It’s a matter of choice

Male or female?

When given the choice between a male or female therapist, which would you prefer? There are definitely many factors that play a role in this decision, including your gender, sexual orientation, religious and/or cultural mores and presumed stereotypes to name a few. Although ideally it should be an equal opportunity booking system, ultimately you want to book with someone you feel comfortable with. More often than not, the therapist that fits that bill ends up being female.

While still in school, I remember becoming very anxious about my ability to find work upon graduation. I consulted with one of my teachers, who happened to be male. I was hoping he could advise me on where it would be best to apply and what potential employers were looking for in a “rookie” therapist. Keep in mind that this teacher had a successful private practice, had been a lead therapist/supervisor at a very popular gym/spa chain and super active member of various professional groups related to massage in addition to his position as a core member of the faculty. Despite all this experience, he told me that it had been very difficult for him to obtain clients. He had to work twice as hard as the female therapists to strum up business and eventually reach the level of success he had. His skills and expertise were not the deciding factor; it was his gender that put him at a disadvantage.

Think about the power differential. The client laying on the table is in the most vulnerable state. You are unclothed and in a submissive position. You trust that the therapist towering over you has the education and skills to address your needs properly and respectfully. You hope that they don’t judge you or your body in any way. You pray their touch is firm, focused and has a flow. You want them to put you at ease from the start, so that you can mentally check out and really enjoy the benefits of the work. Regardless of gender, a true professional will be able to provide all of the above to the client, but without a doubt women win out for their perceived nurturing nature, transcending the role of “mommy” on the massage table. A recent article in Psychology Today outlines the gender gap when it comes to caretakers. Society expects women to be the natural choice due to their biology, while men are hardwired to be natural “fixers” and protectors. You might think these qualities would bode well for the male therapist, but not when it comes to massage.

Minus the watch, this is a perfectly normal image of a male therapist working the lumbar region of the back of a male client.

Then there is the tricky area of sexuality. As long as there are “happy ending” jokes circulating and brothels posing as massage parlors, the massage profession will always have to prove its legitimacy. That said, heterosexual men, whether single or married, can feel extreme trepidation at booking with a male therapist because of what other people may assume about their sexuality. Also, since the parasympathetic nervous system is stimulated during massage, an erection could occur and the thoughts of this happening with a male therapist brings on much anxiety. On the other side of the coin, heterosexual women, whether single or married, can feel hesitant to book with a male because of the possibility of an attraction related to their touch or the judgment of their body in a sexual manner. I recall one of my clients telling me she didn’t care if she had shaved her legs or had cellulite dimpling on her thighs with me because “we have the same parts” but if she had gotten a male therapist she would have felt embarrassed. Throw into this mix the complicated and often skewed ways touch could be perceived after a trauma or abuse and again, the female therapist is the “safer” choice.

You may wonder then, how male therapists are ever able to get clients and be successful in this career. There are some stereotypes that work in their favor. With respect to strength, males are definitely viewed as the stronger sex and more capable of delivering deeper work. Even more so if the work is sports specific, as most massage therapists affiliated or employed by sports teams tend to be male. It took many years for Kelly Calabrese to push through these stereotypes and become the first female massage therapist employed by a Major League Baseball Team. All that aside, education and über professional conduct will prove to be the most powerful tools in bridging the gender gap. The more informed the client is about massage and its benefits, about the background of the therapist and their skills through testimonials and reviews, the more likely they will be able to make an informed decision when given the choice of male or female.

Advertisements

Spa Confidential: An Opinion Editorial on the Wellness Underbelly

Back in 2000, chef Anthony Bourdain released his best seller “Kitchen Confidential: Adventures In The Culinary Underbelly” a part auto-biography, part behind the scenes look at restaurant kitchens. For many, his cautionary tales, anecdotes and commentary changed the way people viewed the restaurant industry.  Inspired by some recent “unrest” amongst spa staff where I work, this post is a peek into the urban day spa. Nestled in the bowels of a cacophonous city, the spa should function as a mecca of relaxation for the guest. Leave your troubles at the door and enter a sanctuary of bliss for the next hour and change depending on what treatment you have booked. However, if you are an observant type (and I so am THAT person) you may be able to detect an undercurrent of negative, frenetic energy emanating from the staff servicing your decompression.

You may also wonder why, in a feel good business such as the spa industry, would anyone be in a negative way? Part of what makes me look forward to going to work is that 99.9% of my clients leave with a smile on their face and compliments falling out of their mouths. What other “service” profession is that gratifying?  Whatever the state they arrive in be it imbalance, stress, or sometimes pain, they leave in a better place than they arrived.  That makes me feel like my therapeutic duties have been satisfied. After all, I went back to school to become a massage therapist in order to help people. Being able to make a decent living is a secondary bonus. It sometimes makes me wonder where a colleague’s priorities are with respect to this profession when I sense their disdain at having to work. More often than not it is the feeling that their employers do not have their best interests in mind that overtakes their therapeutic mood, tainting them for their clients and all other people in their path. A recent corporate decision had many staff members airing their fears and complaints via online forum. Some of the things I read made absolute sense, but others were unbelievable laments of the ills dealt to them. Here is the thing – if I was that miserable and downtrodden at work, I wouldn’t stand for it. I would be on a fiendish search for a new home for my skills. Yes, the economy is not the greatest, but it is possible to find a number of part time gigs to supplement what you need to live, financially speaking. You can also grow your private clientele, especially if you have been at this profession for a number of years. I am almost two years in and I have 4 steady clients I see privately in addition to my spa work. If I can do it, what’s stopping them? Is almighty FEAR rearing its head or is it the stubbornness of the old school mentality of working the same single job for 20-30 years with the belief that your pension will support you once you retire. Massage therapy doesn’t have that kind of longevity, but I digress.

I don’t pretend to know everything, although it would be pretty awesome if I did. I just feel passionate about my profession and wish that more of my colleagues shared that sentiment. It’s unfair to both ourselves and our clients to allow policy changes and corporate memos to affect how we feel about the work and quality of service. It’s frustrating to have just a few minutes between appointments to walk your client back to reality, clean the room, change the sheets, wash your hands, and run to the next appointment without looking or acting harried. It’s frustrating to ask spa attendants for supplies you desperately need for your treatments, only to have them shrug and say they don’t know where anything is even though they have been working there longer than I have been licensed. It’s frustrating to have commissions you have worked hard for get slashed twice in a year, with no incentive on the horizon to reward your hard work. And finally, it’s frustrating that computer glitches and “prioritized” booking causes appointments to be unevenly distributed. How we anticipate these frustrations and how well we support each other as a team will make all the difference. I arrive early, I give the best possible service experience to my clients under the conditions I have to work with, I smile and say “YAY” when I greet them (not always, but when merited like “YAY, this is your first massage ever” or “YAY, you found a babysitter so we can give you the TLC you deserve, etc.), I squirrel away the supplies I need in bulk and give myself internal pep talks about the universe taking care of all. It’s been working for me so far, but as soon as it gets to the point where my clients become aware of my frustrations, I will need to reassess. Maybe the urban day spa may not be the right place for my work in the long run; however, no matter what space I work within, I am always myself – a licensed health care professional with your well being in mind.