Here is my personal experience with massage, communicating with clients, draping, etc.
I took my first massage workshop in the 70’s in Western Europe, where I was born & raised. It was done with reverence, in silence - except of course for preliminary instructions. We were slightly draped around the waist, & more if we got cold. The room radiated with motherly caring and child-like innocence. I was initiated into a whole new world filled with grace. I knew I wanted to share this work with others.
I took several trips to South Asia, where I honed my ability to be fully present while giving/receiving comforting & liberating touch. In Europe & Asia, I gave/received an abundance of massages and never encountered a “breast problem”. We were dressed or partially undressed, depending on techniques used & context: Shiatsu and Thai Temple Massage vs. long soothing oily strokes. A breast was not something to avoid or put extra focus on in any of the trainings I attended, just an intrinsic part of the body.
In the 80’s in the US, things changed for me in massage school. The focus was now on contra-indication, pathology and liability. It struck me as fear-based, defensive & desperately seeking acknowledgement. It took me years to recover my natural self-confidence & joy in the bodywork process. I discovered that some clients and friends had internalized the kind of American modesty imported from puritans fleeing European religious persecution.
Following "the rules", I saw myself awkwardly dance around the breast when offering long connecting strokes - thus singling it out instead of emphasizing physical wholeness - an oxymoron…
Following my intuition, I sometimes ask women if they want their chest covered at all times. Some say “yes, keep me covered” - for the comfort of a familiar habit and/or a warming sheet. Some say “no, go ahead, I am fine, I feel free this way,” or “why not?” I’ll give it a try” (I encourage them to change their mind any time if they feel like it). Some of them have just undergone a mastectomy with or without reconstruction, others are getting ready for reconstruction: all need to be seen, heard and accepted as is. What better place to do so?
So much noise about breasts, yet I see the root of the problem in our un-questioned beliefs about our body & self, our un-questioned ideas of “manhood” & “womanhood.” This all too often results in acting out our sexual confusion as manipulative predator or “cooperative/helpless” prey. This confusion is a significant aspect of the un/learning & healing people seek in massage. As we know, every part of the body can be sexualized, made a fetish of. How we touch & are touched depends on our intention and communication.
I believe it's aberrant to sexualize breasts all over the place, while at the same time shamefully hiding them. It’s absurd to be legally allowed to walk bare-breasted in NY streets but not on Instagram. In France, the topless beach tradition set in motion in the 60’s inspired a good five decades of a de-dramatized breast and therefore more natural attitude towards the female body; only in the past couple of years are tops returning - to deter phone abusers from turning women into internet sex objects & the general public from confusing half-nudists with urban activists (e.g. Femen).
When I receive a massage, do I automatically want my breast/chest area uncovered during massage? No. It depends on who is massaging me, man or woman, & what’s going on for me that day.
When I give a massage, I communicate openly & respectfully with each individual client from within my own acquired comfort zone; I offer the covered vs. uncovered option from a detached and caring place; remembering that we all have some kind of story about breasts, I honor the client’s boundaries &/or interest in self-discovery and self-liberation.No pushing, no pulling, no unnecessary charting or stigmatization - just respectfully present to each situation. The idea is to reclaim our often lost natural connection to parts of the body.
As to male clients, of course I automatically uncover their chest when
working on this part of their body - unless they have told me otherwise,
to stay warm or feel like a tucked-in child again.
Bottom line in my opinion is this: let's foster a culture of self-aware massage therapists who communicate clearly with their clients and vice versa . It's that simple!
Written by Claire Massart, MA, LMT (aka LMP), 2016
Born and raised in France, Claire Massart is a seasoned massage therapist who was initially trained in Europe where she worked as a massage therapist. She continued her training in Asia and the USA and has worked in Seattle, WA as a massage therapist for several decades.