Body image in the massage space

By Melissa Woodward

As massage therapists we are trusted to treat our clients with care and respect. We might think our job is to work on bodies to create positive change with pain or mobility. However, we are actually required to work with people … complex people who also come into our massage spaces with body image concerns and past experiences that have impacted how they live in their bodies.

What if a client’s body image affects their overall experience of massage?

Body image is a deeply personal and often sensitive aspect of our wellbeing. It is how we perceive ourselves, and impacts how we interact with others and how we experience the world around us.

As massage therapists, our role extends beyond the physical manipulation of muscles – we have the power to create a space where clients can truly feel seen, accepted, and comfortable in their own skin.

In this blog post, I will delve into the topic of body image in the massage space and explore how massage therapists can navigate conversations with empathy and skill. By understanding the impact of body image and implementing practical strategies, we can create an environment that promotes healing, self-acceptance, and holistic wellbeing for our clients.

What is body image?

Body image refers to a person’s perception, thoughts, feelings, and attitudes about their own physical appearance and their body as a whole. It encompasses how individuals perceive their size, shape, weight, and specific features. An individual’s body image can sit on a scale ranging from positive (a healthy and realistic view of one’s body) to neutral (not loving every aspect, but also not experiencing hatred) through to negative (discontentment, dissatisfaction, or distorted perception of one’s body).

Body image is shaped by various factors, including societal and cultural influences, personal experiences, media representations, and interpersonal interactions. This is where massage therapists come in. We can represent ourselves in a way that demonstrates that we accept all body shapes and sizes or we can continue to push the narrative of ideal bodies. The experiences people have in your space, in their conversations with you, and how you represent yourself on social media can impact whether they will feel judged, insecure or uncomfortable.

Common body image concerns in the massage space

  • Self-consciousness about physical appearance: Clients may feel self-conscious about aspects of their physical appearance such as scars, stretch marks, birthmarks, or body hair. They might worry about how these features will be perceived by the massage therapist or affect the massage experience.
  • Weight: Clients may worry about being judged or treated differently due to their weight, including feeling overweight, underweight, or not conforming to societal beauty standards.
  • Insecurity about body shape or size: Some clients may have insecurities about specific body parts or overall body shape. They may feel uncomfortable or dissatisfied with aspects like the abdomen, thighs, buttocks, or breasts. These insecurities can affect their confidence and overall comfort during the massage.
  • Scarring or surgical alterations: Clients who have undergone surgeries or have visible scars may be concerned about how their scars will be perceived or treated during the massage. They might worry about potential discomfort or judgment related to their surgical history.
  • Ageing: Clients may have concerns about the effects of ageing on their bodies. They might worry about wrinkles, sagging skin, or the overall changes in their appearance. These concerns can affect their body image and confidence during the massage.
  • Body-related trauma: Clients who have experienced body-related trauma, such as sexual abuse or assault, may have complex body image concerns. They may feel anxious, disconnected, or hypersensitive about their bodies during the massage, requiring extra care and sensitivity from the massage therapist.

It’s important for massage therapists to be mindful of these concerns and create a safe, non-judgmental space where clients can feel accepted and comfortable regardless of their body image.

Creating a body positive environment

The power of language

Language plays a significant role in shaping our perception of ourselves and others. As massage therapists, the words we choose can have a profound impact on clients’ body image and overall wellbeing. It’s crucial to be mindful of the language we use during consultations and sessions.

Here are some key considerations:

  • Avoid judgmental or negative language. Refrain from using language that reinforces societal beauty standards or implies that certain body types are superior or inferior.
  • Avoid making derogatory comments or body shaming remarks, even if those remarks are about another person’s body. If you make comments about another person, your client might wonder what you think or say about them behind their back.
  • Avoid making recommendations of cellulite treatments, fat targeting exercise routines, weight loss or nutrition advice, especially when working on an exposed part of a client’s body. These fad style recommendations reinforce negative beliefs that their body does not meet the ideal body type and there is a problem to fix. This differs from the strengthening or stretch advice we might give post treatment when the client is dressed and we are able to explain the reasoning for our evidence-based recommendations.
  • Use neutral and descriptive language. Opt for language that focuses on the physical aspects of the body without attaching value judgments. Use descriptive terms to discuss areas of tension or concern, rather than making subjective comments about clients’ appearance. For instance, you wouldn’t tell a client they have a ‘bad hunched back’, you would explain that they might be experiencing shortening through their chest muscles so targeting treatment to opening up the chest may help alleviate tension they are experiencing through their upper back.
  • Keep compliments to a minimum. You may think that complimenting a client is
    positive but compliments can also be inappropriate (depending on the nature of the
    compliment) and are often based on appearance. For example, have you ever
    complimented someone’s weight loss, not realising that they are going through
    stress, illness or loss that has led to this change? Remember, thin does not always
    equal healthy and vice versa.

Your language should offer reassurance that their bodies are normal and deserving of care and respect, regardless of size, shape or physical appearance.

Promoting body positivity

As massage therapists we can employ strategies for fostering a positive body image within our clinic space. We can do this through the following strategies:

  • Practice empathy and active listening: Create a space where clients feel heard and validated. Allow them to share their concerns, insecurities, or experiences related to their body image. Listen attentively and respond with empathy, understanding, and compassion.
  • Focus on holistic wellbeing: Emphasise the importance of overall wellbeing and self care, rather than solely focusing on physical appearance.
  • Educate about body diversity: Help clients understand that bodies come in various shapes, sizes, and forms. Encourage appreciation for diversity and challenge societal norms by celebrating the uniqueness of each individual’s body. This can also extend to educating clients about what you are looking for/at when treating their bodies.
  • Be open about your clinic space: Share the weight rating of your massage table and furniture, use appropriately sized towels for a variety of body sizes, offer alternative positioning and techniques that work with their body. Show that you are open and capable of working with all bodies.
  • Encourage self-acceptance and gratitude: Guide clients towards developing a positive relationship with their bodies. Encourage self-acceptance by reminding them of the incredible things their bodies can do and expressing gratitude for their bodies’ strength and resilience.

Staying in your lane

Recognising limitations and staying within your scope are an essential aspect of providing holistic care as a massage therapist. There may be instances where clients present complex body image concerns or underlying psychological issues that extend beyond the scope of our practice. In these cases, it is necessary to refer clients to specialists, such as therapists or counsellors, who have the expertise to provide comprehensive support. These professionals can offer a more in-depth exploration of body image concerns, address underlying emotional or psychological factors, and facilitate healing on a deeper level.

Additionally, providing resources can be immensely valuable in supporting the client journey towards body acceptance and positivity. Sharing a curated list of reputable resources, including books, podcasts, or websites that focus on body image, self-acceptance, and body positivity can empower clients to further explore and educate themselves. These resources offer insights, tools, and perspectives that promote self-reflection, healing, and the cultivation of a positive body image.

Final word

As massage therapists, we have the power to create a body-positive environment where
clients feel seen, accepted and comfortable in their own skin. By being mindful of the
language we use, promoting body positivity, and recognising our limitations, we can support
clients on their journey towards body acceptance and holistic wellbeing. Let’s commit to
prioritising a body-positive approach and making a meaningful impact on our clients’ lives beyond
our hands-on skills.

About the author

Melissa Woodward is a dedicated Remedial Massage Therapist with over 20 years experience. After embarking on a tree-change from Sydney to Regional NSW last year, she now calls Dubbo home. Hooked on learning, she has collected qualifications including Personal Training, Nutrition, Pregnancy and Post Natal Exercise and Infant Massage. She is passionate about bringing her wealth of knowledge to share with fellow massage therapists. In her business, she is committed to improving the health of women through body positive, size inclusive treatment and exercise, as she believes all bodies deserve care and respect. You can find her fun, educational content on instagram @melissa.fearlesshealth

Share this post:
Au revoir but not goodbye
Massage as therapeutic relationship

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published / Required fields are marked *