Let’s talk about touch

Let’s talk about… touch

‘LETS TALK ABOUT TOUCH’ offers an insightful look at the effect of ignoring this simplest of needs. Aromatherapist and writer Matthew T Price  explores the importance of human contact and massage in everyday life.

  “I often tell my clients that massage is good for the skin, muscle tone, for removing toxins more easily and improves circulation and joint mobility. It sounds great because it is. And you know, it works. Massage has been used to improve our health for 1000’s of years and will continue to do so. What I don’t often say is that you don’t need all those reasons to have a massage. The very act of TOUCH is powerful enough to change lives. This article explains how.


Think of any memorable or dramatic moment in life and notice how instinctively we all turn to someone and reach out to touch them. The after goal celebration, witnessing a gorgeous sunrise, receiving bad news or watching a disaster in progress are just some of the occasions accompanied by instinctive human touch. Even where touch is actively discouraged e.g. a sterile environment, the human spirit finds a way to establish this basic connection. There are very few occasions of emotional outpouring where those present haven’t embraced, held hands or stood close to someone.

Not all of us are quite so lucky.

Down but not out

For those suffering depression the feeling is overwhelming and uncontrollable. Whatever the age group the effects are devastating. Depression isn’t sadness. It’s deep, mind numbing despair that can’t be described. Its onset can sometimes be traced back to a traumatic event in that person’s life but not always. At times there is no apparent reason for its onset and seems to have no clear way of helping the sufferer out of his condition, itself one of the symptoms; help doesn’t seem to , well, help. As time goes on its debilitating effects on the affected and his family and friends grows worse.

Advice on depression abounds along with the latest raft of remedies. The article ‘Depression’ from the Royal College of Psychiatry mentions some of these in its analysis of the illness.

“There are a number of ways of treating depression. Medication with antidepressants can help relieve the symptoms and prevent future episodes. The drugs work by acting on the chemical messengers in the brain. Talking therapiessuch as relationship based psychotherapy can be useful; also problem-solving therapies and cognitive therapy in which the therapist, often a psychologist, helps a person learn to identify and challenge faulty, negative patterns of thinking. Support from family and friends is vital. Other activities, such as regular exercise, can help lift the depression.” *

How do we as a family member show that support? Of course educating ourselves about this illness would be paramount. Knowledge changes our viewpoint and therefore our actions. What is more dangerous is the predictable pat on the back and throwaway comments of well meaning friends and relatives. You’ll notice that touch is not specifically mentioned by the Royal College Psychiatry. We assume that it’s included under the banner ‘support’. Yet comments from former sufferers of depression make it clear that touch isn’t to be underestimated.

We don’t really know how it feels to be depressed and we struggle to find the right words. But we’re compelled to say something. In many cases the words are accepted as our best effort. Surprisingly, it’s the pat on the back that causes pain. The one suffering would much rather the touch wasn’t so… thoughtless. What he or she might really need is physical contact that says, ‘I want you to feel that you aren’t alone.’

It’s the sense of touch.


Any real city, you walk, you know?

You brush past people.

People bump into you.

In L.A., nobody touches you.

We’re always behind

this metal and glass.

I think we miss

that touch so much

that we crash into each other

just so we can feel something.

Opening lines of the film “Crash” **

Meaningful touch can be the catalyst for improvement. Knowing that people truly care and having that care felt is for some, a lifeline. For the depressed the reassurance of family and friends and having it supported by loving action can be the light at the end of a long, dark tunnel.

Helping those depressed or insecure seems a logical and loving thing to do. Could touch be just as important in a ‘normal’ family?

‘Touch me in the morning…’

Diana Ross must have known a thing or two when she sang “Reach out and touch somebody’s hand, make this world a better place, if you can.*** Her audiences quite often hugged each other in response to hearing the song! The words do have merit. Moods and behaviour are greatly affected by the level of touch we experience in everyday life. It’s a sobering thought that with the modern emphasis on healthy lifestyles, fitness and organic foods something as simple as touch could be ignored.

Touch is possibly the most influential sense we possess. It engenders a positive outlook on life and relationships and as a matter of course, is passed on. It’s a fact that children of parents who express their affection by touch and embrace do exactly the same in return and are more at ease with themselves and others.

Perversely, even social net-working has left us little time (or need?) to meet real people and form relationships where touch is accepted and acceptable. Families spend less time together and even less time in close physical contact; separated by the very technologies touted as time savers. Give a thought then for those who, for whatever reason, do not have someone with whom they can share such an important gesture. The isolation is compounded when others around them are enjoying ‘good touch’ wherever they go.

Strange then, that while many adults suffer for lack of contact with others one can observe healthy touch among children in any playground in any town. They express themselves naturally with touch, learning safe boundaries and respect for others by observing others. No one should be surprised at this. From the outset parents and family members are generous with hugs and kisses, affirming the child’s place in the tribe. Copying the example set by their elders, children automatically display their affection and confidence though touch.

Can there be any doubt that good touch is to be desired in our own lives?

So you decided to get a massage

For many having a professional massage is an effort to rebalance the scales. It’s ‘safe touch’ without the need to enter into a complex or demanding relationship in order to have it. It provides for ones need without also leave the receiver feeling they are obligated to return some gesture in appreciation. It guarantees that the rules of the couch will be kept and the customer will walk away unscathed. Paying makes it painless. Convenience is a wonderful thing but that too can have its drawbacks. How massage is offered can highlight the problem.

For those starved of physical contact there is an emotional ‘price’ for buying it in the form of massage done in a commercial setting. You get what you pay for; not what you need. That’s because it takes a special kind of masseuse to know what that is. Consider the experience of Amanda (not her real name), a mother of two teenage children living in Sheffield.

“My situation was like so many other moms I guess. You forget about yourself and live for your kids and husband. I was hardly ever touched. I’d get the occasional peck on the cheek and quick ‘bye Mom’ hug at the door but not enough to make me feel whole. A friend suggested I try massage. Even though I considered massage an unnecessary luxury I was desperate enough to try anything. Half way through the massage I still hadn’t fully convinced myself this wasn’t a waste of money until Maggie quietly reminded me that I was reason enough. I broke down in tears… her touch and understanding were overwhelming”

Amanda’s experience is not uncommon. For many like her the problem isn’t a lack of touch but a need for touch that is meaningful. All too often what appears to be a happy, fulfilled family hides a lack of warmth and openness. As a cruel twist to this situation, it seems many extra-marital affairs begin simply to satisfy this need. Marital breakdown and strained relationships can often be traced back to the point where those involved lost the habit of connecting as a means of communicating healthy, positive emotion. Rather than ask to be touched the more exciting option is taken; to find someone who offers it willingly.

So, perhaps for those who seek something more from a massage than an hour or so of being pressed and pulled, articulated and pummelled with an efficiency born of years of mindless repetition, there is hope. Out there in the market place you can find, if you look closely, a few who care about both person and body. Massage for them is not just a livelihood but their life. The act of massage is for them a spiritual journey, a healing of mind and body, the enrichment of a life and spirit. The hands through which these complex and amazing developments take place are connected to someone who appreciates their place in this cycle.

So, if you are planning to have a massage, consider its importance in the light of what you have read. Spend time actively listening to your body and consciously experience the changes as they happen. Take note of the difference in your mood and outlook in the days after the session. Remember that you are allowing yourself to be taken on a journey that has changed many lives. Maybe this time the life that is changed for the better is your own.

Copyright Matthew T Price.   All rights reserved worldwide.

Reproduced with permission.

Matthew T Price is an Aromatherapist and Marriage Counsellor based in the county of Bedfordshire, England.


* The Royal College of Psychiatry, ‘Depression’, (Changing Minds, September 2010) www.rcpsych.ac.uk/default.aspx?page=1644>

** ‘Crash’ story by Paul Haggis, Screenplay by Paul Haggis and Bobby Moresco

*** Song, ‘Reach out and touch (Somebody’s hand) Lyrics by Nickolas Ashford and Valerie Simpson

Massage, sex and sexism

You, Sex and Sexism – the politics of massage

Graffiti statement on a white brick wall.

Male therapists find it tough competing with the girls

During a fascinating conversation with one of our regular clients about sex and sexism in the massage business, Rob (not his real name) made an interesting observation.
Rob observed that although he thoroughly enjoyed massages from women his best massages had always been from men and he couldn’t understand why it seemed more difficult to find professional, reliable male therapists. Rob added that it wasn’t anything sexual he wanted from his massages. He simply preferred the greater and more sustained pressure men were able to apply during a 60 or 90 minute session.

If he requested a masseur (male) he was typically offered a female. Many salons refused to offer one or bemoaned the lack of good male therapists. Quite often his request for a masseur was met with suspicion. So he wondered:

Did men shy away from working in traditional massage because it was perceived as a female pursuit? Were those men who tried to build careers as massage therapists seen as unmanly, perhaps prurient? Did the much higher ratio of men working as sports therapists compared to other disciplines of massage support this theory? We thought this topic worthy of an article because his experience has also been our own.

What makes this even more interesting is that culturally the West views massage as a mostly female industry.The attitudes elsewhere in the world are quite different.

Eastern massage vs Western medicine

Chinese culture has always viewed massage as of similar importance to traditional medicine. In fact for quite a long time massage was traditional medicine. It’s practitioners were mostly men and held in very high regard.. To this day massage rooms and clinics are staffed by a mix of male and female practitioners. This is a normal and accepted practice with no sense of the men being in an unusual job. These clinics are visited regularly by the masses as part of their normal health regime… quite unlike the UK where massage is often considered a last resort for pain relief or an expensive luxury.

The Indian subcontinent shares a similar male dominance in therapy massage. Massage was practiced as medicine since 1000BC and remains an integral part of mainstream and holistic therapy to this day. More women have entered the industry as the middle class has grown and cultural attitudes have changed. The relaxation end of the industry is set to boom as the service/tourist industry sees heavy investment.
In contrast the West had thrown its weight behind clinical medicine as the only legitimate route to better health. Alternative therapy went into decline. Even with a revival of interest in massage in the 19th century largely due to North European studies into the benefits of massage, the medical fraternity had already fixed it’s flag firmly to the mast of science-based practice. Men dominated the various fields of medicine and gave those women who attempted to join their ranks a tough time. While massage continued to grow in popularity it was never viewed as being on par with ‘modern’ medicine.

The 20th century saw massage take its place as a mostly elective therapy and of limited long term value for major ailments. The 21st century however, has seen renewed interest in massage as an alternative to long-term pain medication and its undesirable side effects.* It has also become popular as a beauty treatment. And this is where female dominance of massage therapy is cemented.

Massage in the 21st century

The health and wellness industry has matured into a worldwide colossus generating billions of dollars annually. Gyms, health spas, beauty salons, personal trainers, health food, food supplements, work-out videos, weight- loss programs, body building, body shaping, cosmetic surgery and a relentless image-shaping fashion industry has caused yet another shift in the perception of massage.

Today massage in its bewildering array of guises is seen as a must-have of those serious about self-image and self-indulgence. On the other hand massage therapy is increasingly used as an alternative to drugs as pain relief. Stress is now an acknowledged illness and massage is at the forefront in its control and treatment. Modern life, habits and routines now impose greater strains and stresses on our minds and bodies. Many are finding massage in its various forms to be an effective method for maintaining better bio-mechanical health and restoring a sense of emotional balance.
The disciples of this industry are predominantly female and they have adopted this industry as their own. Today a head count of massage students in most colleges reveals a similar picture; over 85% female take up of beauty and massage courses. Men are seriously out-numbered in the field of massage. Furthermore female therapists tend to have more modalities (techniques) in their armory than men, creating a greater pool of clients for themselves and out-performing their male colleagues.

Which brings us back to Rob. He raises a valid point; men do tend to deliver a more powerful/intense massage due to greater upper body weight and strength. Even some of our female clients have commented that they wish masseuses (females) were stronger and therefore able to give deeper massages. Note: the wish wasn’t to have a masseur instead. And most would refuse a masseur if one was offered. No one suggests that men aren’t as qualified or professional as their female counterparts. So, is this sexism?

Without a genuine reason for choosing a masseuse over a masseur aren’t we encouraging sexism in the workplace…even if that workplace is our own home?

It seems to be a definite trend as more women turn to massage for therapy, stress-relief and relaxation. As a company we have made effort to select suitable men and women. The pickings among men are rather meagre and those we do find seem set on working as sport therapists in a commercial setting. Mobile massage seems to be a less attractive and less lucrative option for men. This is due in part to the law of supply and demand. Many female clients specifically demand a masseuse (female) for a greater feeling of security while the majority of male clients ask for a masseuse also; forcing masseurs to look elsewhere for work. Those that remain tend to have their own practice; reducing further still the pool of talent available to companies like ours.

Personal safety and the sexes

A client will always want to feel safe with his/her masseuse or masseur. It’s one thing to take whoever is offered at a salon or spa but when inviting someone to your home it’s a very different matter. A client needs to feel totally at ease with his/her chosen body worker and so, many have defaulted to choosing a female. Does it mean men are not trust-worthy? Far from it! In fact, our female clients have expressed absolute confidence in the masseurs we have offered in the past. But if offered a choice, which is always the case, the masseuses tend to get the pick.

From the standpoint of most masseurs the odds are stacked against them. Unless they get a fair shot it’s difficult to gain the experience required to advance in ones career or to build a sizeable client base. Employers find their hands tied as clients demand females; leaving their male therapists short of work. With female clients calling the shots and preferring to book female therapists there is still a long wait for true equality to arrive in the battle of the massage sexes. Some female therapists have acknowledged that the shoe seems firmly fixed on the other foot in the wellness industry. Would they wish to see equality? Rita seems to echo the general sentiment: “We paid our dues to be in a position to run the show. Maybe the guys need to pay theirs”


Our comment: The demand for quality female therapists and masseuses will continue to rise for the foreseeable future. Maybe things will change once the battle of the sexes has settled into a gentle tug of war. Time will tell.

–   The Massage Only Team