A million moons ago, I remember laying on the table in my massage school’s practice room waiting for my student partner to work me over for the sake of learning. Before any hands on techniques were ever taught, our instructors put massive emphasis on how to properly drape a client. I remember it was sweltering hot down there in that basement room and I asked my partner to leave whichever areas he had finished massaging uncovered. As he migrated to the backs of my legs, I heard this woman’s voice say, “Do I really need to see her tattoos?” About a minute or two later, I heard the teacher who was proctoring our sessions come over and say to my partner that he was exposing too much of me. “Keep the body parts you are not working on covered at all times.” Cringe! He made it sound like I was being dissected on a lab table. I popped my head up and said that I wanted to cool down since the room was too hot and that I didn’t feel in the least over-exposed. In a firm voice he said, “This is New York State Law, young lady” and walked away. The girl who made the comment about my tattoos was shaking her head at my partner adding, “You guys have to be careful.” Really?
This experience poses a conflicting scenario between what “THE LAW” says and communicating client comfort properly as a therapist in a professional setting. Let us dissect draping methods here: Some spas provide their clients towels to be used as a drape sheet. In some European styled facilities, you are handed a washcloth sized square to cover your pubic area and gluteal cleft (anatomical language for one’s butt crack) while the therapist works on you. An equally small cloth is used to cover the chest when laying face up. And if you want to get even less coverage, try the spas that provide just disposable underwear and bra. Our prudish classmate might have popped a gasket if she knew just how little coverage is actually mandated by the law. Still, in order to cover themselves (pun intentional) from potential law suits etc. many spa chains have disclaimers on their sign in sheets that note what our instructor admonished us to do. All parts not being worked on with any variation of said massage techniques (insert list here) will be covered. No genitals and no breasts. Should the client become uncomfortable at any time they have the right to tell their therapist and end the session.
I supposed being a child of European parents has allowed me to be very comfortable with the nude form in a non-sexual manner. Here in the States though, with its Puritanical hypocrisy, everything becomes sexualized. I have seen commercials in Greece for bath soap that featured a fully nude mother bathing her child in a tub, while the father stands by with a towel to dry them both off. A beautiful family moment, au-naturale. This would NEVER AIR in the U.S. and yet other programming featuring pretty overt sexual and borderline sado-masochistic action does. It doesn’t take a psychology degree to know the message being plugged into people’s consciousness.
With that thought in mind, let us return now to the matter of draping per the LAW. I have had clients with major body issues, in the sense that there was a definite discomfort in uncovering ANY part of their anatomy. As an intuitive person and a professional, I addressed their issue immediately to prevent any blurred communication or innuendo. In one case, a young woman kept tucking her hands under her pelvis, which made accessing her arms impossible without having to reach underneath her into the groin region. Without hesitation, I gently told her what I wanted to do and asked if the position she put her hands in was a matter of comfort or otherwise. She sighed deeply and apologized, admitting that she was molested as a child and this face down position was bringing back memories. We decided together to do the massage face up and I let her know that any feeling she experienced was safe and okay in this context. I draped her very securely, folding the sheet into origami like patterns to ensure she felt covered at all times. By the end of the massage, she was almost asleep, which demonstrated to me how trust had been established. Imagine though that I proceeded massaging her without saying anything at all. With such a damaged relationship with touch, can you imagine what this poor young woman might have misconstrued as sexual? I believe this is the reason why many straight male therapists get into trouble with female clients. They are doing their “routine” without picking up on the body language that would let them know the client is not okay.
I have also had a client with hyperthyroidism, who begged me to un-drape him as much as possible due to his elevated body temperature. Even with a hand towel covering his pelvic region, he was still profusely sweating. The thing is, he never wrote this on his intake form. When I led him to the room he immediately blurted that he didn’t like to be covered with anything. Usually, this sets off my pervert flags. After explaining that certain regions of the body need to be covered per the LAW and the facility’s policy, he insisted that covering him up would make him sick. I had to pry it out of him, but he finally told me his condition and we proceeded in the manner I described above. Without this communication, I could have easily felt violated and threatened by this client’s desire to over expose himself.
Ultimately, we all have a baseline of how much or how little we are comfortable uncovering. However, as a licensed professional in an industry that is often joked about or targeted in a sexual manner, it is up to me to bridge the gap between what state of undress puts them at ease and what keeps me licensed and gainfully employed.
**A funny addendum here: Many male clients think they are being helpful when they spread their legs to allow for us therapists to tuck the sheet down properly for draping; however, what they don’t realize is they inevitably flash us their testicles. Every single time. Without fail. Dear future male client: Please just lay there as un-helpful as possible and leave the tucking to the professionals.