Written by Deb Malkin
In massage school, I created a survey asking folks with larger bodies about their experiences with massages. The responses included a few awful stories and many, many more about folks being surprised and delighted by their non-judgmental and healing experiences—but one thing jumped out at me. 100% of the people who answered that they’ve never tried a massage said their main concern was being judged by the massage therapist.
I get it. I really do. I know what it feels like to opt out of activities for fear of being judged. We face very real weight-based stigma in all kinds of settings, but, in particular, in medical settings. It can make you feel incredibly vulnerable to get on a massage table, not knowing how you’ll be received. I believe that whenever I massage a fat person, an angel gets their wings. There’s something incredibly special about giving a fat person their first-ever professional massage.
Here’s my advice on how to make sure you have the best massage experience ever.
1. Find the right massage therapist for you.
You might be surprised by which of your friends have a great bodyworker. Not everyone is a public sharer about the fat-friendly resources they may have, so ask around. Reach out to a trusted plus-size friend or post to a local plus-size/body-positive group on Facebook for a referral. (I have a number of clients who found me through Bay Area Queer Exchange on Facebook.) Also, just try googling “body-positive massage therapist”—you might find someone perfect right off the bat. Looking on Yelp can also be a great way to get an idea about a local bodyworker and the experiences that their clients might be having. You’ll get a sense of how compassionate and connected they are with their clients. Both the best reviews and the worst get posted.
2. Ask the therapist all the questions you want.
You can email or phone them directly and ask if they have higher weight clients and how they feel about working on a person of size, or whatever language you’re comfortable using. Ask them questions about the weight rating of their massage table and the width. Most tables have a working weight rating of at least 450 lbs. I regularly work with clients who weigh in the 300-400 lb range, so I bought a higher weight-rated table (550 lbs working weight) with a wider width (31”) to be sure I could accommodate everyone safely and more comfortably.
Pro tip for massage therapists: Set the table lower when working on bigger folks.
3. Pick the type of massage that works for your needs.
There are a million styles of bodywork, from Swedish to Craniosacral to Deep Tissue to Tui Na to Shiatsu. Some modalities are clothed, and some require nudity. As a fat person, I like to be supported by the table and don’t personally care for work in which my limbs are being lifted and moved around a lot by the practitioner (I’m not a fan of Thai massage for that reason). I find that having more fat can mean that very deep pressure can feel too intense in some parts of the body, so I practice “Deep Swedish” style, blending relaxing Swedish massage, using long sweeping strokes, with targeted therapeutic deep tissue work on specific areas like shoulders or hips. There are massage therapists who specialize in working with different issues like fibromyalgia, chronic pain, edema (using lymphatic massage), or have scent-free practices for clients with Multiple Chemical Sensitivity. There can be a big difference between someone working on athletes, or massaging in a spa, or someone who serves people managing chronic illnesses. Massage is not only a luxury item or reserved for birthday treats—for many people, it’s an essential part of their well-being.
4. Feel free to leave your underwear on.
I tell my clients that they can undress to their level of comfort, leaving their underwear on or taking it off. That said, the only parts of your body being worked on will be the ones undraped. The rest of you will be covered by a sheet or blanket. I’ve had clients choose to leave on more clothing, but with Swedish massage or any modality that uses lotion, it can limit the work that can be done. Any experienced massage therapist should be able to get creative and work with you and your comfort level in being undressed. Please be clean, but don’t worry about shaving or not shaving, about cellulite, or not having a pedicure. We don’t care. We have seen it all, and your body is not the only fat, wrinkled, dimply, spotty (or whatever) body we’ve touched. We touch hundreds, if not thousands, of bodies, and they all hold a wonderful soul and spirit. They deserve to feel good and be treated with reverence and respect. If it’s your first time getting a massage, please let the therapist know. I will often give a brief overview of what will happen during the session so my clients can relax and not wonder what’s next.
5. Be vocal about what you like and don’t like.
You can always give feedback during a session. Sometimes the therapist will check in and ask if you like the pressure, but at any point in the session, you can ask for more or less. This is your time and you deserve to have an awesome experience. Especially if you’re a new client, the therapist will rely on you to speak up. No one will be offended. I always invite my clients to let me know if something feels uncomfortable—then I will make an adjustment and say thank you when I receive that feedback. But we are not mind readers, and certainly are never intending to cause pain. Each client is unique. There can be a therapeutic benefit to hanging out with a strong sensation, but bearing something intolerable is counter-productive for the massage.
Pro tip: I find larger bodies need more lotion or oil to avoid the feeling of the skin being pulled around too much for comfort.
6. Do and ask for what makes you comfortable.
I have a few tools I use to help my clients feel comfortable on a massage table. I have a 2” layer of foam on top that is nice and cushiony. For my clients with a chest larger than a B cup, I will use a boob holder called a Nirvana Mate which creates extra space for the breasts—it’s dreamy. If you have back pain when lying on your back, ask the therapist if they have a larger bolster to go underneath your knees—that changes the angle of your pelvis. And tuck those arms! Sometimes it’s hard to know where to put them, especially if you and the table are the same widths. Tucking your arms under your butt or belly is the best way to stay relaxed and not spend your entire hour holding them tensely by your side.
Finally, remember this: If your massage is not amazing, it doesn’t mean anything is wrong with you. They might not be your person. Massage is definitely an art. Developing a relationship also takes time—the more you work with someone, the better they know your body and how to serve you best. A good massage therapist will honor you and where you’re at, without judgment and with kindness. Massage can be wonderfully healing for the body and the mind. I tell my clients they’re all self-care superstars for investing in themselves!
Queer, Fat, Femme Bodyworker Based in California
We’ll be sharing self-care tips all month long, so keep an eye on the “Live” category for the latest! Looking to treat yourself even more? Order a Dia Box by tomorrow and you’ll be entered to win a prize from our self-care suite!
Photos by Lila Faith/Courtesy of Deb Malkin