Siobhan Towey bookends appointments with 15 minutes to just talk, during which she gets a sense of what clients are hoping to achieve and how they found the experience. Some arrive with a highly detailed sense of what they’d like her to work on, while others are uncomfortable voicing any issues or preferences. Which is fine — experience has taught her to tease out what’s really going on when someone says they’ve come in because they’re tired, or stressed, or just because.
Towey isn’t a psychoanalyst — if a client brings up a psychological issue, she just listens — but as a massage therapist, her work can be viewed as a form of therapy. Emotions often run high; physical and mental pain are frequently intertwined. When someone cries or laughs on the table, Towey checks in with them, asking if they want to stop or if need space. She’s considering adding grief to the intake form that all new clients fill out, in which they specify the areas they’d like to work on and any existing injuries or medical conditions, including mental illness, insomnia, and stress. In her experience, psychological issues can manifest as pain, stress, and fatigue. To lie on the table is to be vulnerable. It’s not uncommon for clients to tell her, unprompted, that they should really start working out, or eating better, or doing something about weight they’ve gained.
But the experience can also facilitate a unique bond between Towey and the people she massages, particularly the regulars. Lives unspool in between sessions, like the woman saw her following a miscarriage, throughout a new pregnancy, and after giving birth to a healthy baby. Another regular presented her a bottle of champagne last Christmas: “He was like, ‘You’re just always here for us.’” She is a rare constant for her clients; she hears about their ups and downs while, to a certain extent, feeling the physical effects that come with them. Practices such as hers and many of the other 5,500-plus licensed massage therapists in the New York metropolitan area offer a special kind of intimacy.
New York City is a place where strangers exist on top of one another. Days in which you don’t find yourself pressed up against a stranger’s armpit on the subway or aren’t coughed on in a crowd can be chalked up as a win. And yet despite the ever-present sense of proximity, the power of platonic human touch remains out of reach for many. In general, its role in society has been demoted, according to Steve Cole, a professor of medicine, psychiatry, and behavioral sciences at the UCLA School of Medicine. “The good news is people are treating each other with more respect,” he said. The bad news is that we’re not necessarily designed for this distance. Physical contact has been shown to help reduce stress and increase empathy. “In agrarian human communities, rarely does more than an hour pass without contact with someone else,” Cole added.
The major caveat to this, of course, is that touch is only a salve when the contact is wanted. When it’s not, its ability to calm and soothe doesn’t just evaporate, it reverses into a force capable of producing emotional and physical distress. It’s an important distinction, one that, for many of us, feels stunningly obvious, even if what constitutes wanted versus unwanted physical contact is anything but. A heightened awareness of this boundary, as Cole stated, likely contributes to fewer spontaneous physical interactions between strangers and acquaintances — though it’s worth noting that such an awareness, and the greater freedom from unwanted touch that comes with it, feels like an overall net positive for society.
Along with shifting social norms, a number of culture-spanning structural changes have helped displace touch. (A non-exhaustive list: Young people with college degrees are more likely to move to cities where many are geographically isolated from their families; they are forming long-term romantic partnerships later in their lives than previous generations did; and as digital natives, they are more comfortable with forging and maintaining relationships online rather than in real life.) Massage is one of the few acceptable ways to fill this absence, said Cole. You can say you are coming in because you pulled a muscle, even if the real reason is that you “haven’t been touched by another human being in months,” he added.
While Towey rarely receives explicitly sexual requests from clients, she suspects that a percentage of appointments are motivated by a desire for contact and connection. “I have clients where I feel like massage [provides] that,” she said.
It’s can be a lot to handle, which is why she won’t book more than three sessions in a day. She charges $104 for an hour-long session, although her hourly wage is significantly less than that, once costs are deducted; running your own practice can be expensive due to rent and overhead. But so is working for someone else. Spas typically take more than 50 percent of the cost of a session.
For massage therapists in New York, the average annual median wage is $45,510, although those in the 90th percentile of earners make nearly double that. Towey’s income has fluctuated over the years, ranging from around $30,000 to over $50,000 depending on the overhead and the number of hours she works (since having her daughter, she no longer works full-time).
People often turn to massage for medicinal purposes, including to help with recovery following a surgery or injury. Most insurance plans, however, won’t cover it, and massage sessions in New York state are taxed. “We are in this in between place,” Towey said.
Much of her job depends on correctly assessing a situation and responding in a way that helps clients rather than hurt them. Each session, which runs between 30 minutes to 90 minutes, requires her to make dozens of decisions: the best way to relieve someone’s tightness, how much pressure to apply, and whether to talk with the client about any of those things or allow them to relax in silence.
People’s bodies hold clues, which is what drew her to massage therapy in the first place. This was back in the late ‘90s, when she was an undergraduate at NYU, studying acting. Before workshops, her classmates would give each other massages as a warm up. Even then, with no training or any real sense of what she was doing, massage was satisfying, like putting together a puzzle. It still feels that way: Strangers come to her, and she must determine the relevant pieces — whether there’s an injury or structural issues, which muscles are involved, how much pressure a client is comfortable with, whether the area feels swollen or dry or hot — and arrange them in a way that provides some relief.
It’s gotten easier over the years. By now, she can scan a subway car and identify the sources of bad posture, uneven gaits, and general lack of symmetry in her fellow riders. (She tries to turn off this part of her brain when she leaves the studio, with mixed success.)
Muscles provide Towey with detailed insights. Injuries imperceptible in the light of day reveal themselves on the table, as does the everyday havoc life wrecks on our bodies: The strained necks of new, breastfeeding mothers. The tight hips of runners. The messed-up shoulders and poor posture of desk-bound workers, which Towey cheerfully demonstrated for me.
“It’s doing this,” she said, removing her sweater to better illustrate the stooped posture common among those of us who spend our days slouched in front of a computer screen. “It’s really rotating your shoulders” — she slumped further forward — “which constricts all the stuff in the front, like your neck.” Meanwhile, “the stuff back here,” she said, pointing to the middle of her shoulder blade, “is overstretched.” Like a rubber band that’s been pulled so aggressively that it’s lost its elasticity, the upper shoulder muscles tire and weaken. Demonstration over, she pulled her sweater back on and sat back up, her posture upsettingly straight.
By now, she knows to reserve judgement. “You never know what someone is going through,” she said. Sometimes “I think my job is to create a comfortable space for them to be in their bodies,” Towey said. “There’s a sense of, ‘here’s your hand.’” It can be surprisingly easy, she’s found, for people to forget that.
On a good day at work the client on the table ceases to be a person who is lonely or connected, rich or struggling financially, friendly or standoffish, skinny or fat, grieving or content, a stranger or a friend. Personality and physical attributes melt away until “it’s just muscle and bones,” she said. And in that moment, the only goal is to figure out what the tissue is telling her.