Why Did My Massage Therapist Spend So Much Time on My Stomach?

And more importantly, why couldn't I just speak up and tell him to focus on my back?

I was sitting in the waiting area of the spa with my sister, who’d given me a gift certificate for a massage as a Christmas gift. An attendant poked her head around the door: “Emily? Your masseuse will be right out. He’s just getting the room ready.” I almost choked on my chilled lemon water. He?

“I didn’t think you had a preference,” my sister said when I turned to face her, wide-eyed and speechless. I quickly shrugged it off, not wanting to hurt her feelings. The masseuse was probably old, maybe he was gay, perhaps the sight of my pale, pre-New-Year’s-detox body would gross him out and he’d ask for another client. And then he came around the corner—young, probably not gay, with a thick accent and a crop of short brown hair. He was a dead ringer for Novak Djokovic, the Serbian tennis star. I wanted to text my husband—Novak is giving me a massage!—but I didn’t think he’d appreciate it. Who wants to know their wife is about to get a naked rubdown from a guy who looks like a pro athlete?

I tried to rationalize the whole thing as I walked to the candlelit room. Novak was a professional. He’d seen hundreds, maybe thousands, of naked backs. He probably didn’t even see skin anymore, just taught muscle bands and knots. I started to relax.

And then without warning, about half an hour in, he situated a laughably small piece of material over my chest, pulled the sheet down, and proceeded to massage my bare stomach.

I wanted to die. Throw up, laugh, or die.

I thought about speaking up: Um, excuse me, Novak? I’m sure this is well-intentioned and all, but I actually don’t carry too much of my stress in my belly. It’s really more around my neck area … But I didn’t. Looking back at it, I wish I had. I just lay there as he prodded my intestines, convincing myself that he was gay and a stomach massage was perfectly normal.

Once Novak moved to less awkward territory, I began to think about how many minutes he’d wasted rubbing my ribs rather than the spot just below my shoulder blade that was really bothering me. Five minutes? Eight? Why couldn’t I take control of this massage? I certainly don’t have a problem notifying the waitress if my order is wrong, and I’m not shy about reminding a chatty Septa passenger that the first car is the quiet car. Why, when I’m lying on a table with a stranger massaging my bare skin, is it so hard to speak up?

I thought about the last massage I’d had at a different spa a few weeks prior. It had been going well—the female masseuse applied perfect pressure, and she instantly targeted my tight muscles—until she began to talk. She regaled me with tales of her bipolar ex-husband, her fertility troubles, and her messy divorce. I kept quiet for as long as I could bear to, but it felt rude to lay there in silence while she poured her heart to me, so I eventually responded with a few encouraging “mms.”  After all, I didn’t want her to think I wasn’t paying attention.

As Novak massaged my feet, I became increasingly frustrated with my inability to tell people—namely massage therapists—what I want. They want to know, of course. They deserve to know. It makes their jobs easier, and it makes my service that much better. Still, I couldn’t bring myself to tell Novak that he could just lay off my legs entirely—I’d rather him focus solely on my back—and when the massage was over, I thanked him profusely and left a generous tip. Not exactly the most forthright approach.

I always tell them what to do and what not to do,” a friend told me when I relayed the stomach massage story. “If you’re lying there tense and uncomfortable, then what’s the point?” She was right. I needed to start speaking up.

I recently booked a massage at a third spa. When they asked if I had a masseuse preference, I requested a female. And then in a sudden burst of courage, just before hanging up, I blurted it out:

Oh, and no stomach massage.