The Confusion of Undressing for a Massage and What to Do About It

Updated on May 11, 2018
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Leeann Hysaw has earned 11 years of experience in massage therapy having graduated from Lincoln Technical Institute in 2007.

Why the Confusion About Undressing Exists

One aspect of massage that makes clients nervous is the undressing part. I have worked on thousands of clients, and before each massage, most of these clients stare blankly at the table, fiddling with the sheet, and ask, “So… what do I do? Am I supposed to take everything off or…?” This happens even after I have given my spiel stating, “Please undress to your level of comfort.” People naturally develop anxieties over the idea of being vulnerable in the room, but it doesn’t help that massage as a profession incorporates many divisions and practices within it that require different amounts of the body to be uncovered during a session to get the full benefit. Because of this, it can be difficult for a person to know how much clothing should come off and how exposed they might feel.

Undressing for a massage is often a source of anxiety but it doesn't have to be.
Undressing for a massage is often a source of anxiety but it doesn't have to be.

Ways to Avoid or Reduce Undressing Anxiety

  • The best method is to research the therapist and type of massage beforehand to be sure you know what to expect.
  • If you find conflicting information, or not enough information, on a technique or therapist, it is perfectly alright to call the studio or spa you are going to and ask them to tell you more.
  • Another method is to listen closely to your therapist. They often will tell you what you need to know.
  • If a therapist doesn't mention how you should undress, be sure to ask questions until you feel comfortable.
  • Also, remember, if you are uncomfortable doing something you do not have to do it. You can leave all your clothes on if you want and that is perfectly fine too.

The Establishment's Duty to Inform You

With the wide range of massage types practiced and the great variation of massage from therapist to therapist, even within the same studio, it is no wonder so much confusion exists over how a client should undress. It is extremely important for a client to know what to expect, so they feel comfortable in the session, and part of this duty falls on the establishment.

A studio should inform you while you are booking a session if there is anything you need to know about the certain type of massage you are getting. An establishment should work under the assumption that most people do not know what certain types of massages entail and should work hard to increase the overall knowledge of a client in these things. This includes a business’s secretaries. They should be well trained and knowledgeable about the services they provide, and you should expect them to be friendly and willing to spend time explaining to you the differences between services and what happens during them, so you are fully aware. Do not be apprehensive about calling them up later to ask more questions. This is a part of their job description and any time they make you feel like you are a nuisance is a time when they are not doing their jobs correctly.

The goal of massage is to relax. Eliminating concerns or questions you have should be a therapists priority.
The goal of massage is to relax. Eliminating concerns or questions you have should be a therapists priority.

The Therapist's Duty to Inform You

Just like a secretary should inform you about massage, so too can your therapist. There are plenty of instances I have come across in my time as a therapist where clients have asked to come in early and speak to the therapist for an extra 15 minutes before the start of the massage because they had questions to ask them. This is normal, and most therapists enjoy having that extra time put into the schedule because we often feel we don’t get enough time to talk to our clients anyway. Even in a normal length session, however, be sure to raise any questions you might have. However, your therapist should go over the undressing rules for the massage naturally even without you asking. They should tell you what will happen during the massage, all the areas that will be worked on, how much of you will be uncovered at any given time and what those areas are. They may even suggest which items of clothing you should consider taking off to get the full benefit of the massage. However, these are normally suggestions and how far you actually undress is completely up to you.

You Have Options

"...if you are uncomfortable doing something you do not have to do it. You can leave all your clothes on if you want and that is perfectly fine too."

Do Research

A client can take matters into their own hands as well. When looking at different types of massage, be sure that you research them as completely as you feel is possible to determine what happens during that massage, so you know what to expect. For example, if you are going to get a Himalayan salt stone massage, you can expect to undress more than for a chair massage or even a sports massage because salt stone work typically uses heat plus moisture from skin-to-stone contact to help slide the stones across the body for overall relaxation. Chair massage and other such techniques are typically performed with the client fully clothed or in work out clothes, like shorts and a tank top or t-shirt, and the work includes more compression, stretching and friction work. It's clear to see that each of type of massage is going to require the use of different techniques and will involve different levels of skin contact, and therefore different levels of undressing, for the client so be sure to research the therapist and type of massage beforehand to be sure you know what to expect.

What You Can Do Before the Massage

"The best method is to research the therapist and type of massage beforehand to be sure you know what to expect."

Ask Questions

In your research, you may come across times when the information you are finding is conflicting. The internet is a big place with people of all different opinions and beliefs on subjects, so you may not always find great information, or any at all, no matter how well you research a topic. If you find this to be the case and want to know more about what a specific establishment’s undressing practices are, it is perfectly alright to call the studio or spa and ask them to give you more in-depth descriptions and explanations. As I mentioned previously, your therapist should also be going over these things before the session starts so be sure to listen closely. They may very well tell you exactly what you want to know, however if you do not feel their explanation is clear enough or you have any lingering questions or reservations, speak up so that they can address them for you.

Take a breath and enjoy the moment.
Take a breath and enjoy the moment.

Listen to Your Therapist

Listening to your therapist is very important. This may seem strange to say since most people believe they have no trouble listening however clients who walk into a massage room are often nervous and feeling a little out of sorts. It hard to focus on listening in the moment so clients often miss information we give because of their nerves. It is something to be aware of when you enter a session. Most therapist will tell you right away if a specific area should remain covered or uncovered. For example, in certain cranial sacral sessions, there is a technique of working the sacrum while the client is face up, in this instance it is stressed to the client to leave their underpants on during the massage since the therapist will be working the sacrum. On the reverse of this, if a client was to be getting an abdominal massage it would be recommended for the client to remove their shirt, so the therapist can better access the area.

Do Not Be Afraid to Ask Questions

"...any time they make you feel like you are being a nuisance is a time when they are not doing their jobs correctly."

How a Therapist Will Suggest You Undress

Even with the wide variety of techniques, vast cultural differences and the differences in schools that teach massage and what different countries, states and establishments allow, there is still some general rules you can stick to that can help you know how to undress for a massage. In a typical massage, a therapist may ask you to “undress to your level of comfort”. This is because it is easiest to perform massage when the client removes most of their clothing. We tend to tell clients that getting undressed but leaving your underpants on is the most common practice but what is most important is for the client to feel comfortable. Plenty of people leave on shorts or shirts or bras and this is fine as well. We want clients to feel secure and relaxed, not nervous.

General Rule to Consider

"...getting undressed but leaving your underpants on is the most common practice but what is most important is for the client to feel comfortable."

A Rule Many Massage Therapist Must Follow

A very important aspect to remember is that most establishments have a rule that therapists cannot massage under sheets or clothing and can typically not even move clothing, on a person, out of the way. So, if you want a low back massage but keep your underpants hiked to your belly button the only thing a therapist can do is work compression in that area. Also, if you want thigh work but leave shorts on that nearly reach your knees you will be getting compression as well. It is important to keep this in mind, so you can balance out what your body needs, what you’re comfortable with and what the therapist is allowed to do.

In Summary

Be sure to do your research before booking a massage with anyone. This is a good rule to follow regardless of whether undressing is a point of anxiety for you or not. Research the establishment, the therapist, and the type of massage so that you go in feeling knowledgeable and secure. This is the best method to help you truly relax and allow your stresses to vanish during the massage as opposed to causing new ones. It is never relaxing to be expecting a typical massage and then suddenly discover your therapist rolls their clients over by whipping the sheet off and asking them to turn. This may sound distressing, but it is a real turning technique taught at some schools. The therapist has their head turned away, of course, and no one else is in the room however if a client is not expecting it, it can cause them distress. You will find things like this in establishment reviews so be sure to investigate before your session. But in general, beyond some stray outliers like this, if you feel comfortable doing it, most massage requires you to undress down to your underpants and has you under a sheet at all times. When a therapist needs to work on your arm or your leg, only those will be uncovered, so relax and enjoy.

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