Honoring the Body

Maintaining Wonder in Your Work

By Lee Ronald

Most clients are apprehensive of their bodies being scrutinized (however qualified or professional the practitioner). Will the massage therapist judge me? Will the massage therapist be kind? The tendency is to disrobe tentatively, maybe wishing the room were darker, that we weighed less, wobbled less, looked more athletic, and had said no to that last pastry.

The Body Ideal

As massage therapists, we touch people’s bodies, but how do we actually connect with them? How does our own baggage about bodies, infected by 21st century notions of the ideal body impact the relationships we create with the bodies of our clients? Do we distance ourselves from the lovely, fleshy materiality of the bodies we encounter and instead perform massage solely as a technical art? Do we connect to the corporeal through a sense of the miraculous, even admitting to a sense of awe? And, if we bring even a semblance of awe into the way we greet each body, can our massage practice be transformed positively?

When I began training as a massage therapist, I was 40 years old and aware that my own body had experienced a long history, not merely of colds, flu, childhood ailments, and intestinal gripes, but also a lineage of emotional upheavals. I felt things acutely in my body. I recognized myself as a high somatiser with a startle reflex that could win an Olympic medal. Therefore, when I was confronted by my first bodies for massage practice, I did so from an awareness that these were both bags of skin and profound receptacles of a lifetime of being human. But, at the same time, I had never been confronted by the sheer diversity of bodily form as was presented to me during my massage training. Instead of the airbrushed acceptability of newsworthy bodies or the inviting flesh of a lover compromised by intimacy, I saw thin bodies, thick bodies, scarred bodies, bodies that hardly fit on the massage table. Bodies: hearty, dense, wobbly, twitchy, soft, warm, plucked, cool, fleshy, bony, aching, muscular, bruised, pale. I was initially nonplussed, quickly intrigued, and eventually moved by the individuality of bodies that each of us, at some level, call home. I realized that while we may hold our joy and pain differently, each body is a map of a life lived well, diffidently, or in distress.

A Holistic View

My course in anatomy and physiology combined with hours of massage practice was taught with a focus on mechanics and technique. We were taught to recognize a patella before being instructed in posture. We were sent home to learn the skeleton by rote, stimulated by the prospect of a test the following week. We practiced our effleurage techniques on friends and family and developed our own style of petrissage.

On one level, my training was excellent, providing a basis from which I could operate with a high level of competence; my therapeutic decisions backed by an understanding of the suitability of various massage movements and their effect on a variety of states. But in retrospect, I wonder about the almost exclusive focus on massage as a physical therapy, disinterred from the wider world; that is, both cultural and emotional. Bodies were presented to us as day-to-day objects like kettles or cars: they had a purpose, they got on with their purpose, and when they were struggling, we would help restore them. We were their mechanics. There was scant thought given to a wider vista of holism in relation to the amazing qualities of anatomy or the denigration of bodily form through prevailing ideologies. Neither did we share our emotions about what we were feeling when greeted with the multi-textured array of forms. Instead, we were encouraged to behave with an air of interested neutrality. In retrospect, I see how, as learners, we were positioned like James Joyce’s character, Mr. Duffy, at a short distance from our  bodies. We were training to work with bodies, but we were encouraged to be detached from them in many ways, removed from their extraordinary capacities, positioned as objective scientists rather than subjective poets.

This forces me to ask how our presumptions of what bodies are and how we may best consider them (as biological specimens to be pummeled or caressed, or as works of art, however sentimental that may sound) are shaped and maintained from the very outset of our massage training. In the classroom and later in the massage room, it is too easy for bodies to become decontextualized. In such an environment, we become robots relating to robots, where any sense of awe can be detonated.

Since becoming qualified in massage therapy,  I have read about the lack of respect given to bodies that are labelled less-than-perfect by newly qualified and sometimes very young massage therapists. Such examples confuse and dishearten me. My own experience is that massage therapy allows practitioners to experience the truth of bodies, without the distortions promoted by our culture. When such a diverse array of bodies lie before you, shaped by all manner of life experiences—from sloth to addiction, from childbirth to grief—we are presented with messages that are more commonly hidden from our daily knowing. I like being privy to their secrets. I acknowledge that the lumps and bumps and few extra pounds give credence to their (and my) humanity. Indeed, that we, as massage therapists, are able to enter into a dialogue with the inherent beauty of bodies each day, is surely a perk of our calling. Within a climate that contains such twisted responses to the body, I consider this an opportunity to be treasured.

Rewriting Standards

Earlier, I asked, how our own baggage about bodies, infected by 21st century notions of the visceral, may impact our relationships with the bodies of our clients.

At this point in Western history, I suggest that bodies manifest as either the perfect, honed, and often surgically enhanced body of celebrities and the very young (where any perfection is soon lost) or the imperfect, polluted body of everyone else. At the fringes, exists the old body, the neglected body, removed as far as possible from the wealthy, nubile materiality we so often desire. There are healthy responses to the corporeal (receiving a massage may be one of them), but I maintain that these extremes are the pivots on which contemporary bodies spin and which are likely to inform our attitudes in the massage room. Here, the perfection of bodies (and this is the gross distortion) is not based on their extraordinary ability to perform—the constant pumping of blood, the ceaselessly beating heart, the digestion of enzymes, regulation of temperature—but on their age, weight (less is better), and definition within the arena of cultural attractiveness. But, I argue, that if bodies are disfigured by the relentless passing of the years, the use of food as sedative, the Caesarean scar, then they are thus also disfigured by their humanity. As massage therapists, I wonder if our exposure to so many kinds of bodies is an opportunity for us to rewrite cultural standards about bodies, approaching them with reverence rather than judgement.

But what are the possibilities for relating reverentially to bodies that massage therapy actually gives us? Are we more commonly removed from the bodies we treat? Are we ultimately a little embarrassed by lines, scars, and cellulite? Do we use judgement as a coping mechanism when presented with bodies? Are we gentle, treating each body as if it were our own child’s body? Are we intuitive, guided by the rhythm of each contour, heartbeat, breath, and tuning in to the vocabulary that stretches between form and feeling?

I remember my first massage with an obese client, when I was a student. Her body was a mass of textures and shapes and quite unfamiliar to me. I was concerned that I would be too gentle because I couldn’t detect any muscle tone. I felt ineffectual: maybe she’d fall off the table. I felt like a new mother with a tiny baby, unaware of the limits of its body and my ability to confidently connect with it. But as time passed (and the client returned) I gained an increasing connection, not just to the materiality of her fleshiness, which was far more responsive than I had presumed, but to its holiness. This had (and has) nothing to do with God, but everything to do with the pulsating universe of her body, a body reviled by society, but which lay under my hands and which could be revered and venerated by the respect of my touch.

Accepting our clients’ bodies as material dimensions of a wider, more holistic matrix may come some way to reinstating the reverence to bodies which is their due. Although a massage that relieves the muscular tension of a client may prove of benefit, our ability as therapists to weave the problems of muscular tension with the profundity of the bodies we treat will surely produce a more nourishing and empathetic experience, both for ourselves and our client.


When the light filters through the drapes and I lean down to massage more oil onto my client’s arm, hand, foot, back, I connect skin to skin, listening to the murmurings of these bodies with a sense of reverence that they are here at all: skin bags of blood and water, corporeal beings full of hopes and dreams. It is a wise person who understands that while in goes Coca-Cola and cabbage leaves, out comes love, hope, fear, grief, and joy. Such an understanding illustrates the profound capacity of our bodies, all bodies. The day-to-day experience of giving a massage, its familiarity, may dull our sensitivities to its poignancy, presenting it as a mere routine of flesh. But we need to jolt ourselves regularly, bring ourselves into balance as we remember again and again, the extraordinariness of form. We must foreground, repeatedly, the sacredness of bodies.


Lee Ronald is a holistic massage therapist and writer. She has a bachelor’s degree in English studies from Oxford Brookes University, a master’s in gender studies from the University of Leeds, and a doctorate in women’s studies from the University of York. She practices massage at Miller’s Yard, Center for Positive Living, in York, United Kingdom. Contact her through www.millersyard.co.uk.