Indulgent, Decadent, Pampering : Therapeutic Massage, Guilt, and Why We Deprive Ourselves

It would be difficult to miss the great  number of day spas and massage therapists describing their services as an indulgence, sheer decadence, a hedonistic flurry of self-pampering fit for a queen.  All of this talk is both a reflection of the larger culture, as well as a reinforcement of stereotyped cultural memes regarding massage therapy, health, and wellness.  Such wording in advertisements only serves to perpetuate the image of massage therapy as something very exclusive, and very much geared toward self gratification, and little else.

Why do so many people feel that they don’t ‘deserve’ a session of at-home (or in- spa) therapeutic massage?  A few years ago, I noticed an odd trend.  Working at a day spa at the time, I was one of the staff massage therapists.  Consistently, I’d notice that women (and men) routinely placed their manicures (and of course, pedicures) above their massage therapy sessions, in terms of personal importance.

Sometimes it was an issue of funds.  When a client was feeling overextended for the week, they’d usually forego the massage therapy in favor of the beauty treatment.  Other times it would be a matter of time constraints.  So basically, I learned that if a client is limited in funds or time, the beauty treatment would come first.  This was true regardless of the therapist or beautician involved.  Because this was so, I realized that I was observing a significant social  trend with wider implications.

When it concerns beauty treatments, every woman knows that ‘getting your nails and hair done’ is something nearly all women do, regardless of income or social status.  It isn’t considered something especially self-indulgent, but rather as a bit of a necessity, in terms of its significance in keeping a person presentable to the world of work, family, and other social settings.  Most  women (and men, surprisingly)  I discussed this with felt strongly that beauty treatments are an absolute necessity.

Given the importance we place on our social skills and personal appearance, both in the professional world, as well as out and about in daily life, this attitude is understandable.  After all, if Mr. Appleton stopped dyeing his hair and having impeccably groomed nails, his boss – a man twenty years younger – might choose to let him go.  First impressions are everything, but it’s all the other impressions that really matter each day. But how do these same women (and men) feel about massage therapy, in comparison?  Is there as strong a reason for receiving a therapeutic massage therapy session?

Apparently, the answer was no.  Even when a certain regular at-home therapy client, a female professional with a family and busy life,  could easily afford twice weekly sessions, more than a few times she’d explain to me how guilty she felt ‘overindulging’, even though the at-home massage therapy was helping her with her arthritic pain.  Each time I listened patiently, slightly baffled by the way she’d discuss her frequent sessions as something requiring apology.

But what was she really apologizing for?  And to whom?

She wasn’t really apologizing to me, as I was paid to perform each session of therapeutic massage.  She was just confiding in me, thinking and feeling out loud.  Even though her sessions resulted in a greater feeling of ease, less muscle and joint pain, and more energy, my client felt her sessions an unnecessary extravagance.  (This from a woman who vacationed four times a year, threw lavish parties, and was wed to an equally successful husband.)  It was clearly about something other than money or time.  I was beginning to wonder whether the day spa clients from years before were just making excuses for a deeper sense of guilt.

Why would an intelligent, articulate woman feel as though she is doing something wrong?  Is it likely that she feels equally decadent when visiting with the doctor for her arthritis?  I doubt it.  It’s precisely because her view of massage therapy isn’t so much ‘therapeutic and health-oriented’ as hedonistic and ‘self-oriented’ that she felt as she did.

My approach to massage therapy is strictly therapeutic, and I view each client as a person whom I can help to live a fuller, less painful existence.  Of course I try to help each client have the most relaxing session possible, but that isn’t the same as thinking massage is like a super bubble bath or double fudge ice cream sundae.  Popular images on the topic suggest otherwise.  Now, I realized that this was at the core of my clients’ strange attitudes toward therapeutic massage.

Being free from pain (or experiencing less pain, as was the case with my client) isn’t particularly indulgent.  It isn’t on par with eating a cheesecake or driving a gas guzzling truck or anything.   There’s no negative impact on your body, the environment, or anyone else.  Doctors do not usually prescribe massage therapy, though many will recommend it.  When a client is sent for massage therapy by a doctor, what differences in their ideas and attitudes about massage should we expect to see?  This would make  a highly interesting study, one that would shed light on this obscure matter.

When we have to go to the doctor, we don’t ask ourselves if we ‘deserve it’.  Professional medical treatment is something that we receive dispassionately, knowing that it is a matter of health, a matter of wisdom.  Ignoring our body’s ailments only causes them to worsen.  Once our society begins to view therapeutic massage in a health-oriented context – like the way we now think about going to the doctor – I think we’ll finally get over our guilt of massage therapy.

If massage therapy can help you feel better, then there’s no reason to regard it any differently than you do other things in your life which make your life liveable.  Thinking about it now, it’s clear that massage therapy is actually no more an ‘indulgence’ than beauty treatments, both being a necessity (of sorts), when we really come down to it.  If anything, our quality of life is sustained more by massage therapy than beauty treatments.

Considering how each will affect your ability to stay in top form, it isn’t so difficult to arrive at a conclusion of why neither should really be regarded as any sort of indulgence. Both a relaxing massage therapy session and  a manicure and hairstyling appointment are necessities, but in different ways.

One helps maintain your calm mental state and inner poise, controlling pain, keeping you feeling your very best as you go about your day, and the other helps you to look your very best, helping you to feel good about yourself, something maybe less tangible, yet no less important.

But which will better prepare you for a long, strenuous week at the office (as well as help you recover from the week that just ended!), an insane problem-ridden remodeling of the kitchen (that was supposed to take three weeks and is now on six months), dealing with the kids’ schedule of soccer games, violin recitals, and unplanned-for parent-teacher meetings (after receiving calls from your son’s teacher about how  he was caught selling his homework to the other students)?  If we’re honest enough, it won’t be much of a debate at all.  Even the best manicure and hairstyling won’t do much to help with a busy schedule and tons of stress.

And if you’re really concerned with looking good, radiant beauty comes from the inside, many fashion pundits tell us, and so having beautiful nails and hair (or a really smart-looking goatee and sideburns) can’t possibly do as much for your appearance as feeling calm, healthy, and vibrant would.  Therapeutic massage can help contribute to a feeling of wellness by easing muscle soreness, as tension is cumulative, stress build-up occurring daily as we navigate through life’s situations.

Many clients feel that without weekly or bi-weekly at-home massage sessions, their ability to focus and cope with the stress of daily life decreases.  Considering the facts, while discarding the fictions,  therapeutic massage sessions should be considered more a time of healing than pampering.  The words that we use to describe what we do ultimately help shape our views; be accurate and honest with yourself and remember that there’s nothing particularly indulgent or hedonistic about getting a massage.  If you read up on the scientific literature, you’ll find that massage therapy has been proven to help maintain wellness in a number of ways; the more that you learn about the topic, the more foreign the concept of guilt associated with massage will seem.

©Copyright 2011 H Miller

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