Photo shows two women of differing weights helping each other exercise, to illustrate the concept of body positivity.

Massage can have a positive effect on a person’s body image. The social movement of body positivity has reached the mainstream, puncturing the world of unattainable beauty standards and the effects they have on the public. A body-positive approach supports the fight against many societal illsageism, sexism, and disability discrimination, to name a few—but it is perhaps most toted as an antidote to the problem of judgments based on weight and size.

Massage and Body Image

As massage therapists, we can help challenge the social constructs that dictate the way our clients feel about their bodies by providing them with a place to feel safe and confident whatever their size, shape, skin color or ability. We offer a service that can feel intimate and easily provoke feelings of vulnerability, so as a profession, there is huge value in standing up and saying that we understand that people have complex experiences and we are here to support them.

In a context where studies are finding that there is significant weight bias among wellbeing professionals, therapists around the world are beginning to see the value of a less stigmatized approach. To help you make your environment body-positive, here are five tips to create a safe space and market yourselves as welcoming and aware of these issues:

1. Nurture Your Newbies

Many people with marginalized bodies have never felt comfortable having a massage before. After all, exposing your body, even to a professional, can trigger feelings that are difficult to face. While any good therapist will have a respectful approach and uphold their clients’ dignity, the gold-standard practitioners take this a step further and intuit if this is a new experience, why this might be, and whether there are any particular areas of vulnerability due to past experiences.

Ask if there is anywhere your client does not feel comfortable being touchedwithout them having to go out of their way to bring this upand explain that the treatments can be a process. They might not be ready for a full-body treatment from session one, so make sure they know that’s totally fine and this can be worked up to, if appropriate for them.

2. Make Use of Marketing

What is the first step to a nervous massage newbie taking the plunge and booking in? Checking you out online or studying your other marketing materials. If you feel you can cater to those requiring a body-positive setting, you need to make this clear to get these clients through the door.

Specify which massages are appropriate and accessible on your treatment menu and why. Do you offer a treatment that is perfect for bigger bodies, one that is great for people who want to keep their clothes on, or one where they don’t have to lie down? Say it.

Further, consider any inconsistent aspects of your menu. For example, if you are emphasizing weight-loss or cellulite treatments, consider whether this really fits in with the body-positive message, if that’s what you want to push. Instead consider emphasizing the non-aesthetic effects of treatments; for example how incorporating stretching into treatment can help people gain an appreciation for what their body can do, whatever its current ability.

Be specific about any training you have that might make different bodies feel comfortable under your careadvertising continuing professional development in trauma-informed massage, massage on bigger bodies and disability-informed treatments will ensure that people know you are fully committed to serving their needs.

3. Fix Your Hardware

Massage and body image can hinge on equipment. I once visited a medical appointment with a client and when they came to take his blood pressure, the cuff was not big enough. This was embarrassing and uncomfortable for him and he felt the doctor’s office should have let him know about these limitations ahead of time, given that they had his records.

In the massage office, we have all sorts of equipment to think about. Not only can you check how accessible the size of your table is, but consider the chairs in your waiting room, the doorways and the walkways. Not all therapists are going to have the means to cater for all bodies, but if you make it clear on your website who you can cater for, you might save someone some stress later down the road.

Most of us are trained to lower the table when working on larger bodies, or to perform a treatment in a chair if a person is unable to lie down, but do you also have protocols for modifying your face holes, breast gaps for larger chests or offer a large variety of towels and robes in different shapes and sizes? Do you have a variety of lotions, oils and wax to use and have you educated yourself on how much should be used on different sized bodies?

Remember, those who have felt the effects of a marginalised body type might be sensitive about exposure. Take your sense of privacy further when asking them to turn over or shift position, if this means leaving the room or drawing the curtain so they can do this themselves (rather than the usual towel-ninja move you have perfected so masterfully), make space for them to do this. And always explain what you are doing in a way that does not make assumptions. Give them choices about every keydetail of the treatment, not just what treatment they have.

4. Attend to your admin

Sometimes we make so much effort with the treatment itself, we forget the importance of ensuring our administrative procedures align with the approach we want to portray. Take some time to look at your intake formdoes it ask open-ended questions or is there a risk of it pathologizing body shapes unnecessarily?

Of course, you need to find out about any pertinent medical issues, but equally, it may be uncomfortable for people if there is an assumption that they have a medical issue based on perceptions about their body.

When people are nervous about a treatment, pressure at the stage of consultation might make them shut down.

Why not offer the first consultation before the massage with no requirement to go ahead if they do not feel up to the treatment that day? This way, they will be adequately prepared to go ahead if they do decide to, without putting stressful demands on themselves.

Other pre-massage protocols should also be looked at and clear explanations are key to ensuring a positive space for all.

A great example of this is the washing of the feet that many therapists do prior to beginning a full-body massage. While it might be obvious to you why you do this, most of the public are not aware of these standard procedures, and acts such as this (when not explained thoroughly) might bring up traumatic feelings of uncleanliness, which has historically been a perception of some body types.

CJ Winter

About the Author

CJ Winter is a massage therapist, social care professional and writer from the UK. She writes in the fields of health, well-being and social justice.

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