In the dim room I'm told to undress to my comfort level. When the therapist gets to my legs I blurt out, "Sorry they're not shaved. I have a waxing appointment tomorrow." She runs her forearm up the back of my thigh and I imagine my pockets of cellulite coagulating.
I imagine she's observing my fat and judging me.
For anyone who's ever struggled with body image, those words burn with an astute reflection. There were years when I constantly thought that people were observing my body and judging me.
During my years with an eating disorder, I didn't like people looking at my body. When I was too skinny, I hated the attention. People watched me as though I were on display, their eyes brimming with concern, curiosity, judgment, envy, or pity.
At my highest weight, I felt suffocated in an emotional black hole and with a physical side pain no one could diagnose. In my mind, everyone's stares held judgment for the extra fat that collected at my hips.
I began apologizing for myself. "I used to be thinner," I'd say. "I used to be in much better shape." As the words slipped from my mouth I felt gross and weak, like an old guy, with a pump belly and a glimmer in his eye, as he reminisces of his modeling days. My apologies sounded pathetic, like I was holding onto the "good old days of skinny" as my identity, when my body wasn't there anymore.
After college, I became a massage therapist and worked on various body types. There were petite clients that I massaged body parts twice, just to fill the time. There was the huge gentleman, whose hairy back made an elongated letter "n" on my table. Some had to physically lie on their hands because the table wasn't large enough to keep their arms from falling off. I remember the forearm of a young lady that was traced with razor scars. There were men and women, young or old, supple or saggy skin, tiny or large, cellulite or none.
The common denominator was that everyone who came in for a massage had a body, but every body was unique and different. As I'd chat with people, my heart would open toward their celebrations, struggles, and pains. Even the clients who had the "perfect" bodies, were often just as mean, or critical, or unloving toward themselves.
As I'd pick up my clients from the lobby, they'd often put down a magazine full of photos of thin celebs, like pageant queens, or those with captions that shamed the most recent "fat" girl. Then they'd be expected to disrobe and reveal their bodies for a complete stranger, me, to see and touch.
The strange thing is that in spite of the hundreds of bodies I've seen, I can't tell you what any of my clients' bodies looked like, because I don't remember. But I do remember our conversations, as they shared parts of themselves and their stories with me. Even in a silent room, I learned how to practice love for all bodies that held stories I'd never know.
After one massage, I was prodded to tell the client about my past eating disorder and how I now write on that topic. A flash of relief passed over her face. "When I first came in, I was afraid you were going to think I was disgusting, and judge me," she said. My little heart burst like a water balloon.
Despite her ongoing weight loss, she still felt huge as she walked into a room. She still acted as though she were over 80 pounds heavier. She told me she'd gained a huge amount of weight in her last relationship, which was emotionally abusive and controlling.
"It takes a while to see ourselves as the new person we are, not as the one we used to be," I said.
Conversations like that remind me that we have no place, and no right, to judge anyone's body. We don't know their stories, or what they've been through, or the progress they've made.
As people in our culture, it's impossible to have zero judgments, but we can adjust our thoughts. When we find ourselves thinking with judgment, we can simply say, "hey self, you're doing that thing again. Remember you don't know anything about their life." Then wish them love and go along your merry way.
So is the massage therapist judging your body? No, probably not. We're here to massage your body, not measure the size of your thighs.
Your body is an amazing gift because with it you get to live in the world. Love it and take care of it. But there is no need to apologize for having a body.
I know I'm just one massage therapist in the world, but I'd like to leave you with my thoughts on massage:
Every time a client disrobes, they give me the gift of their vulnerability. It's almost as if they say, "I'm here. I trust you. Please be kind with your hands, and your thoughts, for I'm just like you, doing my best to love myself."
*This article was first published on Psych Central
If you're struggling with an eating disorder, call the National Eating Disorder Association hotline at 1-800-931-2237.
Need help? In the U.S., call 1-800-DONTCUT for the S.A.F.E. Alternatives hotline.