Massage therapists are a unique group of professionals who practice in a wide variety of atmospheres.

From zen-filled, aromatherapy-infused, laid-back spas to no-frills mobile massage to strictly medical-based clinics—and everything in between—there is an option to fit every therapist.

Seemingly unending options are met with a complex dilemma: What should I wear?

Massage school has given us the skills to provide the ultimate relaxation and the knowledge necessary to treat the most complex muscular dysfunction, but the subject of professionally appropriate clothing is often very limited, and we often find ourselves wondering what is appropriate to wear.

Who would have thought picking the right outfit would be one of our biggest issues as massage therapists? Don’t worry. You’re not alone.

What Message Do You Send?

While we want our clients to feel at ease in our judgment-free treatment spaces, it’s important to consider the message our appearance is sending. Potential clients often find us through our online presence; before ever reading any of the information we provide via our website and social media, the client is beginning to form their expectations based on what they see.

Is your first impression one that exudes professionalism? It’s also important to keep in mind that your online presence should be similar to what a client will see when they meet you in person. For example, it would be confusing to a client to see you dressed in formal attire online and then dressed in shorts and T-shirt in person.

But with such a wide range of working environments, how do we know what is both professional and what allows us the flexibility of movement that is required to perform bodywork?

If you are an employee, your clothing options are most likely determined by your employer. This can range anywhere from requiring a specific uniform to color restrictions to simply requiring “business professional.” When in doubt, always ask your employer for clarification.

Not only does your appearance represent your professionalism as a massage therapist, it also represents the professionalism of your place of employment. And it’s never wrong to be slightly overdressed.

If you are an independent contractor or the owner of your practice, you have full control of your clothing options. With so much freedom of choice, it’s easy for therapists to slip into casual relaxation. If this is where you are in your practice, think about the image you want to portray to potential clients and what that image says about the services you offer.

Do you want clients to see you as a strictly medical practitioner who has a high level of knowledge and skill to treat their pain and dysfunction? Or maybe you want your clients to see you as a spa therapist who specializes in luxury-level relaxation. Whatever image you intend to project, it’s important to understand how your professional appearance—or lack thereof—can impact your clients’ expectations.

What Should You Wear?

The majority of massage therapists are solo practitioners whose services fall somewhere between strictly medical and strictly spa, making it even trickier to determine the most appropriate professional appearance. Let’s take a look at two areas of your practice that can help you determine your attire: the type of bodywork you offer and your target market.

Some specialized modalities require a greater level of flexibility in our movements or are required to be performed barefoot while other modalities require us to dress for the environments where they will be performed. If the type of bodywork you offer or the environment where you are offering it require more casual clothing choices, you can still present a professional image and level up your practice. Here are some quick tips to help you send the message that you are a skilled professional:

• Wear a shirt with your logo, your business name, or your name and title. Bonus points if it’s beyond your basic T-shirt.

• Wear a name tag with your name and title. Fully spelling out Licensed Massage Therapist is preferable to the abbreviated LMT, since most members of the general public don’t know what that acronym stands for.

• Coordinate the color of your clothing with your brand colors to help connect you and your practice.

• Understand that your target market is a critical component in marketing your services. Think about the jobs your ideal clients are likely to have. Are they required to wear a suit and tie or is their business attire more casual? What does their work clothing say about their profession?

What Can We Learn from Other Professions?

As a massage therapist, you are both the face of the massage industry and the manual laborer carrying out the technical expertise of your profession. Keeping this in mind, let’s take a look at two professions outside the massage industry: the physician and the factory worker.

A lab coat is a physician’s equivalent of a suit coat when they are in clinic seeing their patients. During this time, the doctor is an expert advisor and is acting as the face of the medical industry.

Further, most non-doctors associate a lab coat with a higher level of education and earning power. However, when you think of a surgeon, you expect to see them in scrubs. In this situation, the doctor isn’t acting as the face of the medical industry, but is instead carrying out the technical expertise of their profession.

Factory workers, or employees, are divided into the categories of office personnel and laborers. Office personnel are often seen as the face of the company and are required to wear business-level attire. Laborers typically are required to wear a uniform, as their primary job is to carry out the manual and technical duties of their job.

How can we ensure that our professional appearance is appropriate while being both the face of the industry and still perform our jobs in the session room? Here are some standard tips to make sure the message your appearance is sending is one of a highly skilled professional all the time:

• Hair should be clean and styled in a way that does not interfere with your massage services. If your hair is long, keeping it pulled back will help prevent your massage lubricant from making it look greasy.

• Nails should be properly manicured and free of any bacteria-collecting hangnails, ragged cuticles or polish. Keeping your nails short will prevent you from scratching your clients. If you perform a service with your feet, they should be properly pedicured to the same standard.

• Clothing should be clean, wrinkle-free, stain-free and well-fitting. Clothing that is too tight, too short, too revealing or too big does not meet the standard of a highly skilled professional.

Clothing should allow sufficient movement during the technical component of your sessions, yet provide enough structure to be the face of your business. A professional-looking cardigan or jacket is a great option to throw on when face-to-face with clients—just make sure it coordinates with your clothing in color and style.

• Keep makeup to a minimum to help avoid the need to fix or reapply in the event you accidentally wipe your face or sweat during a session.

• Jewelry is best kept to a minimum to prevent any distracting noise or it accidentally touching or scratching your client.

• Your online and in-person appearances should support each other and your practice. Choosing coordinating colors is a great way to help tie the images together.

Inspire Trust

As a massage therapist, you know clients place themselves in a vulnerable position every time they get on your table or sit in your massage chair. Trust is a key element in building a rapport that benefits both client and therapist. Every opportunity should be utilized to deepen the client’s trust.

It’s no secret that when we look good, we feel good. In fact, research indicates we’re more confident, we’re more motivated, we feel more powerful and we perform better when we dress for success. Clients are also more apt to perceive us as a leader and authority figure whom they can confidently place their trust in when we present a professional image.

No matter what type of massage therapist you choose to be, whether you are an employee or are self-employed, or where your practice is located, it’s important to create and maintain a professional image that reflects your knowledge and skills.

When in doubt, seek out a trusted mentor who will help you create the image you wish to portray. Remember, you are not only the face of your practice, but the face of the entire massage industry as well.

About the Author:

Melinda Hastings

Melinda Hastings, LMT, BCTMB, MTI, has practiced massage therapy since 1996. She holds active licenses in Washington and Texas, and is also a Texas Massage Therapy Instructor. She is a Nationally Approved Continuing Education Provider through the National Certification Board for Therapeutic Massage & Bodywork. Her CE classes are offered through her seminar business, Inspired Therapist Seminars.