” Poizner adds. “For this individual, that modality can be impotent. The most powerful modality for them is nonverbal and body-based.”
In a society so focused on body image and beauty, youth and perfection, massage therapy can be a grounding practice that results in self-care and self-love, sending a new message: You are whole. You are worthy of love. You are perfect, just as you are.
Karen Menehan is MASSAGE Magazine’s editor in chief. Her recent articles for massagemag.com include “Can Massage Help Combat the Opioid Epidemic?” and “Massage Therapist Appointed to NCCIH Advisory Council.”