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  • Writer's pictureKirby Clark, MMT

Inclusive Massage

Updated: Dec 19, 2023

"As Massage Therapists we are tasked to care for others and to meet our clients where they're at, free of judgment. In this profession, we have the remarkable opportunity to work with people in very intimate, vulnerable settings. That honor needs to be taken seriously and should be re-evaluated regularly to encourage a sense of safety, both physically and emotionally, every time a client is with us." -Amber Briggle

Let’s start off with a definition of what Inclusion even is;

Inclusion is the act of creating environments or opportunities in which individuals or groups of people can feel and actually BE welcomed, respected, supported, and valued to participate in the dominant culture.

Cultural Competency is the only path to Inclusivity. Cultural Competency is the ability to understand and respect the values, attitudes, and beliefs that exist across many/all different cultures. It is impossible to work ethically without cultural competency. Why? Massage therapists must provide safe, secure, and respectful spaces for our clientele. This will require reflection on our personal and professional values to determine objectively if our biases are harmful.

Recall from my previous blog post, Anti Racism in Massage, the difference between Explicit and Implicit Bias. Explicit bias being overt, obvious, and easily recognizable as bias toward or against a person or thing. Implicit bias however can occur without intent, could contradict a person’s stated values, and manifest as behavior (doesn’t have to be spoken). Our Values (what we place importance in), Beliefs (what we consider to be true), and Morals (what behavior we consider acceptable or unacceptable) are the building blocks of our Ethics (the set of principles that guide our conduct. Often, what we perceive as truth is largely based off our cultural background. Because we all come from different cultures and hold different ethics, intention does not absolve someone from causing harm. As massage therapists we forget that we can cause as much or more harm with our words and behavior as we can with our hands. Harm can occur even with the best intentions. Sometimes a lack of knowledge or lack of sensitivity can cause unnecessary distress to our clients.

What are the barriers to Inclusion?

The three major obstacles to Inclusion are Stereotypes, Prejudice, and Discrimination. Stereotyping is easily defined as widely held but fixed oversimplified images or ideas of a person or things. What I find fascinating is that stereotypes are a natural and efficient function of the brain. If your mind had to devote the time and energy to analyze every new experience ad nauseum, you’d never get anything else done! Your brain stereotypes by quickly categorizing new input into categories of what the new input is most similar to based on past experiences. Prejudice are preconceived opinions of a person or thing that are not based in reason or previously lived experience. Prejudice is far more sinister than stereotypes. Preconceived opinions meaning they are fixed and likely difficult to change. Prejudice can still present as explicit or implicit bias. And Discrimination is the unjust treatment of different categories of people. These obstacles all build on each other. Be mindful that your stereotypes don’t evolve into prejudice. Take extra care to ensure any prejudice you have doesn’t become or foster discrimination- they are a hair-width in difference. Prejudice is easier to unlearn and re-educate, but discrimination is the opposite of inclusion. Both are actions- making discrimination much harder to work back from.

Remind yourself that clients, regardless of their background have rights. Chief among those is the right to being respected (every bit as much as the therapist expects the right to be respected). Also remember that historically, health and wellness have NOT been inclusive practices. Refusing to engage in conversations about Diversity will expand those disparities and limit who we can care for as professionals.

Steps To Take:

The good news is, there are many steps each individual therapist (and the entire profession) can take to create a more inclusive practice.

1. During your intake, interview the client on what they already know of massage therapy, find cultural common ground you can build trust upon.

2. Be sure to ask the client if they have any concerns about how the massage treatment will be administered. Ask if there is anything that needs to be modified to make the massage more comfortable or accessible for them.

3. Look at your space with fresh eyes. Consider how your clinic may be viewed or experienced by people of different faiths or cultures.

4. Use inclusive images and phrases in your advertisements, posters, pamphlets, or signage.

5. Make it a habit to use gender neutral language (we’ll talk more about this in a later post this month) and change any gendered restrooms to be gender neutral. After all, people don’t need a gendered restroom to do their business, all they need is plumbing!

6. Introduce yourself with your pronouns (include them in your email signature, social media accounts, and business cards too) and include a place on your intake documents for the clients to indicate the pronouns they use.

7. Plan on attending Pride events (often held in June), offer chair massage, set up a booth, and educate the local LGBT+ community about massage therapy.

Guidelines for Inclusivity:

1. Build Trust. Make the effort to listen to and understand your client’s culture. Be aware of your own bias, views, and beliefs through the client’s eyes.

2. Elevate professionals of minority status- whether you’re a school, an association, or an individual practitioner. Participate in learning opportunities and partner with those who are already doing the work of the values you share.

3. Increase diversity in your profession! Actively recruit minority communities, create welcoming spaces and events, and provide support as necessary.

4. Provide inclusive education and broader outreach on massage therapy benefits and career opportunities to minorities.

5. Make sure your business or your employer isn’t donating to organizations or politicians that promote inequality- if they are, challenge them to discontinue their contributions or to change where they donate to champions of equity.

6. A client’s right to privacy is more important than the therapists’ curiosity. Focus on discussion that directly relate to their treatment that day.

Creating an inclusive space and promoting equity doesn’t require hyper-politicizing your clinic. Outside of shifts in marketing and/or charitable contributions, it needn’t require a lot of money either. It may seem like a lot of extra effort, but the action is well worth the payoff to create a more inclusive massage therapy practice.

Peace and Healing,

Kirby Clark, MMT, BCTMB

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