The Road Less Travelled
by Rebecca Barnett
A few weeks ago, my partner and I were in some government offices in the city. A woman walked into the lift we were occupying, took one look at my partner’s chest and, sighing wistfully, said “I really need to see you”.
I might as well have been invisible.
Perhaps I should give you some more context. My partner was fresh from work and still wearing his AMT T-shirt with the words “Massage Therapist” proudly emblazoned above his right nipple. This woman’s 30-second elevator speech centred around intermittent, niggling shoulder pain and a sudden, pressing need to book a massage. Just two little words on a T-shirt elicited a surprising host of emotions, personal reveals and, dare I say it – longing – for nurturing touch.
Isn’t it bloody spiffing to be a massage therapist?
I have been trying to think of other occupations that might elicit this kind of response in a lift but I am really struggling to find many. A therapy dog may well pip us at the post for the most appealing elevator companion but it’s kinda hard to imagine a journalist or dentist or IT professional or artisanal pencil sharpener being greeted with the same enthusiasm and wistfulness.
Massage therapists seem to have a pretty complicated relationship with their chosen occupation. They love it; they’re proud of the work they do; they get loads of satisfaction from helping people. Some massage therapists are even so enthusiastic about the power of massage that they ascribe all sorts of improbable powers to it. On the other hand, many of the exact same people also subscribe to the idea that massage therapists have a terrible reputation with the general public; that we’re not “recognised”; that we’re the healthcare equivalent of the dog that gets kicked.
It only takes a few minutes inside any of the myriad social media forums supporting massage therapists before this weird cognitive dissonance reveals itself: we’re immensely proud of what we do but we’re also embarrassed and apologetic about the profession; we love massage but we need to distance ourselves from the word itself because it doesn’t capture what we do and has bad connotations; our clients reckon that we’re so much better than the physio/chiro/osteo/insert-the-healthcare-practitioner-of-your-choice they saw last week but the physio/chiro/osteo/healthcare-practitioner-of-your-choice has far more status than us.
We sway wildly between hubris and self-recrimination, like a high wire artist working hard to maintain her centre and stop herself from plunging into the abyss.
The thing is, when we talk about not being recognised in the same way as other healthcare professions, we’re mostly just talking about social capital. (There are some great definitions of social capital here.) We’re almost inevitably comparing ourselves to physiotherapists and the social capital they enjoy because they’re our nearest cousins, having sprung from our massage therapy bosom about 130 years ago in a historical moment that is uncannily similar to where we are now.
We seem pretty envious about the social capital that physiotherapists have enjoyed within the healthcare domain. But what we don’t discuss anywhere near enough is the price that physiotherapists have paid over the last century and a bit to earn that social capital. Dave Nicholls has written extensively about how the modern physiotherapy profession made itself into obedient servants of the state and strategically subservient to the medical profession in order to become the established provider of orthodox physical therapy. In The End of Physiotherapy, Nicholls also writes about the need for the physiotherapy profession to re-imagine itself or risk oblivion in the face of changing societal, political, economic and social pressures. I wish all massage therapists would read it. There are so many lessons in it for us.
Try as I might, I find it really hard to imagine massage therapists becoming obedient servants of the state. I’m not even remotely convinced that it’s a useful or desirable thing to do, just for the sake of greater social capital. I genuinely believe that massage therapists are extremely well placed to become increasingly relevant, especially as the healthcare landscape makes a somewhat seismic retreat from biomedicalism. But now I am just mangling metaphors.
We need to stop equating social capital with professional esteem.
Our clients already value us enormously and bring an extraordinary array of complex health issues into our clinics. I’ve talked about this until I am blue in the face. For example, I talked about it here:
However much we may have already careened towards biomedicalism over the past 30 years in search of greater social capital, it’s worth remembering that people will always return to touch, no matter how much we learn to scrape, needle, suck, tape, electrify and orthopaedically assess. (Fiona Moffatt and Roger Kerry have written some pretty interesting stuff about the public demand for touch. How ironic that physiotherapists have found themselves in a kind of therapeutic cul de sac, having to justify the use of touch in clinical practice in the face of strong public demand for it.)
I don’t reckon we need any more external validation than we already have and yet we’re still grappling with that weird cognitive dissonance. In the end, our sense of professional esteem is going to have to come from within anyway. Let’s be more at ease with choosing the road less travelled and revel in the difference we’re making to the lives of our clients.
The Road Not Taken
Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;
Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,
And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
About the Author
As accidental CEO of AMT, Rebecca Barnett has been at the coalface of professional advocacy for 12 years. She is devoted to neologism and foodstuffs with the same specific gravity as havarti cheese but, with the AMT conference looming and a list of 714 small tasks to complete, she’d kill for a bucket of molten dark chocolate and a massage from the Swedish prime minister.