Confession: I am really, REALLY bad at getting pampered. Painfully bad. I’m aware that in the big scheme of things this is clearly SO TRAUMATIC, what a character flaw, woe, me, how sad, etc., but nevertheless, I feel intensely self-conscious getting my nails done, hair cut, makeup applied, back massaged, the works. As soon as someone else’s attention is on my body, my brain goes into hyper-panic mode.
“I can’t believe I’m paying someone to attend to my body. They must think I’m such a spoiled brat. What, like I can’t file my own damn nails? Oh god, my nails. Why did I make that chocolate thing before I came to get my nails done? They’ll think it’s dirt! I am revolting. Maybe if I sat up straight and exercised more I wouldn’t be tempted to come in here and get all my slouchy tension frivolously massaged away. I’m sorry for my hair. Whatever it did/does, I’m sorry. It’s wrong. Please fix it and make it better. I’m sorry about my feet, they are so huge, and you, kind person, have to touch them. I am mortified about my toes. Have I picked the right color nail polish? It’s red. Is red “on-trend”? I haven’t the faintest idea what’s going on in the nail polish world. What do the hot New York ladies who come in every other week pick? If I get the same thing, am I cool, or am I a poser? I don’t know if I want aromatherapy. What might each scent say about me, and how do I pick the right one? If I go in and say my muscles all over my body are killing me because I’m a dancer, will they judge me for being squishy instead of lean and muscley? I’m really sorry about my lips, and how you’re trying to put lipstick on them right now. I know, my eyes are weird. I’M SORRY.”
It is PARTY in my brain, I tell you. The fun never stops.
I’ve gotten I think three massages in my life, and yes, they felt amazing. I find the EXPERIENCE of getting a massage, though, the booking, the going to the spa, the meeting the therapist, the getting undressed, the lying down and getting situated, the small talk, the tipping, the going home, incredibly stressful. I feel so . . . decadent. Profligate. Wanton. Self-indulgent. Spoiled. I guess it’s some kind of reverse snobbery, but I feel mortified that someone might think I’m privileged (I am aware that, as an employed, healthy, able-bodied woman in America I AM privileged, but chalk it up to WASP guilt). That someone might think I’m a self-indulgent, spoiled, whiny princess who can’t take care of her own damned self.
I also spend the whole experience keenly aware of each individual part of my anatomy. Every touch reminds me that a stranger is looking at and touching my body, and I wonder about all the other bodies she may have touched, how mine measures up, and how relatively repellent it is. “Are my knees weird? They are, right? God, why have I never taken care of my KNEES?!” Really. And while normally I don’t give a flying fart about my knees, the parts of my body that I do have to work to love are even more sensitive. I tense up instinctively when the therapist approaches my belly, back, or breasts, and I find myself involuntarily holding my breath, my brain shouting “Breathe, you dumbass, why can’t you just fucking RELAX? What the hell is the MATTER with you?”
* * * * *
So I went to Bangkok for 10 days for work in November. It was a mind-blowingly wonderful opportunity, and our hosts in the firm’s Bangkok office were extraordinary. The Office Administrator arranged several evening events for us, and on Saturday she piled three of us into her car and took us out into the countryside in Thailand to eat seafood that had been caught in the canal behind the restaurant, to buy coconuts off the side of a dirt road, and to find an enormous, golden Buddha, tucked into a temple peeking out between two massive trees growing around it. I ran out of superlatives; it was just the most wonderful experience. One day, however, she announced that she had booked the three American women on the trip appointments for Thai massages after the office closed, to be followed by drinks with her at a neighboring restaurant. Massages were very cheap in Thailand, she explained, and we should definitely try them while we were there. I expressed delight while hyperventilating internally. I WAS GONNA HAVE TO GET NAKED IN THAILAND.
I spent a good part of the day wrestling with some very loud, very confused, sometimes mean thoughts. On the one hand, and I hope any of you reading understand that I mean this with no judgment, I personally feel very awkward mass-purchasing goods or services in a foreign country that are much more expensive in the USA. It feels very superior and . . . sheesh, I don’t know, borderline colonialist? to swoop into town and throw dollars around like they’re confetti, just because the exchange rate is in my favor. I KNOW that this is illogical, and that most countries’ economies rely on tourism, the USA included, but I always worry that the people providing the goods or services will feel like I’m taking advantage of them. So there was that. I am also approximately twice the size of every single person in Thailand. My hands are like baseball gloves, my feet are like flippers, and in my work shoes I towered over every co-worker I was supposed to be training. I doubt very, very much you could find a bra in my size anywhere in the country. The thought of unleashing my large, wobbly, pale, American body onto a Thai massage therapist just filled me with crippling anxiety.
As the time approached, I had to mentally slap myself. “You are in THAILAND, for God’s sake. You never thought you’d ever come here, and you may never come back again. Why on earth wouldn’t you take advantage of this opportunity that this very nice Thai woman has arranged for you, and get the hell over yourself?”
So the Office Administrator led us off into the night. We arrived at the . . . spa isn’t the right word, and massage parlor has unsavory overtones, but that’s pretty much what it was: a place where people go for massages. On the way, we asked her how much it would cost, to make sure we wouldn’t have to go to an ATM first. She informed us that hour-long massages were approximately $12. I was stunned. It is not unheard of for hour-long massages in New York to cost $150 for the most basic treatments, and to jump to well over $200/hour for anything more specialized. The O.A. explained a bit more: “Everyone in Thailand gets Thai massages. For us, it’s not about pampering; it’s about health and taking care of ourselves and our bodies.” She was right: when we walked into the parlor, we saw men and women of all ages waiting for full-body massages or getting foot massages in reclining chairs. It’s a much more matter-of-fact part of life for her. Instead of associating massage with frivolous ladies-who-lunch, she accepts it as something that’s good for her, and that she does for her well-being. So I womanned up and took my tall, perspiring body and blistered, band-aid-covered feet and put myself into the hands of my massage therapist.
She first took my shoes away and led me to a small bench to have my feet washed. The usual “I’m sorry about my giant feet” song started up in my head, and I just tried to say “You know what? Shut up. Just shut up. You know you’re the foreigner here, and she knows it too. It’s just not that big a damned deal. Chill.” She then led me upstairs to a room that smelled like sandalwood and jasmine and was filled with curtained-off mattresses. Pulling a curtain aside, she gestured to a neatly folded pile of pajama-like cotton clothes and left me to change. Uncertain of the etiquette, I slipped off my clothes and, after some hesitation, my bra, and pulled on the pajamas. She returned with a cup of tea and moved my clothes out of the way. Once I’d finished the tea, she motioned for me to lie back, and she started working on my feet.
Now, granted, it’s quite different to have a stranger touching your body when you’re wearing cotton pajamas than it is to have a stranger touching your body when you’re naked. Still, I expected that I was going to have to grit my teeth through the experience in order to keep from dying of shame and embarrassment. Instead, and to my surprise, I found myself . . . strangely moved. Thai massages are very different from Swedish massages, and I won’t pretend that the whole experience was blissful (lots of knees and elbows, and at one point the therapist cracked my back so suddenly and completely that I yelped this little “whoa-ow!” hybrid noise out into the tranquility of the second floor). The experience is one of extremes: at one point the therapist just held my wrist in her hand, suspended off the floor, and it felt unbelievably tender. At another point she actually crawled UNDER one of my legs and pushed it up to the ceiling and over to the side, popping my hip flexors (she made this stifled little “whoof” noise as she hoisted it up, so we’re even in the embarrassing noise department). At another point she knelt on the backs of my thighs and pressed with all her might deep into my lower back. There was pleasure and pain, all mixed up together, but mostly it just felt like KINDNESS.
I didn’t feel spoiled or self-indulgent or flawed. I felt a little off-kilter because of our language barrier, but we gestured back and forth to each other and got along just fine. I felt taken care of. I felt quiet and still. I just keep thinking to myself “She was so kind. It felt so kind. It was nice.” Why did I have to go literally halfway around the world in order to allow someone to treat my body kindly? Maybe because I sure as hell wasn’t doing it.
* * * * *
We’re in the last month of a calendar year. The Christian church’s liturgical year is just starting. There are lots of endings and new beginnings on the horizon. There are many holidays to be celebrated, presents to buy, feasts to prepare and eat, donations to make, hugs to give. Magazines, newspapers, and TV shows are all doing a hard-sell on rich, indulgent food, gifts to others and ourselves, and sacrifices and commitments that need to be made. In exactly a month they’ll start scolding us for eating the food, spending the money, and frittering away our time and energies. They’ll start telling us to do better this year. To make a resolution. To turn over a new leaf and find a new you. To work off the feasts of December, because June is on its way. It’s emotional whiplash, and pardon me, but fuck that noise.
I resolve to stop scolding. Actually, that’s still a negative goal: pledging NOT to do something. I vow, instead, to seek out kindness. To honor it in others, to give it more freely, and to turn it inwards. Barring a miracle, I may never go back to Thailand again. I don’t want to look back after another 28 years of my life have gone by, only to remember the times I let MY OWN unkindness towards my body prevent it from receiving someone else’s kindness. This is a season that encourages us to look with kindness on our neighbors. Let’s look with kindness on ourselves while we’re at it.