A distorted body image can stop us from feeling like we belong in the world. It’s as if, because our bodies are not perfect, we have no right to exist. We are not deserving of anything: not food, not touch, not confidence. For many women, the self-loathing that accompanies a negative body image boils down to this: because we are not perfect, we are not worthy of love. These feelings can carry over into the massage experience. However, by simply changing our mindset going into a massage, the massage itself can become a transformative healing experience, helping us to develop a healthier relationship with our own body image.
A few years ago, I was in a negative self-perception spiral, but I had started to become aware that this cycle of harsh self-criticism needed to be reversed. Enter Kristen Neff and self-compassion. (If you have never seen her TED Talk, the link is at the bottom of the post. Warning to those at your desks: I still cry every time I watch it.) The basic idea with self-compassion is to treat ourselves like we would a good friend: to approach ourselves with encouragement, understanding, empathy and gentleness. Self-compassion is about embracing our imperfections with kindness. After all, imperfection is one of the ways in which we are connected in a shared human experience. Neff suggests nurturing ourselves in gentle ways when we are feeling down about ourselves as opposed to judging and criticizing. She also notes that humans are programmed to respond to warmth and gentle touch, as part of our evolutionary biology. Therefore, allowing ourselves soothing touch is a powerful way to send the message to our critical minds that we are deserving of comfort and healing… and ultimately, love. In this way, massage (even self-massage) can play a vital part in fostering self-love and a more positive body image, healing the parts of us that we have unfairly judged.
Massage can be so powerful in healing that it is often used as part of the therapeutic process for survivors of trauma, including sexual assault. Therapeutic touch helps reintegrate parts of the body that have been taken from us, loving back into existence parts of us that we have imbued with guilt and shame. It is helpful for receivers of massage to realize that the client is in control of what happens to her body and how it is touched during a session. In this way, massage builds a sense of safety and trust.* The effects are just as beneficial for those of us who are our own attackers, constantly waging war against our own bodies with negative self-talk. Massage fosters a sense of worthiness that can repair a distorted body image over time.
Here is how to get the most out of the massage experience (even if you start with self-massage!). It is important to realize that as the receiver of massage, you are an instrumental part of your own healing. Enter the massage space by leaving all judgements at the door. The massage therapist will never be judging your body, so you are not allowed to, either. (All bodies are magical to a massage therapist.) Relax, tell yourself that you are in a safe space. Remind yourself that you DESERVE to receive healing, to get relief from aches and pains, to feel the benefits of non-sexual touch. Give your body full permission to receive and to enjoy, because you are worthy. Feel free to fall asleep if you want or breathe audibly or make noise. Feel good about the fact that you are taking care of yourself, and make sure to ask for exactly what you want. Never endure unwanted pain or discomfort – the massage is for YOU. I wish someone had told me this when I got my first real massage at the age of 20. My particular struggle with body image was that I always thought I was fat, but insert “too skinny”, “lopsided”, “too old” or any other negative body image stereotype and the message is the same. So my first massage: I went with two other girlfriends. The therapist was a younger man about my age, and I just knew he was thinking “I got the fat girl”. I spent the entire massage tensing every muscle, worried that he was judging my body (when in reality the judgement was coming from my own inner voice). Needless to say, I did not enjoy the massage. Not only that, but I literally could not move for the next three days. Years later, now that I have been on the giving end of massage, I want to make sure my clients experience the opposite of that massage, and it starts with the receiver getting into the right frame of mind. My part as a giver is to make sure my feels safe while in my care, knowing that I will honor her body’s pace of healing. I will feel privileged to be a part of her therapeutic process, whether it take the form of releasing lower back tension or encouraging a positive body image, or both.
*Touch for Trauma: Bodywork for Survivors, Bodysense Magazine, Jenny Lorant Grouf