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No Apologies

A couple weeks ago, a client apologized to me for not having shaved her legs prior to her appointment. This sort of thing happens a lot — and every time, I wave it away, assuring the client that I truly don’t care — but this woman apologized profusely. “I’m so sorry about this,” she kept repeating. “I only hope you’re not too grossed out.”

I finally quieted her by remarking that open wounds might gross me out, but stubble never could. Yet the intensity of her apologies got me thinking. Clients apologize to me about their bodies all the time. People apologize for falling asleep on the table, when they have come to me expressly so that I could relax them. They apologize for their bellies gurgling, even though a massage is all but guaranteed to increase digestive activity. On the rare occasions that a client needs to pause their massage for a bathroom break, they apologize for that, when from my perspective our whole purpose there is to increase their comfort.

I have had clients apologize to me for being overweight, as if I might find that offensive. One client, after explaining how chronic illness had kept her bedridden for most of the last few years, then apologized for her lack of muscle tone. Clients who have to move slowly, or have difficulty rolling over, have sometimes apologized for that, even while the pain for which they’re apologizing is the very reason they’ve come to see me.

Clients apologize for whatever they last ate with distressing frequency, from fear it has made their breath unpleasant. Some apologize for sweating, others for having non-contagious skin conditions. A great many apologize for having dry skin, sometimes going so far as to suggest that I shouldn’t work on whatever areas are driest — not because they don’t want to be touched there, but because they think I will find it distasteful.

When I consider these moments all together, my clients keep telling me they’re sorry for the simple fact that they have bodies, and that’s heartbreaking. It probably will not surprise you that roughly 98% of the apologies I hear come from women. I had known our culture teaches women to hate their bodies; evidently it also teaches us that other people will hate our bodies too. Even people like me, whose vocation is literally to help my clients feel good in their bodies. If my clients did not have these problematic bodies (spoiler: all bodies are problematic), I would not have a job.

I am tempted sometimes to issue a grand declaration, a blanket amnesty for all massage clients everywhere: Your body is not a collection of flaws, or an engine of embarrassment. Your body makes you human, and being human is a messy business. Those of us who regularly work with other people’s bodies are used to that messiness and will not judge you for it. We understand that our bodies do things we can’t control: they grow hair, they make noises, they excrete, they have non-negotiable needs. These are not faults, and should not cause you shame.

Lest I give the impression that apologies to a massage therapist are never appropriate, I should clarify that there are a very few circumstances where I’d hope to hear one. If my client is late for an appointment, or has to cancel on short notice, that’s a good time to use the word, “sorry.” The client who misses an appointment entirely should probably say it with more gusto. That’s pretty much where the list ends.

I have worked on clients with stinky feet (in summer, there’s no avoiding this) and not minded, because it’s nobody’s fault. I have worked on people with such dry skin that some sloughs off in my hands; that’s not my favorite thing, but it comes with the territory, especially in winter. I have worked on people with serious deformities or gruesome scars and felt no revulsion, only interest and sympathy. Bodies fascinate me and provide my livelihood, and as a general rule I am grateful for every body that comes through my door.

Please, don’t apologize to me for being human. We all have messy bodies. You deserve to feel good in yours.

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