As an ultrarunner, I rely on frequent massages to help keep the muscles loose and to prevent injury. In my line of work, this means that I have had massages all over the world in many different cultures and contexts. I’ve had some of the best massages of my life on a beach in Borneo, in the ‘Valley of Longevity’ in Ecuador and after a race in Nepal. But the downright cringe-worthy massages are the ones that really stick in my mind. The ones where you are lying there on the table squinting and squirming with your face planted into the little hole, asking yourself the question, “do I really have to stay until the end of this?”
If you think about it, getting a massage has got to be one of the most awkward things you can do. In what other circumstance do you get into a room with a complete stranger, take your clothes off, and have them rub you all over for money? Okay, you know what I mean. For a service that is meant to be relaxing, there is incredible potential for awkwardness. My years of primary research has identified five main categories of awkward massages, each given a score from 1-10 on the awkward meter (1 is the equivalent of watching a romantic comedy with your mother; 10 is the equivalent of watching 50 shades of grey with your mother-in-law).
1. The Overly Sexual Massage
These are the worst of the bunch. When a massage therapist either blatantly or suggestively makes a move or a comment that forays into the sexual realm, that is the quickest way to make me want to run away from the massage room screaming (unless of course it falls into category #2 below – sorry guys, we’re complicated). I don’t think some of them actually mean it, but it is often hard to tell. Like when a therapist ‘accidentally’ grazes against something they shouldn’t. If you don’t say something, you feel violated; if you do say something, you feel horrible that you might have made a mistake (if you’re Canadian, that is). Either way, it is awkward.
However, in some instances, it is not so subtle. During a recent massage I had at a very fancy hotel in Jerusalem, I asked the therapist to concentrate on my glutes (tight glutes, common runner problem). Instead of discretely uncovering one glute at a time and leaving the other one hidden under the towel, he went for the full moon approach. Weird, I thought, but other than being uncomfortably exposed, I wasn’t completely sure he was being unprofessional (maybe this is standard practice in Israel?). However, when I asked for deeper pressure, he responded with a comment about “strong Canadian buttocks” and how they apparently could take a beating. Seriously? There I was lying on the table literally caught with my pants down wondering if my massage therapist was going to pull out the whips and chains. Dear god. Last time I ask for work done on my glutes again.
Finally, there is one technique that deserves mention in this category, which I think should be forever banned. You know when you are getting a back massage and your therapist wants to get a better angle so he moves around to the head of the massage table to apply pressure from the shoulders downwards toward your pelvis? Sounds great, right? It is, until you realize that your massage therapists’ balls are basically pressing into the top of your head as he reaches down your back. Yeah. Awkward.
Awkward score: 10
2. The I-wish-it-were-overtly-sexual-massage
Now here’s where I’ll get in trouble if I give too many details. Ahem. Let’s just say I had a massage therapist in the past who looked like he had walked out of a daytime soap opera. And I was definitely young and restless. You’d think this would be a fabulous scenario: dim lighting, candles, handsome man with strong hands romantically rubbing me down…. Okay I’ll stop there. Sounds lovely (and ridiculous), but we all know the reality is completely different, especially when you are getting a sports massage. My therapist would do this technique called myofascial release, which basically involved picking up layers of my thigh fat and squeezing them over and over again. Of course, this was all down under fluorescent lighting, which can make even a supermodel look like zombie-fied cottage cheese. Nothing more awkward than having an attractive man get up close and personal with your cellulite and jiggly bits. Ugh.
Awkward score: 7
3. The New Agey Massage
Chinese gongs, healing incense, strange breathing and other new agey type of techniques deserve no place in a proper massage (in my humble opinion). Perhaps I’m not ‘enlightened’ enough, but these airy-fairy methods of massage are known to send me into fits of laughter or simply bewilderment. Another stellar massage I had this year involved the massage therapist placing hot stones on strategic locations on my back while humming something in sanskrit (it could have been pig latin for all I knew actually). I know what you’re thinking, this all sounds fine, right? Well, perhaps I have strange anatomy, but somehow, one by one, each one of these stones preceded to slide off my oily body and right into my butt crack. Yes, there I was, part of some strange ritual with a pile of flaming stones piling up in my crotch. Not relaxing. What’s worse was that the therapist just kept humming along leaving me thinking, “was this actually supposed to happen?” I tried to surreptitiously dig the crotch stones out and quietly drop them on the floor, which ended up just adding some unique percussion elements to the sanskrit humming. Can we not just work on my quads like a normal massage, please? Sigh.
Awkward score: 6
4. The Nervous Massage
If you get stuck with a newbie massage therapist, chances are he or she will be a little nervous – it’s only natural. However, you’d hope that they would at least try to hide it. I had one massage therapist in Manhattan who was on his first day of the job and he was sweating buckets. Literally. I wasn’t sure if it was hot oil he was drizzling on to my back or if it was perspiration dripping from his forehead (gross). His hands were shaking so much that it provided a mild vibration effect (which was actually not bad). All in all, I just wanted to give the guy a hug – or maybe a fist pump as he was becoming increasingly drenched with sweat as the massage went on – and just tell him that everything would be okay. As long as he never gave another massage to anyone ever again.
Awkward score: 4
5. The Unhygienic Massage
There are a number of variations of this type of massage. Unhygienic massages could involve nasty surroundings (unclean sheets, rancid massage oil, smelly towels) or worse, an unhygienic massage therapist (body odour, hangnails, overly hairy arms). In Vietnam after my first ultramarathon, I booked a massage through my hotel to help kickstart my recovery period. A few hours later, I answered a knock on my hotel room door and opened it to find a woman carrying a box of tissues in one hand and a bottle of Johnson’s baby lotion in the other. Not exactly off to a great start. The woman massaged me with one hand (the other was constantly blowing her nose) and she sneezed on my back twice.
Awkward score: 6
To be fair to the massage therapists of the world out there, I bet they have a ton of stories as well. As clients, we can make things pretty awkward too. I can only imagine the number of times they’ve had to deal with farting, accidental erections (so glad I’m not a guy) and inappropriate behaviour. Remember that Friends episode when Phoebe massages Monica and she won’t stop making, er, Harry-met-Sally noises? I bet there are a few of you out there who have been guilty of that. I have inadvertently created a few awkward massages in my day, I must admit. Like the time I accidentally wore a pair of red underwear that said ‘Chase Me’ in sparkles across the front (don’t judge, I was in my 20s). Imagine my horror and my therapist’s amusement-turned-awkwardness when my ridiculous lingerie was exposed. Or the time when I had a pelvic fracture, but was convinced it was a bad hamstring pull that hurt right at the insertion point. I was so desperate to get my injury fixed that I insisted my massage therapist spend the entire hour on an area that was, oh, centimetres from the ‘special’ zone. I’m not going to flatter myself and think that this was fun for him. Or finally the time when I was getting a massage in the same room with a friend of mine in Zanzibar. We were at a place that hired and trained people with physical disabilities to become massage therapists. Great idea in theory… Problem was that I kept forgetting what disabilities our therapists had. I thought that mine was blind so I had no qualms exposing my entire chest while he was working on my quads (he was hearing impaired, sigh). And I openly shared intimate details in front of my friend’s therapist, who of course was not hearing impaired as I believed but rather visually impaired. Way to make things awkward.
The truth is, the whole massage situation is ripe for awkward moments, so perhaps we need to have a little more understanding for our therapists and a good sense of humour to get through them.
Have any awkward massage moments of your own? We’d all love to hear about them! Post a comment below.