There are many beliefs about men, some of which are borne out by reality.
Others may appear to be true, and many beliefs are not true. The problem, at its core, is one of perception rather than fact. Discriminatory beliefs about men include: Men constantly think about sex; men are more visually driven in regard to sexual stimuli than women; men make up the majority of aggressors in relationships and business; men lack the ability to empathize and connect; men are not nurturers; if a man is nurtured by another man, both men must be gay; if a man touches another man’s body, no matter how nonsexually, it is a homosexual act.
Combine all these perceptions with the fact that the majority of physical abusers, of both men and women, are, in fact, male, and a deeper understanding can begin to form as to why men often have a more challenging time succeeding as massage therapists.
As Benjamin Franklin said, “By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail.” As with many things in life, the simplest solution to overcoming challenges unique to male massage therapists is to be prepared.
Preparation, while basic in concept, is at the core of all successful massage therapists. You can, and should, be prepared for everything—including understanding where the stigma facing male massage therapists comes from; everyday activities you can do to limit discriminatory actions; and legal resources and options when faced with discrimination in the workplace.
The first step on your preparedness journey is to accept and understand the subtle, and sometimes overt, discrimination against male massage therapists. This discrimination, while not warranted, stems from the depths of the American psyche.
Focus on Skills
Sometimes not knowing about the general attitude toward male massage therapists can be advantageous. Massage therapist Jesse Salmon, of Orlando, Florida, believes he was fortunate no one told him it was difficult for men to make it in massage therapy.
“When I was in school, I don’t recall being told it was going to be tougher for a male massage therapist to succeed,” Salmon said. “I think I was absent that day!
“In fact, that is a blessing in disguise, because I have always gone into any massage therapy situation thinking about my skill set and professionalism rather than thinking about my gender,” he added. “We attract what we focus on. The sooner all male massage therapists see it through that lens, the quicker they will succeed on their own terms.”
A common trait of successful therapists is their unyielding focus on their skill set and professionalism. Constantly thinking about things being harder and the unfair discrimination male massage therapists face is not front and center on the minds of successful male therapists.
Tim Huppler, a successful spa massage therapist in Kissimmee, Florida, and an instructor at Central Florida School of Massage Therapy, was cautioned about the challenges male massage therapists face, by male massage therapists who served as his mentors. He was encouraged to work harder and strive to be better than his female counterparts.
“Do I still get frustrated when I see the women getting booked more than I do?” Huppler asked. “Of course, but if I dwell on it too long, it will just eat me alive.
“I strive to give the guests at the hotel the best possible treatment I can, and to never give a female client any reason to doubt that I ever have anything but her best interests and respect in mind,” he added.
Huppler said he is thankful for the advice about succeeding as a male massage therapist he received. He acknowledges the frustration he encounters working at a spa, but strives to overcome it by being a better therapist in every way.
Choose Your Environment
There are, of course, numerous markets in which massage therapists can work—and for men, the simple fact is that the spa field, providing relaxation and pampering-style massages, is the most challenging place to work.
Many therapists, both male and female, choose to work in spas immediately after graduating from massage school. As a man, if your true passion does not lie in relaxation massage, why choose the most difficult career path when there are other options available?
According to my own observations, as well as those of men I spoke with for this article, the majority of successful male therapists work with athletes, do rehabilitation massage, and focus on injury rehabilitation. The general public tends to think of men as fixers, so working with the client populations of those environments fits the accepted mold for male massage therapists.
“I believe that a large part of my good fortune is I have worked in outpatient physical therapy clinics, sports-related facilities—and for nearly 10 years, I’ve been a hospital-based massage therapist,” said massage therapist Paul Weston, of Moscow, Idaho. “In other words, my focus has always been on the clinical and sports side of our profession, purely because that’s how my brain works.”
Specializing in massage that primarily involves deep tissue work, pain relief, athletes, injury rehabilitation or a medical setting is the easier path for male massage therapists. However, be careful not to confuse an easier path with an easy one. You must hone your skills, continually learn, and persistently work to better yourself in order to have a successful career as a massage therapist, especially as a male massage therapist.
What if your passion really is relaxation and you see yourself working in a spa environment? You’re not doomed to fail or be rejected at every corner, but you do have a longer road ahead of you. Some male therapists who have passion for the spa industry have found pursuing their passion part-time, while spending the remainder of their efforts in more traditional male settings, has allowed them to slowly build up clientele, through professionalism and persistence.
Be a Professional
Every aspect of your daily professional routine yields an opportunity to better prepare for success and combat the gender discrimination faced by many male massage therapists.
For example, while you do not wear a suit to work as a massage therapist, you still have the opportunity to set the bar high when it comes to professional appearance. Many male therapists believe they can get away with wearing casual and workout-style clothing during a massage because it is hard work. There is no doubt that massage is physical, but that does not preclude one from dressing professionally. Other professions such as physical therapy and athletic training require moderate physical exertion throughout the day as well as professional attire like khaki pants and button-up or polo shirts.
Some massage therapists have found creating a uniform for themselves helps them feel more professional every day. A standard work uniform can also help you switch gears to work mode much more easily, allowing you to have a physical representation of your boundaries and professionalism.
Where you advertise your services, along with the exact wording you use throughout your marketing material, can also make an enormous difference in how you are perceived. There are many free advertising opportunities online; however, keep in mind that not all advertising opportunities are good venues to promote your practice. Many of the advertisements for massage therapy on websites such as craigslist.com, for example, are sexual and inappropriate in nature. Even if your advertisement is the picture of professionalism, being on a website dominated by unprofessional advertisements will make you seem unprofessional by association.
The language you use on your website or in other marketing materials is vital to your success. Inappropriate massage advertisements commonly utilize phrases such as full body, release and draping optional, to name a few. Avoiding those phrases can help legitimize your massage services and help customers seeking legitimate massage services feel comfortable with you.
It is also vital to make sure your photographs exude professionalism in every way. A quick search on Google for male massage therapists in the Orlando, Florida, area, for example, returned images of therapists with tight shirts or no shirts, and even suggestive looks on their faces. It is easy to see how something as simple as what you wear and how you market yourself can lead to the perception of unprofessionalism.
Another effective prevention strategy comes in the form of your intake and note-taking. Take detailed notes of your massage sessions and have each client sign your notes. Be very clear and specific in regard to what areas of the body you will be working on, how the client will be draped, and that the client has given permission for you to work those areas. This simple strategy, which takes only a few minutes to implement, can prevent misunderstandings and misinterpretations that could ruin your career.
Imagine that a client has lower-back pain, which you determine to be caused by restrictions throughout the gluteal region. You don’t explain anything to the client; instead, you just proceed to pull the drape down and massage the client’s gluteal region. This is a situation where a misunderstanding, or even allegations of inappropriate behavior, could occur.
Now imagine that, prior to the massage, you discussed with your client why you thought massaging the gluteal area would be beneficial. You also described how she would be draped, the precise area you would work, and had the client agree it was OK for you to work in that area. You also had the client sign your notes, which state what you are doing and why, giving you permission to work on the area. How many misconceptions could possibly arise from this situation? As long as you stick to the plan you outlined, almost none.
Again, when it comes to allegations of inappropriate behavior, your best recourse is documentation and prevention in the form of overexplaining what is going to happen during the massage session.
The Therapeutic Relationship
Understanding where the negative perception of male massage therapists stems from is just as important as understanding one’s motivations for becoming a massage therapist. Many younger male massage therapists are leaving massage school with minimal understanding of how complex the therapeutic relationship landscape can be.
While scaring massage students about discrimination against male massage therapists is unnecessary, imparting the knowledge of how important it is for them to be impeccably professional, in every aspect of their massage career, is absolutely vital in order to steer the perception of male massage therapists in a better direction.
I believe an important aspect of this is to truly understand your motivations for becoming a massage therapist. Understanding your driving force can help you make better decisions in your day-to-day activities. Do you know what your driving force is?
Thankfully, my driving force became known to me at the very beginning of my massage journey. Before I committed to becoming a massage therapist, I attended an open house at a massage school, where we were taught a basic effleurage technique and partnered up to practice it. My partner, for whom I am eternally grateful, was one part man and one part giant. I gave this man a back massage and found myself focused on the massage, the changes in tissue and helping the person on the table feel better. I was hooked, happy, excited and motivated to become a massage therapist, for the right reason: Wanting to provide health care that made a difference in the client’s body and life.
Wrong reasons for wanting to become a massage therapist include wanting to touch attractive women. For example, I spoke with two men recently at a massage school’s open house, and one of them told me he hoped he got to work with “a hot chick.” He didn’t want to touch “some hairy dude.”
Another, completely nonsexual wrong reason, would be the desire to fill an emotional need. Many people, whether male or female, feel disconnected from others and are looking for ways to fill their own emotional hole. I’ve seen many therapists need their clients far more than they should. There is a fine line between feeling good about helping someone and feeding off the gratitude that comes from helping a client. Because what happens when you can’t help someone?
Sometimes, male therapists are not hired just because of their gender. Sometimes they are unjustly fired for allegations of inappropriate behavior that never happened. During these situations, it is important to remember you are not alone. There are federal and state discrimination laws designed to protect victims of workplace discrimination. While you may not feel like fighting every lost employment opportunity, it is important to know that, with proper documentation, you have the ability to stand up and challenge a decision you believe to be illegal and unethical.
Here is one situation in which a male employee could be led to believe he is a victim of gender discrimination: Imagine a male massage therapist is told he is being let go from the spa where he has worked for three years. He has never been informed of any complaints against him, and follows the spa’s rules and regulations. The manager tells this employee he doesn’t provide enough massages, so he is being fired. The problem is, the front desk repeatedly does not book him or promote him, instead pushing clients toward female therapists, as it is easier to book them. When the employee did everything according to company policy yet is let go while female therapists are not let go, he could have a case based on being fired for being a man, not for being a bad employee.
Hiring-related discrimination is more difficult to prove, as the hiring manager can simply say the other applicant’s résumé or interview was better. However, when a company shows a history of repeatedly hiring females and not hiring males, this indicates a pattern of discrimination.
Early in my massage career, two female therapists from my class and I submitted our résumés to the same spa. My female classmates were both called and interviewed, and one of them was hired. I was never called. In fact, when I called the spa, I was told they were not hiring. This felt awful at the time, and gave me a taste of the difficulty I might face as a male massage therapist.
Believe in Yourself
There have definitely been, and will continue to be, some bad situations and experiences—and some bad male therapists in the massage profession, just as there are some bad apples in every field. A few bad apples, however, cannot damage the whole of experience and opportunity for male massage therapists. As Mahatma Gandhi said, “You must not lose faith in humanity. Humanity is an ocean; if a few drops of the ocean are dirty, the ocean does not become dirty.”
Developing professional strategies will help you succeed as a man in the field of massage therapy. There are numerous activities you can engage in, including choosing a male-accepting clientele, such as rehabilitation clients or athletes; engaging in fastidious intake and note-taking; and being very clear on your purpose for being in this profession.
Above all, there is the enduring faith you must have in what you are doing and why you are doing it. Believing in yourself will help you take the right steps to move closer to your goals and your definition of success as a massage therapist.
Michael Ames, L.M.T., has been a massage therapist since 2003, working primarily with individual athletes as well as several professional teams and organizations. He shares his knowledge and experiences with other therapists through his continuing education business, The CE Classroom.