November 11, 2011

Why We Don't Tell You How Much to Undress

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.


  1. 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.

    <3 <3 <3

    What a wonderful way to put that.

  2. this is a brilliant essay, dale. so important for people to know.

  3. Well writ, and I agree w rbarenblat.

  4. Great essay! I find some of the confusion may be due to different therapist policies regarding undressing. One of my clients told me his previous therapist had a rule that men must wear running shorts during a massage in her office. That's not my policy. Like you, I really don't care what they wear as long as we maintain mutual respect.

  5. Thanks, & welcome, Jenna and George Ann!

  6. The only thing I insist on is that they "remove your belt and anything sharp that might poke a hole in my massage table". They understand that damaging the table is not in the cards.

    Like you, I've been doing this long enough that nothing will get accidentally uncovered, but I've also been doing it long enough to know how to work around clothing.

    "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." It keeps me on my toes and I like that.

  7. Thank you for this article - it made me rethink the way I worded that issue on my website and I think I can do much better. Clients should never feel pressured in one way or another and I think I was sending some subconscious pressure. Eek.

  8. They never taught us in school that we couldn't tell them how much to undress. And all these years I've been telling people that most get into their underwear. Why is it that you feel you can't tell them that? I understand that some people are nervous about it, but I think being vague may make a person more nervous.

  9. Many people think that if you say "most people do X," people will feel they have to do X whether they want to or not. The trade-off, of course, is that the vagueness may make people more unhappy than the pressure to "do what most people do." I still don't feel I have an elegant solution. If you have a comfortable process, I wouldn't change it!

  10. You say this so well!

    I prefer to be naked when I'm being massaged because it feels more comfortable. I'm actually surprised to hear that that many folks leave underwear on. I guess so long as it's comfortable underwear: I don't think an underwire bra, for instance, would be that comfortable if I were lying facedown on a massage table.

  11. Jo(e), that's how I feel as well. And even more, undressing is part of "the ritual of vulnerability" -- possibly the main, real reason for it, in Western massage!-- also possibly the reason for reservations. In any case, I want to honor it, and work with the boundaries as the client sets them.

  12. I think you did a great job with this post! Keep up the good work. You sound completely non-judgmental and compassionate for all beings - two lovely qualities to have as a massage therapist (if only more could be like you)! Thanks again...

    (and maybe next you can write one about women not having to worry about shaving their legs!)

  13. Thanks Allison. Gah, so many things people can worry about!

  14. Hi Dale, What a great article. I to have been practicing for many years and find that when I explain the differences between techniques I can perform with different layers of clothing and draping, my clients appreciate being able to make an informed decision for themselves. I feel it is crucial to spend as much time needed for the intake interview so clients know what to expect and feel in control of the type of massage they receive. Thanks for starting such a great discussion.

  15. Thanks, Gina! Yes, you're right: I think in general people allocate far too little time to the intake interview.

  16. I always preferred to be naked for a massage, so they could get to all the muscles without hindrance. One less distraction for me. Now, since shiatsu seems to work better for the damage I have, I do soft knit shirt and sweats. This seems easier - now that the draping and tucking is more noticeable and self conscious among the more recently trained therapists. I don't care about anyone seeing or touching my body, but I am aware of some therapist's discomfort, or them worrying about my possible discomfort, or me worrying about them worrying about me worrying... until it becomes a weird catch 22.

    In surgery, we don't mock underwear left on, unless you are 350 lbs, and it's a dirty, lime-green thong. Anything less weird than that, and it's unremarkable.

  17. I. Love. This. Post. You nailed it right on the head. For us, it isn't about anything other than the ease of the treatment, and if that means that the priority is the clients ease, then so be it. I've taught clinic in massage schools, and can tell you that it is one of the most awkward things for students to get over, but once they do (and once I did) they find a way of communicating that works for them, and the uncertainty leaves. Right now I am working with a new (and awesome) business called, Massamio. I'm working on writing (for the client FAQ page) an answer to the question, "Do I have to take off all my clothes for a massage?" and somewhere in my answer, I will refer them to this post, if you don't mind. You give great, and balanced insight into an unnecessary, but really typical stressor for clients. Thank you!!!

  18. Bruce Maslin, LMBT 3280 North CarolinaJuly 3, 2013 at 6:12 AM

    As a male Massage Therapist with over 12 years experience I have always told my client's to undress to their level of comfort just as you stated, and I have them go from fully clothes (usually my senior clients) to completely nude. When they ask me what to take off I tell them that it does not matter to me, that they will be under the sheet and that the only area that is exposed is the area that I am working on and that the drape will be secure.
    One of my opening comments is "If at any time you are uncomfortable with the drape, touch, the pressure, the volume of the music or feel discomfort tell me immediately. If I don't know that you are uncomfortable I can't correct it. (this is also on my Consent & Medical History form that each client must fill out and sign." "Your privacy is the highest priority that I have when massaging you!"
    I have had studio's in a large city and after retiring from the business for a year I have re entered the practice working with an excellent Chiropractor. I only wanted to work about 9 hours per week on Mon. Wed. & Fri. but, the demand has been so high that I have had to start working 5 days per week again.
    I love what I do and what I can do for my client's physical & mental well being.
    I did enjoy you comments and agree with your thinking.

  19. Thanks for your post!

    Every time I have had a massage, the therapists have always told me to remove my clothes except for my underwear. My impression was that that was because of the therapists' comfort level.

  20. I've had massages from four therapists, one of them numerous times, and they all said more or less the same thing (although perhaps not quite as eloquently) - undress as much or as little as you like. I personally prefer to keep a pair of gym shorts on, and as you might imagine, they've all been completely fine with that.

    The one guy I went back to several times had quite a trick - he'd lower the temperature of the room by a good 10-15 degrees, with A/C in the summer or by just turning down the heat in the winter, and had a huge body-length heating pad already turned on under the sheet on the table. You'd get undressed, to greater or lesser extent, and DAMN it's cold in here... and then you'd get on that nice warm table, and just melt into it. Heaven. He'd turn up the room thermostat when he came back in, gradually bringing it back up to normal temp during the massage.

  21. I have NEVER had a massage. I thought I was icky about strangers touching me, and worried, as you have rightly pointed out in many of your posts, about what the masseur/se would think of my cellulite, stretch marks and paunch. But I spent all morning at your blog, and as I type this comment, I realize how tense my body is and how much I could do with a massage. From you.
    Sadly, I live a few continents away. If ever destiny brings me to the Portland area (or you to my end of the world), you will have an Indian woman's frayed nerves on your hands.

  22. I recently had a massage therapist who instructed me to remove all my clothing. This is fairly unusual in my country (massage therapists generally suggest you take off everything but your underwear). I'd just read this blog post a couple of days before this happened, and so I had warning bells immediately. But I've had massages completely nude before, and I felt comfortable with stripping off even though I would have preferred her to ask.

    She didn't do an interview with me before beginning the massage, or even ask if I had injuries she needed to be careful of. These are all big no-nos for me, but I figured since she was already at my house (it was an in-home massage) I may as well have this one massage and then never book her again.

    What a mistake that was! During the massage, I didn't feel she kept my private parts properly covered (they did have a sheet over them, but I felt they were 'peeking' a little). Then, when I was on my back, she whipped down the sheet without asking and exposed my breasts, and began massaging my chest muscles. I didn't say anything to her at the time because I was too taken aback. In the past, I've always had massage therapists ask me before touching my chest area; I've never had one expose me before!

    My experience and your post have taught me just how important it is to make sure the therapist has good communication and respects the bodily autonomy of the client BEFORE they come to my house or I go to their clinic. I'm also planning on writing to her and let her know how upsetting it was and suggest she ask clients for permission in future.

    I was wondering how you would handle a situation like this if it happened to you? Do I need to have a discussion about asking permission before I start the massage?

    1. Oh, I'm so sorry you had this bad experience! I guess I'd handle it in the moment on the table by saying, "whoa, I'm not feeling securely covered up!" The sooner you make your discomfort known the better. It would be really weird here in the U.S. -- very unusual -- to have someone just uncover your breasts without asking. Actually illegal in some states. I would NEVER do that. There are people -- I'm actually one of them -- who don't care at all about being covered up, but we're a small minority. No therapist should assume it. And yes, not asking about injuries or place you don't want worked, that's a red flag too.

      It doesn't really sound like this therapist intended to violate boundaries -- just like she didn't recognize them. You'll be doing her a big favor to let her know. (Whether she'll accept that graciously well, who knows? But still, she ought to know.)

    2. (Without knowing where you are, I don't know whether you'd need to have a conversation about permission before you start. Here in Oregon in the U.S. you can really just assume that you're going to be securely covered up, breasts, genitals, and gluteal cleft. There are places where that's not true.)

  23. Hey I don't live in Portland but I think that you're a swell guy and I would love a massage if I'm ever up in those parts.

  24. In my country, the standard for Swedish/medical massage is to disrobe down to underwear/panties. It never occurred to me that there is anything wrong with requesting a person to disrobe down to that level.
    Is this a legal constraint in the US, standard practice, or left to the practitioner's discretion?