Body Issues and Bodywork: Overcoming Fears and Hopping Onto the Massage Table

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KellieAnn Halvorsen, Licensed Massage Therapist. Photography by Mckenzie Deakins.

I  am fast approaching my 10th anniversary as a licensed massage therapist. I love the work I do. I love that I get to help individuals, in a very personal way, on an almost daily basis. Everybody and every body is different, so every session is different, and the work doesn’t get boring. Even if the work gets stagnant there is always a new modality of massage to learn and techniques to research and incorporate into my practice. Massage is great! I love to give massage as much as I like to receive a massage, but every once in a while I am startled to hear that someone doesn’t like to receive massage or aren’t even willing try it!

This used to baffle me, particularly since touch is so important to me in my life. But over the years, as I have informally interviewed these people, a pattern has emerged to their reasoning. There are generally three reasons why some people don’t like or won’t try massage. (1) Some people simply don’t like being touched, (2) some are not familiar, and as such are uncomfortable, with massage practices and ethics (thank you “Friends” and “Seinfeld” for misinforming a whole generation on massage therapy), but most of all I find (3) people are struggling with their own body issues, such as body shame and body image problems.

If someone doesn’t like to be touched I can’t really do anything for them, besides feel bad for them because touch is AMAZING! I can encourage them to seek out safe and positive touch and hope that maybe someday they will be able to enjoy touch and massage.

It is much easier to educate and familiarize an individual about massage practices and ethics and help them become more comfortable with the idea of massage. Most of the apprehension on this subject is understandable, with questions including whether the individual should wear underwear, how much of my body will the therapist actually work on/see, what is the sheet/towel draping like, what if I need to use the bathroom midway through the session, etc. None of these questions are stupid, each is valid and easily answered by a massage therapist. Believe me, we are ecstatic to educate and introduce you to the world of massage therapy.

Helping individuals whose massage-blocking-factor stems from body issues is a bit tougher and harder to isolate and address.

To clarify, body issues usually arise from the way we internalize and view our own physical body or body image. To have a positive body image isn’t necessarily to have a completely “positive” image of our body, but to have a realistic understanding of our body and a deep appreciation of what it can do for us. Having a negative body image is a negatively distorted view about your physical body, which can affect an individual’s self-esteem and feelings of self-worth. This negativity could cause an individual to focus on their own flaws and obsess over comparing themselves to the unobtainable figures we often see in media and entertainment. Furthermore, this internal dialog of judgment is often applied to our understanding of an external judgment from others.

People with a negative self-image often assume everyone around them is judging them just as harshly or harsher than they judge themselves, including any prospective massage therapist who would be seeing so much more of their body than the normal person off the street.

I have had so many people say they will see a massage therapist after they lose weight or fix some perceived physical flaw. I have had people express concern that they are just too smelly, or hairy or gassy to see a massage therapist. It breaks my heart when I hear these things! Let me tell you, you are not too fat, smelly, hairy, or anything to see a massage therapist!

hand helping hand

Massage Therapists are there to literally lend a hand and help you feel better.
Image provided by the Associated Bodywork & Massage Professionals.

When we meet and greet you in our reception area we are honored and excited to be helping you. We don’t see your physical flaws the way you do, we see people with physical and mental stresses that we can help ease. You are a full and complete person to us, you are human!

If someone were to ask me what I would like people to know the most about receiving a massage after my ten years of massage therapy experience, my instantaneous answer would be that “I don’t care if you shaved your legs that day or not, but I do care that you care.” As a massage therapist I put a lot of work in trying to ensure the comfort of my clients and if you spend your whole time on the table worrying about whether I am judging your leg stubble, you are not going to get as much out of the session and a large portion of my hard work will go to waste too.

If you are feeling nervous during a massage due to body issues, here are some things to remember:

  • Everyone has cellulite, flatulence, and needs to use the restroom at some point. Don’t be embarrassed about any of this.
  • If you are worried about smelling bad, take a quick shower before coming in, but you don’t need to. Often you will leave with messed up hair and lotioned/oiled skin and might want to bathe anyway.
  • It’s okay to feel good! Please feel no shame or guilt about feeling good or taking time on yourself with a massage. Massage feels good because it is good for you! There are many physiological reasons for this, embrace it don’t feel shame over it!
  • This is my job. I love it. I choose it. Don’t feel bad about “making me” work on you, because I don’t feel bad at all, I feel honored.
  • Don’t feel like you need to entertain your massage therapist by talking the whole time. Sometimes too much talk can distract us and make the quality of the massage go downhill. But we also understand that talking could be what makes you feel comfortable, so we generally take a cue from you if you need conversation or silence, or a combination of the two.
  • Be honest with your massage therapist! While massage therapist’s read the human body in their own way through experience, education, and touch, we are not mind readers! Tell us if you are uncomfortable with draping or our hands placement. Be honest on your intake form, tell us any relevant medical problems, such as recent injuries or medical conditions. If something pops into your head that you forgot to tell us at the start of the session, let us know when you remember it.
  • Again the session is about you so let us know. If you need anything like a tissue, blanket or glass of water let us know. We want you to be comfortable!

Massage therapy is an amazing thing. It is one of the oldest forms of medicine and can help individuals in real physiological ways as well as mental/emotional and even spiritual health. I have loved my decade long career within the field so far and look forward to decades more. I hope that massage therapy can become available to more and more people, including those who might have fears that keep them away. Don’t let fear, unfamiliarity, or body image issues keep you from getting a massage. Educate yourself, talk to a massage therapist, give massage a real chance. You will be happy if you do!

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