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An Incomplete Guide to Dress Codes for Massage Therapists

June 20, 2016 Author: Allissa Haines

Ugh. Dress codes for massage therapists are a tedious topic, amirite?

I mean, it's a thing I used to care about. I'm a little embarrassed about that. I'm really embarrassed, actually, about how much I used to care about what massage therapists wear to work. I've been keeping my head down for a year or so now, and I've found that I don't really care about this anymore. I don't much care what other massage therapists wear to work, and if you care about what I'm wearing, you have way too much time on your hands.

But every so often someone brings up the topic, and it usually gets a really heated discussion going. My friend Sandy did that the other day and it's been pretty fun/awful to watch. I love Sandy, she's got some serious wisdom to share, and she really threw herself on the grenade for this conversation. 

Really, more questions arose than answers. Which is cool. I like questions. So I decided to answer them.

What does it mean to dress professionally?

It means that the clothing you wear to work is reflective of your integrity, mindful of your environment, and includes a nod to context.

Does what we wear at work, or when representing our business outside of work, really matter?

Well, yeah. We touch people. There are health and hygiene issues. Also, many of us own businesses. So we're looking to project a certain amount of credibility and trustworthiness in our outward appearance. And if you're an employee, you may be rewarded if clients request you for future appointments, so it probably matters that you project some credibility, too.

If a client hits on me or expects sexual services, is it my fault? Because I must be dressed suggestively?

No. Maybe. But no. It is never okay for any client to behave inappropriately or be disrespectful.

I'll repeat that: It is never okay for any client to behave inappropriately or be disrespectful.

At the same time, it's vital to remember that ours is a profession fraught with innuendo and historical (and current) connections to prostitution and human trafficking.

Even the most clinical, upright, khaki-and-polo-shirt-wearing professionals have been on the receiving end of icky intentions. But revealing and/or tight clothes won’t help the matter. So be mindful of that.  

Like it or not: How you cover (or don’t cover) your body with clothes is an outward signal of what type of attention you want to receive. If you regularly find yourself on the receiving end of unwanted advances or suggestions, you could be inadvertently sending the wrong signal with your clothes.

Soooooo, what do I wear?

Sorry. I can't tell you that. No one can. I repeat: NO ONE CAN. In a field this diverse, there simply cannot be an effective or useful 'general rule'. And anyone who starts spouting off suggestions as though they apply to everyone is an asshat who doesn't understand nuance. There is no general rule.

So what set of criteria do we use to mindfully decide if we're dressed appropriately for our work?  This is where context and judgement comes in. And I think you can nail that down by navigating a series of questions. Prompts, really.

Where do I work?

Are you

  • in a private solo practice, where clients are the only people who will see you all day.
  • sharing space with other massage and related practitioners.
  • in a hospital or other structured medical environment.

How are the other people working in this environment dressed?

Will you stick out, in a negative way, if you are dressed in a very different manner than your coworkers? Do you care?

Most importantly, will looking dramatically under or over-dressed as compared to your coworkers affect the care you provide to clients? This could be an issue in a structured medical environment. If you want to do rounds with an oncology team, neither flip-flops (sanitary issues) or dressy high heels (not non-slip soles) are acceptable.

If you can't make rounds, you can't be a real part of the care team.

What's your schedule like?

Do you often have a variety of activities scheduled in one day or do you have business and networking situations only on non-client days?

What are the physical demands of your actual hands-on work?

If you do short spot treatment massage in a PT clinic, your options for work clothes are very different than an Ashiatsu therapist.

An Active Isolated Stretching practitioner has different wardrobe needs than a Craniosacral therapist. And those of us who use oils need fabrics that wash well and rinse clean.

Is there anything about my outfit that could be distracting? To me or the client?

Do my earrings make noise? Do the pants require a belt that will interfere with my oil holster? Can I get my shoes off quickly if I decide to throw in some Ashiatsu? If I do pec work, will the client get a face-full of my bare armpit? When I lean over to do some leg stretches, will my top gape open?

What's your career like?

Are you actively seeking new clients or are you maintaining several long-time clients?

All of these factors = context.

I wore Star Wars leggings, flip flops and a black t-shirt to work the other day. Not my usual work clothes, but I fully evaluated the context and made an educated decision. It went like this:

Yes, my officemate was in, and I would likely cross paths with her and one of her clients. But her clients are mostly long-timers who wouldn't care if Charro was hanging out in the office, and I would likely be sitting behind a desk anyhow.

I had one client that day. I happen to know that she has a large R2D2 robot at home. She appreciates Star Wars. And she appreciates a mellow Saturday morning vibe.  

As for the flip-flops, I stubbed my toe the night before and real shoes hurt. I left my flops at the treatment room door and massaged barefoot.

Sometimes I wear jeans to work. Sometimes I wear my favorite yoga pants from Land's End. Usually I wear a solid short sleeved tshirt. Since I started doing Ashiatsu I wear leggings to work, too. Most of the time I wear a long short-sleeved knit tunic-y shirt with the leggings. But I'm long-torso'd so my butt isn't always entirely covered. I’ve yet to cause the collapse of credible massage in America. And I've made a full-time living as a massage therapist for 11 years. 

When I was 30 and started my business, I was greatly concerned about how people perceived me. So I dressed up more (I still do for certain community and networking tasks). I think that was a wise move. People didn't always take cute young women seriously. Many still don't. So dressing up might matter in some situations. You gotta make that call.

When you're on someone else's turf, do what you're told.

If you are taking a class, working as an employee, or participating in an event as a volunteer, wear what you're told.

If you're not sure what's expected, ask. Then do it. The public clinic after your medical massage course is not the time to be debating the yoga pants argument. Be prepared and wear what you're told to wear.

Mostly, what I want to say about what I wear to work is this:

It's none of your damn business.

And what you wear to work is none of mine.

"But when other therapists wear tight leggings and revealing tops, we ALL look bad!"

Oh, please. Nobody can make you look bad except you. And perhaps your employees. (And if you have employees who dress so badly you're concerned about your reputation, then you really suck at hiring. Worry about that.)

Be an upstanding leader and role-model in your community and stop worrying about other people. Your greatness will draw the attention away from their stupidity. Stop giving them the spotlight and concentrate on what actually matters.

Julie Tudor nailed it in a comment thread

Instead of fretting over "proper attire," let's focus on client and therapist education and consistent professional standards that encourage healthy boundaries from the get-go.
Let's standardize educational requirements in this country so we have job portability and industrial integrity.
Let's stop spreading myths as facts and go back in earnest to our physiotherapy roots.
Let's stop gossiping and griping about petty issues and instead expect high standards from every person claiming to be a member of this profession.
Let's screen teachers, students and applicants with the vigor we would expect other respected professions to commit to. Let's engender respect and be pleasantly surprised when we receive it in return.

Julie, you are my hero. Thank you for this.

Things that worry me more than lousy clothing choices:

MTs who ask in facebook groups if/how to work on clients with complex medical conditions.

MTs selling essential oils through multilevel marketing companies who display no ethics in their claims or marketing.

MTs who think it's okay to do deep work even after a client has asked for less pressure.

MTs who don’t clean their lotion bottles (and handles to towel cabis, and various things they touch during massage) between clients.

MTs who body-shame, medication shame, or pick some other way to shame clients.

MTs who violate scope of practice and encourage 'emotional releases'.

And so. Much. More.

Yoga pants and bare feet are the least of our problems, people.