Massage Therapy for the Insecure

How I learned it was okay to treat myself.

As a birthday gift, my mother booked me a "60-Minute Stress-Relief Massage" at a local la-di-da spa on a Saturday morning. "I know you'd never book it yourself," she said, when I asked why she'd gone through the trouble. It's true. I rarely do voluntary things that require being touched by strangers. Getting myself to my regular medical appointments is even a struggle, so the concept of getting a massage was nothing short of terrifying. To most people, this would seem like such a treat. But I saw myself exposed, alone, and whimpering.

The day of the massage, I did my best to mentally prepare. The receptionist announced, "You'll be seeing Dave in a few minutes." My heart sank. Dave? As in, short for David? As in, a guy? Maybe she said Dava, or Danielle, or maybe Dave was a female name where she comes from? Either way, I was not prepared to get rubbed down by a full-blooded American male. But I didn't say anything. I just hoped his hands were clean.

One of the female attendants led me into the ladies locker room and showed me how the lockers worked. You had to enter a four-digit code and then press "lock." Inside was a robe and slippers, and I was instructed to undress and put the robe on. I immediately flashed back to high school gym class, where I was always embarrassed to change in front of everyone. I usually crouched behind an open locker to hide myself, even though I didn't have much to hide. I wasn't overweight. I had good hair and skin. There was nothing physically wrong with me. If I wanted some "privacy," the attendant told me, I was welcome to change in the bathroom and then wait for Dave in the "Relaxation Lounge." I was anything but relaxed.

There were a few ladies in various degrees of undress in the locker room not seeming to give a flying goji berry about who saw them. I figured maybe they would leave soon and let me change in the room, so to stall, I checked out the spa snack table, featuring cheddar whale-shaped rip-offs of Goldfish, trail mix, and coconut-infused electrolyte water. I didn't try anything, because I didn't want to disrupt the perfect display of luxury. There were also showers (can you imagine that people voluntarily shower in a public place?) and a sauna.

I checked back into the locker room, and the ladies were still there, fussing over their complexions, plucking at the excess skin on their thighs. I figured I'd just change in the bathroom and get it over with. But in the bathroom, I panicked. What if my locker was broken and my clothes stayed locked inside? What do I do with my glasses? How undressed do I get? It's just a back massage, right? Not a full-body? What criteria constitute sexual assault in a massage room? Does this masseuse (or masseur?) have a degree?

At least the robe was warm and fluffy. I shoved my clothes in the locker and picked an easy combination, 1-1-1-1, so even a brain aneurysm mid-massage would allow me to still remember it. I prayed that my clothes would be there, untampered with, when I returned. If I returned. I headed across the hall to the Relaxation Lounge. There were the ladies chatting quietly on lounge chairs. Some drank the coconut water. Others munched the cheddar whales. I was nervous that the lounge chairs would be littered with hair and dead skin sheddings, so I was careful not to lay my head back all the way back. I couldn't read a magazine. I couldn't even close my eyes. All I was thinking about was how uncomfortable I was.

"Kaila?" A voice stirred me from the shadows. No one was there in the entrance. I got up and went toward the voice. I looked outside the door and saw a man standing in the hallway. "Kaila, I'm Dave, it's nice to meet you." He was bald and energetic. He seemed like he did yoga or ballet, by his posture. We shook hands, something that I dislike for sanitary reasons, but do for professional ones. He led me into a blue-lit room, which was warm like a womb. "When was the last time you had a massage?" he asked.

"Never!"

"It's a lot like how you feel after doing yoga or meditation," he said. "You'll just feel totally zonked out and a little disoriented."

For a lack of anything better to say, I said, "Great!"

Though I felt dumb about my enthusiastic, one-worded exclamations, I was starting to get excited. He took out two small vials and held each to my nose. He let me pick which essential oil he would use during the massage. One was lavender-based, meant for stress-relief and relaxation, and the other was rosemary-based, meant for energy and groundedness. I chose lavender, because I really needed to chill. Energy was the last thing I needed.

Dave said I could hang my robe on the hook, get on the table and stick my face into the little face-hole, and he'd be back in a minute. When he left the room, I took the robe off and quickly got under the covers on the table like a vagabond, sinking into the face hole. I hoped they used a fresh one for each person. I had no idea what to do with my arms, so just let them hang below. It didn't feel normal, but I didn't want to ask him what normal people did with their arms. (I found out later that most people put their arms behind them, on the table, or under their chin.) I was nervous about him judging my body, examining me like a scientist. It was silly. He probably saw hundreds of clients a week, and he was employed at a reputable spa. He wouldn't care, even if I had lizard-skin, right?

Dave came back in and began, the room filling with soothing lavender. He started out gently, and I felt my muscles relaxing little by little, but my brain was still on fire. I kept worrying about the locker, and if I'd have to take a shower after this, and if Dave was an actual massage therapist, and if the lavender oil would have an adverse reaction with my skin. How disoriented would I be? I had tried yoga and meditation before, but to little effect, as my impatience always got the better of me. I had done a few difficult things in my life, but one of the most difficult was just sitting still and trying to forget everything: trying to relax. Slowly, my brain started to surrender. I focused on the lavender, and imagined running through a field of it in the South of France.

When our time was up, I did feel zonked out and disoriented, just like Dave said. I re-robed and he met me outside the room with a glass of coconut water. It was refreshing and revitalizing. I was sorry I made assumptions about male massage therapists. Dave was lovely and professional, and didn't deserve that stigma. I was sorry my brain couldn't break its patterns of rumination. He made me feel comfortable, even if just for a little while.

Back in the locker room, my locker wouldn't open. I entered the four digits I worked so hard to remember, and it was stuck. I immediately snapped out of my semi-conscious state and my heart started to pang. I tried the combination again. It worked. It was open. My clothes were safe. My wallet was still there. Everything was okay, and for the first time in a long time, I felt relaxed.

I've always been averse to "treating" myself because of my insecurities. But having a fixed mindset and hard-set expectations makes it impossible to clear those hurdles of body confidence. In a spa, the goal is to leave your exterior self behind to let your interior self breathe. We all wear robes, we all look the same. Nothing differentiates you from the lady checking out her cellulite. There is no age, there is no race, there is no gender. We're all just people looking to help ourselves, to treat ourselves in a small way. And despite my reservations, it was totally worth it.