(FAMQ: Frequently Asked Massage Question). Every few months I will get a new client who asks, “So, what’s the deal with underwear? Are we supposed to take it off in a massage?” They usually tell me that they never know what is appropriate and/or expected, and that they have never gotten a real answer to this question. Massage is all about relaxation and comfort, so this is an important question, as many new to massage or new to a particular therapist, have some hesitation around removing all their clothing in such a new situation.
My answer is always simple: “You should do whatever makes you most comfortable.” While massage is traditionally performed with the receiver unclothed, your comfort should always be top priority, and your therapist can and should be able and willing to work through layers of clothing (or avoid entire areas of your body) to accommodate how you are feeling on any given day. Consider this: if you feel that you are supposed to remove all your clothes for a massage, and then you spend half of your massage preoccupied with your state of undress, you will most likely not fully relax and consequently lose out on many of the benefits of your massage. If remaining partially clothed is going to help you feel more comfortable, and therefore you are more able to fully relax, then this is what is optimal for you.
Because a few of you are wondering this, I offer the following: I would estimate that among my own clients, about half remove all their clothing, and another half remain partially clothed, often depending on whether they are getting a full-body massage, or focusing only on specific muscle groups. Some people keep on their underwear, others keep on their socks, and still others might change into shorts and a t-shirt for their session. While the client’s comfort level around clothing shifts from session to session and client to client, what never varies is the use of “draping” with sheets, towels and blankets by the therapist. Not only does draping ensure privacy, safety and comfort, it is also legally required here in the city of San Diego.
Many traditional forms of massage and bodywork are performed with the receiver fully unclothed (and covered by linens). Not only does this allow the therapist access to muscle attachments around your hips, but it also leaves you unencumbered by the restrictions of your clothing. Your massage time is about relaxation and wellness, and it is also an opportunity for you to explore your own relationship to your body. You can explore the sensations of different massage strokes, the tightness in different muscle groups, the changing pace of your breath as you relax. The power of massage is also about human touch. You can take the opportunity to explore your reactions and possible inhibitions around being touched and your hesitation (or not) to removing all your clothes -- an important barrier and protection.
This is not to say that removing all your clothes for a massage is or should be a goal for everybody. Your comfort level may shift when you are working with different therapists (gender is often a big factor here), in different settings and at different periods of your life. While much of the bodywork traditionally done in this country involves skin-on-skin contact, there are lots of bodywork traditions in which the receiver remains fully clothed (Thai Massage and Shiatsu, to name two). Whatever your personal decision is around undressing for your massage, you should expect your therapist to receive you in a non-judgmental manner and fully respect any boundaries you establish.