By Darren Buford
Originally published in Body Sense magazine, Autumn/Winter 2004.
Men and women have enjoyed the relaxing qualities and healthful benefits of bodywork for thousands of years and in a variety of cultures around the world. Unfortunately, unhealthy stereotypes have kept many American men away from the massage table.
“Men are not as used to nurturing themselves and taking care of themselves as women are,” says Thomas Claire, massage therapist and author of Bodywork: What Type of Massage to Get — And How to Make the Most of It and Yoga for Men. “This is not so much an apprehension as a culturally inbred value that many men subconsciously accept.”
Claire suggests that coupled with this anxiety is a societal perception that men are supposed to be tough and hard, not needing outside support — a fear that their masculinity may in some way be attacked or jeopardized. “In the case of bodywork, they may fear being touched, especially by a male bodyworker,” he says. “They may fear that sexual feelings might come up during a session, whether with a male or female therapist. In terms of skin care treatments, many men feel that they would be considered effeminate if they were to pursue them.”
Experiencing emotions somewhere between anticipation and trepidation is common for male massage rookies. Though today’s man is more curious than ever before about receiving bodywork services (the International Spa Association reports that 29 percent of all spa clients are male), there is still a level of anxiety when it comes to scheduling that first appointment. Many men’s fears may be assuaged by seeking out bodywork services through a location they comfortably frequent, such as a gym.
“Most gyms have massage available these days,” says Steve Capellini, massage therapist and author of Massage for Dummies. “To combine it with a ‘productive activity’ like exercise makes it easier for some men to get started.”
Many men’s anticipations are further abated when they actively contribute to the therapeutic process — through dialogue, muscle testing, resisted stretching, and strengthening. In fact, many men are attracted to bodywork that emphasizes the rehabilitative aspects of massage — for relief of pain, sports injuries, and muscular problems.
Lest we forget, men may also seek out massage as an antidote to today’s high-stress lifestyle. “So many demands — time pressures, work stress, emotional stress, information overload — are being placed on everyone today,” Claire says. “One of massage’s time-tested benefits is its ability to help reduce stress and so help restore and renew today’s man.”
While massage still remains the most popular service requested by men at spas and with independent practitioners, it’s becoming increasingly popular for men to also receive skin care services. “Men particularly enjoy facial services,” says James Whittall, president of MenEssentials.com. “This is because most men have very oily skin or skin that is complicated with blackheads, acne blemishes, or post-shaving related ailments.”
Whittall says men’s skin is 20 percent thicker than women’s. “We’re hairier, our pores are larger, and we produce more oil. For some reason, too many spas consider that to be the perfect reason to slop women’s skin care products onto a man’s hide. Women’s skin care is designed for thinner, drier skin. It therefore has more oil and, typically, fragrance — which guys hate. In general, men require something a little less greasy, a lot less smelly, and much more oriented to the specifics of a man’s tougher exterior.”
Claire believes there has been a shift in the male psyche toward receiving massages and skin care work. “Perhaps in part due to popular television shows, but also because of a greater societal acceptance of the fact that it’s OK for a man to take care of himself,” he says. “Companies are developing to serve a man’s needs for bodywork and esthetic work. There are plenty of homegrown spas that are also emerging to tailor to the needs of a male clientele, especially in urban areas. The emergence of the metrosexual has seen the development of a heterosexual male clientele who spends just as much money on skin and beauty products — not to mention the time in applying them — as women.”
Whittall adds, “These are everyday guys who have heard about this new men’s movement and want to explore it for themselves. In a way, this really is the beginning of a men’s social revolution. Guys are starting to give themselves permission to break away from the old stereotypes and discover new ways of expressing their sense of self.”
Soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan have contacted Whittall through his company’s website, saying they are concerned about the effects of desert conditions on their skin. “When I read these letters,” he says, “I know this is more than just a fad. This is a new way of thinking.”