PARIS—Two months ago I was at dinner with a group of friends and, as tends to happen in Paris, the men ended up at one end of the table and the women at the other. The conversation flew thick and fast until one woman turned to me and asked in hushed tones, “Have you tried Martine de Richeville?” I hadn’t, but someone else at the table nodded knowingly.
De Richeville is a legendary figure in the Paris beauty scene. She launched her practice "Sveltcoaching" in 2002 and now has nine clinics throughout Europe (many of them in partnership with major hotels). Her business is built on the special lymphatic drainage massage technique she developed that promises to reduce cellulite and assist weight loss — all without breaking a sweat.
Given that French women drink coffee for breakfast and consider walking from A to B to be their primary mode of exercise (gyms in Paris are scarce), I'm not sure why the concept of a cellulite masseuese came as a surprise to me. “Exercise is not really in our culture, but women do diet,” says de Richeville when I meet with her. “It’s not extreme [though]: Everything in moderation.” In fact, de Richeville encourages clients to exercise while they undertake the ten-session treatment (costing around 1,600 euros) with her. She also has a nutritionist on site, and offers clients a diet tailored to their metabolism — one that generally bans sugar after 5 p.m. (Yes, that means alcohol.)
For the sake of research and the imminent summer, I decided to book a few sessions with her. While she examines me (this involves some pinching and prodding), she explains that stress is a big contributor to cellulite, so her massage technique doesn't just manually tone the body, it also targets stress and lethargy. To me this suggests I am about to enjoy a relaxing experience.
To commence, she rubs oil on my skin and begins to manipulate my stomach — the area where we hold the most stress. It’s a firm massage, but not unpleasant, until she moves down to my upper thigh and begins what can only be described as a deep-tissue burn, stretching and pulling my flesh in opposite directions. My eyes fill with tears.
The treatment lasts 50 minutes in total and continues all over my body, although the thigh and butt are by far the most excruciating areas. Despite my grimaces, de Richeville remains calm throughout, and tells me it will get easier with each treatment.
The next morning while I am examining myself in the mirror, I find a few bruises in the shape of fingerprints on my legs. My boyfriend looks on dubiously. “Do I look more toned?” I ask and he wisely goes with “Yes” — the only possible answer.
My discovery opens me up to a whole new world of possibilities: De Richeville is not the only practician in Paris offering toning via massage. Cecile Coton is based in a little-known salon in the Marais, and here she also proposes a ten-series treatment, one that includes sessions in an Iyashi dome — an infrared sauna that helps with the detoxing process. Coton is concerned primarily with bien-être (well-being), having studied Japanese medicine and Shiatsu massage. Tellingly, her massage is much less painful and more pleasant overall, though there is a fair amount of thigh slapping involved. She, too, stresses the importance of a multi-prong approach to weight loss: exercise, diet, detox, and massage.
Unfortunately, I didn’t have time for a full course of treatments before deadline, but I did complete five sessions with de Richeville (and it does get less painful each time). In the end, I can see a slight improvement. I’m no Jen Selter, but the process has kick-started my pre-summer regimen. But, in the end, I learned that massage is not a painless alternative to exercise after all.