You sound your client out, of course. “Have you had much massage?” And you hope the answer is yes, because you really don't want to have the Talk. If they're an experienced receiver of massage, you can just rattle off the old formula. “Undress to your level of comfort, and get under the covers here,” – at this point you demonstrate, sliding a hand between the sheets: you wouldn't think people could get this part wrong, but they do – “and I'll be back in after I've washed up. I'll knock.”
But if they're new to this, or new to massage in America, or if they seem particularly hesitant or uncertain – well, you're going to have to have the Talk. You're going to have to tell them how much to undress. And the trouble is, you can't do that.
The instructors in massage school make this clear, and they're quite right. You tell your clients they should undress as much as they want. You don't specify. You don't helpfully say, “most people undress all the way, but some people keep on their shorts or undies: it's all the same to me.” That would be tendentious. It would make them feel they should undress that much. So I say, as neutrally as I possibly can, “undress as much as you like, and get under the sheets here. I'll keep you covered up: I'll just uncover the areas I'm working on.” I could go on to say, “I'll keep your breasts and genitals and gluteal cleft covered, no matter what.” But it is a bit awkward, discussing genitals and gluteal clefts with someone you've just met. I could say “I'll keep your private bits covered,” but nobody really knows in this day and age, just what bits those are. Sometimes I skip that. I go on to say, “Bra straps and some waistbands – jeans waistbands, for instance – take some working around, but I can work around anything. The important thing is that you feel comfortable.” But I don't really like saying that either: it sort of implies that people should keep some clothes on.
And I know that I'm not actually telling clients what they want to know. What they want to know is: how much am I supposed to undress? And that's just what I can't tell them.
But here on my blog, I can tell you. The answer is: nobody cares. Really. All other things being equal, I suppose I'd rather have a client buck naked: it's a bit simpler. After years of doing massage, the chances that I'll uncover anything by accident are zero. I know what I'm doing. I like to be able to glide on the skin, to “tie in” all the parts of the body, as we say. But if you have your underwear on, I just leave the sheet on and glide over it, to get – for instance – from the thighs to the lower back. The only things that really present difficulty are thick waistbands – they get in your way, right where you want to get into the lumbar paraspinals and the QL – or bra straps that run horizontally across the back: they run right over that all-important lower trapezius.
But you know what? I work with that. I enjoy the challenge. I am much happier working with that than I would be working with a naked back, and knowing that you had undressed more than you wanted to. You're not dressing for me. You're dressing for yourself, and you should dress however you damn well please.
I can tell you what my clients commonly do. About half of them undress completely, and about half leave on shorts or panties. But there's lots of exceptions. I have a regular client who always wears sweat pants, and one who never undresses at all. What does that tell me about them?
Nothing. Nothing at all. I don't think about it. I don't speculate about it. It doesn't mean a thing. We all live in a larger society that's so hyper-aware of undressing, and so intensely attuned to its meaning, that it may be difficult to believe this. But we massage therapists belong to a subculture in which undressing means nothing at all. We spent years in school, working on each other, throwing our clothes off and on at the drop of a hat. Underwear isn't an intimate frontier, to us: its a bit of cloth that alters the sort of massage strokes we're going to do.
But we know that undressing can be terribly fraught for our clients. We care about that. We want people to feel as safe as they possibly can. I've been in this business for years, and I've never heard a therapist say a negative word about how much a client undressed. People are afraid, I think, that there's some secret code: that leaving their undies on or taking them off sends some sort of signal, and they're anxious not to send the wrong one. And I just want to say, as emphatically as possible: there is no secret code. There is no signal. Your therapists don't gather in the breakroom to discuss your underwear. They don't remember whether their last clients wore their skivvies or not. The answer, realio-trulio is: nobody cares.