As a male massage therapist, I understand fully well the stigma and disadvantages of being a male in this industry. Early in my career I became privy to “the look” by clients.
The look of disapproval and despair.
The look indicating unease that random chance brought this unsuspecting client together with me.
The look that always shot a dagger through me.
“Wait, a male therapist?”
“Can I get a female therapist?”
“You need to inform clients if the therapist is male. I need to prepare myself.”
“He better be good.”
I heard these sentiments—yes, even that last one—often in my first few years as a therapist. Scenarios like this can be frustrating.
Overcome the Stigma of Being a Male Massage Therapist
The purpose of this article is to ease this frustration by presenting ideas and perspectives that have helped me throughout my massage career overcome the stigma of being a male therapist.
Working in various spas in California, Utah and Illinois, I heard the gambit of reasons why my schedule was 50 to 75 percent less booked compared with my female peers’.
Initially discouraged, I was determined to succeed. Clients who did allow me the opportunity to facilitate their healing raved about our sessions. This positive feedback overshadowed the negative sentiments tossed at me.
I knew my intentions were clear. I became a therapist as a means to serve humanity. Having attended the Utah College of Massage Therapy in 2000, the school’s motto of “Healing the planet one day at a time” resonated strongly within me.
In a world often void of compassion, a stirring to fill this void encompassed my being.
I know this stirring is true as well for the many thousands of professional, male massage therapists working in this field. Yet, my fear is that news reports of misconduct by the few will push current clients away from receiving more sessions or dissuade potential clients from receiving their first session from the many men dedicated to providing healthy touch.
Here are five ideas for ways to succeed in this field, proven out by my own experience.
1. Provide massage to the front desk staff. Early in my career, I chose to provide front desk staff a free hour-long massage to showcase my skills and thank them for helping me as much as possible with booking clients to me. Once each front desk employee received my massage, they spoke confidently about my skill set and reassured clients I was a professional therapist.
While working at Spa 312 in Salt Lake City, I became known as “the deep tissue guy.” The front desk began funneling all clients requesting deep tissue sessions to me. I reached 100 percent schedule capacity with deep tissue clientele.
2. Become an expert. Clients will respect a therapist who speaks in anatomical terms and comes across as an expert in their field. I have discovered most clients are fascinated when I educate them about their musculoskeletal anatomy. Most people never attend a formal anatomy course, so knowledge about the vessel they carry every day becomes treasured.
There are many specialized certifications a therapist may earn to garner credibility in our field. These specializations usually augment medical related massage training. Some examples include training in myofascial release, oncology treatments, neuromuscular therapy, lymphatic drainage and cranial sacral therapy.
Additionally, one can become an expert in working with specific musculoskeletal pathologies such as carpal tunnel syndrome, thoracic outlet syndrome and whiplash. Other medical professionals will gladly refer you clients when you are seen as the expert with such clientele.
To be considered an expert in the medical arena of massage will bring integrity to one’s work. The average client will begin viewing this therapist as a medical professional rather than as a relaxation specialist.
3. Utilize tools. Utilizing tools and instruments will benefit one’s practice greatly. For the past decade, many more continuing education classes highlight the use of tools. These tools allow the therapist to preserve their hands, digits and forearms; allow one to provide deeper massage safely; and help a therapist stand out compared with their peers.
Clients may feel like they are going to a physical therapy office when seeing a massage therapist utilizing a myriad of tools. This perception change will help a client feel like you are an expert in your chosen field as opposed to a relaxation specialist.
4. Provide massage sessions in which clients remained fully clothed. Many clients do not feel comfortable removing clothing for any therapist, male or female. Utilizing modalities in which clients remained fully clothed has helped me much with aiding clients feeling at ease with me.
The reason why some clients do not wish to disrobe is none of my business, and I will not ask them why they choose to stay clothed. Rather, I simply inform a client uncomfortable with disrobing that I can provide 60- or 90-minute session while they remain clothed. This eases much unease during the session.
I often provide shiatsu, a Japanese bodywork including pressure and stretching to stimulate muscles and circulation. I have also used sports massage techniques over clothing, stretching clients wearing workout wear; and Thai massage, which combines the best of sports massage and stretching.
In addition, including reflexology upon the hands and feet is another great way to provide non-invasive touch. My experience with people uncomfortable with touch is that they warm up to receiving a Swedish massage after receiving reflexology on the hands and feet. I believe this is because they can feel my touch is sincerely genuine and compassionate.
5. Look in the mirror. Ultimately, one has to look in the mirror to understand why some clients may feel uncomfortable with receiving a massage from you, the male therapist. Here are some aspects of professionalism—demeanor, dress, hair, spoken and body language and general appearance—to self-examine and potentially self-correct.
Demeanor: The manner in which one carries themselves in public. As you stand, walk, approach people and converse with others, do you come across as confident or meek, mature or immature, steadfast or inconstant, intelligent or common?
Dress: People will respond to you differently depending on your dress. Are your clothes neat or sloppy, pressed or wrinkled, solid in color or fading in color, or clean or unclean?
Hair: People will react to you differently depending on your choice of hair-grooming standard. Is your hair neat or unkempt, styled or unstyled, or long or short? Remember that facial hair may illicit varying reactions. Not everyone favors the appearance of a beard or goatee.
Body language: People will act differently around you depending on your body language. Do you walk quickly or slowly, stand erect or slouch, look people in their eyes or over their heads, have a firm or weak handshake, or appear interested or disinterested on the job?
6. Listen to Yourself. People will judge you based on your vocabulary. Do you speak with good articulation or do you mumble, use proper word choice or use slang terms, speak loudly or softly, make inappropriate jokes or clean jokes, or use crass language or clean language?
7. Practice professionalism. People prefer to receive care from someone with a professional demeanor in the session room. How you hold the sheet when the client turns over, place and move bolsters and towels, administer tools, speak treatment options, display patience, answer concerns graciously and show genuine care for their well-being encompasses session-room professionalism.
Typically, the younger the male, the less grace given to this male. This is because younger males are usually displayed as immature, naïve, sex-thirsty and juvenile in public media. I began my career at age 23 and understand the perception of being a kid working on someone’s wife, grandmother, daughter or aunt. I worked hard to overcome the perception I was a kid to show I was a mature man who earned respect and displayed integrity of character.
It is my sincere hope that reading this article has included healthy introspection and self-examination. As we continue to act as the professional who displays great character on the job, we male therapists can succeed in the massage field.
Honoring boundaries, respecting client privacy, holding clients in high esteem, being aware of transference and countertransference and ensuring all touch is therapeutic touch will make you, the male therapist, stand proudly among your female peers.
This has been the case for me, after many years. As my career has progressed, comments such as those described at the beginning of this article have not occurred often. Only on rare occasion will a client indicate unease with me as a male therapist.
More often, clients express appreciation.
One recent, notable occurrence was having the husband of a female client observing a session with his eyes glued upon my every move. Early in my career, this may have rattled me; however, at this point I took a healthier mental approach to the scenario. I accepted it as an opportunity to show how a massage from a male can be just as safe and therapeutic as from a female.
The husband gave a reassuring nod and cordial “Thank you” as he left the building. I overheard his wife upon leaving say, “See, I told you he was professional.”
I smiled on the inside. Mission accomplished. Another person convinced that a male can provide a professional session with every bit as much integrity as a female.
About the author
Jimmy Gialelis, LMT, BCTMB, is owner of Advanced Massage Arts & Education in Tempe, Arizona. He is a National Certification Board for Therapeutic Massage & Bodywork-approved provider of continuing education, and teaches “Professional Ethics for LMTs” and many other CE classes. He is a regular contributor to MASSAGE Magazine, and his articles include “Diabetes and Massage: What Therapists Need to Know” and “Massage for Trauma: 3 Ways of Responding to an Emotional Release.”