Pressing the Flesh

It’s 1:30 on a Friday afternoon and Paris Gordon is having a massage, her third this week. The mid-thirtyish designer usually has one daily (in times of off-the-charts angst and aches she’ll have a double session or recruit two therapists to work on her in stereo), but she was out of town on business for a couple of days. Gordon, who often spends more than $400 a week on rubdowns, typically holds off until after work. But what with the arrival of a raft of dresses with the labels off-center, the jackets that showed up with stones absent from the buttons, and the marketing and P.R. people yipping at her, and what with last night’s big awards affair, where she kind of overdid it in the drink and dance departments, Paris is yearning. “Ooh,” she gasps, “that foot is so tight.”

“I noticed at the beach that my girlfriends have cellulite,” she reports to ponytailed masseur Gino Khalis, of the midtown “holistic and relaxation center” Healing Hands. “And I don’t have it. And I really believe it’s because of massage.”

There are 7 million complaints in the naked city. Half of them are about aching backs. And now massage, for years the perquisite of the privileged, of pro athletes and prima ballerinas, has been co-opted by working stiffs seeking to banish soreness, stress, and – okay, why not? – cellulite.

“I get shoulder and neck problems, and massage is very beneficial,” says Abby Cohen, 56, an editor at the Journal of the Audio Engineering Society. “I’ve gone many times when I could barely move and I leave and I’m pain-free. At first it sounded like an extravagance, but to me this is a necessary expense.”

“My clients used to be type A’s, high-strung professionals,” says masseuse Carrie DeMers. “Now the people I see are often self-employed, or your average word processor or office assistant, or people who are just considerate of themselves. But,” she adds, “of course I still have type A’s.”

These days, the massage therapists at Elizabeth Arden, who for years rubbed the shoulders of the idle and well-fixed, are working over “professional women,” says Kelly Weber, senior marketing vice-president for Elizabeth Arden Salons, Inc. “It’s no longer someone coming in to be pampered.”

As demand has increased, so has the number of suppliers. In the past, those who wanted a massage often had to make an appointment days or weeks in advance; that problem has been solved by the Great American Back Rub walk-in chain and by Healing Hands, which promises a massage therapist at your door within an hour.

“Our business plan originally just took in baby-boomers,” says Bill Zanker, founder of the Great American Back Rub. But in a classic case of tickle-down economics, “we’re getting everybody,” he says. “It really cuts across all lines. I get people who come in limos, and I get people who look as if they don’t have the money to pay.”

Even the massage boutiques that traditionally catered to an upscale clientele are now kneading middle-class muscles. “Fourteen years ago, I would see high-profile people, celebrities who would have massages regularly,” says Robin Ehrlich-Bragdon, owner of the Eastside Massage Therapy Center. “Those people still get massages, but now I see corporate executives, people in advertising, marketing, sales, people who have a lot of stress. And on Friday nights, we get a lot of doctors, surgeons who are on call for the weekend and need to gear up, and a lot of psychiatrists. I see executive assistants, payroll workers, and administrative assistants.”

If you’re lucky, you don’t even need to leave the office: A number of companies – G.E., Goldman Sachs, Young & Rubicam, and American Airlines among them – are inviting massage therapists on-site as an employee perk and as a means of reducing stress and absenteeism.

“Companies are looking for more creative rewards for folks, and massage is a nice little reward for relatively little money,” says Teri Lukin, manager of health services for Time Inc., which has a masseuse on call two days a week for deployment anywhere around the company. When Landon Y. Jones took over as editor of People in 1991, morale was low and stress high. Bringing in a massage therapist on the magazine’s weekly closing night “was kind of a way to help people hang in there, and it became a great success,” says Jones, now Time Inc.’s vice-president of strategic planning. “It was very democratic. If a copy person signed up before an assistant managing editor, he had the spot.”

Massage is not a luxury anymore,” says Dolores Cannella, placement director at the Swedish Institute, one of two accredited massage schools in the New York area. “It’s a necessity for all of us who are under some kind of strain. More people are realizing that, and more people are using massage to prevent illness or disease.” Cannella fields 300 calls a month from people in search of a therapist. There is, she adds, particular interest currently in sports, myofascial, and lymphatic-drainage massage, along with classic Swedish.

People can service their trapeziuses or rhomboids through traditional means – a private practitioner – or through a group practice; through the office of a chiropractor or physical therapist working with a massage therapist; or at health clubs and day spas like Elizabeth Arden, which has nearly doubled its massage staff from ten to nineteen and expanded its offerings to include Shiatsu (a form of Japanese finger-pressure therapy), Reiki (an ancient method said to free blocked energy), and craniosacral therapy (a light-touch technique that addresses the membranes of the central nervous system). There’s a two-week wait for Thursday, Friday, and Saturday appointments.

And less traditional massage venues are spreading like sciatica. The menu at Korean nail parlors frequently includes neck and shoulder rubs in five-minute increments for around a dollar a minute. Bloomingdale’s, in partnership with Healing Hands, is building a “wellness bar” in the store’s cosmetics section where in alternating seats customers will be able to get a chair massage and a little lecture about breathing techniques and the Healing Hands product line of oils, creams, and candles. The store has already set up massage chairs for various evening shopping events and procedures.

“The customers have really liked it,” says Anne Keating, Bloomingdale’s vice-president of public relations. “They’ll stand in line for ten or fifteen minutes to have it done and then say, ‘Oh, now I can shop more.’ I try to go twice a month myself,” she adds. “I thought about it as an extravagance until I saw the results.”

The massage explosion can be attributed partly to the growing population of tired, aging, not-quite-as-limber-as-they-once-were baby-boomers, partly to an increased awareness of the effects of stress and of the physiological benefits of pressing the flesh. “I think massage has come out of the closet,” says the Great American Body Rub’s Zanker. “It’s nice, it’s clean, people aren’t afraid of it. You’ve got them passing on the name of a massage therapist they way they did with shrinks in the old days.”

“As we moved into the nineties with the health-care crisis, people have been made more aware of how the health system works in this country, and that has made them more aware of the system’s deficiencies,” says Elliot Greene, a spokesman for the American Massage Therapy Association. “I think it’s tapped into a feeling of dissatisfaction with health care, particularly with its losing the dimension of the personal touch. This made people more open to alternative medicine, and massage therapy got a big boost from that interest in health alternatives.” What’s so convenient about this explanation is that it provides high moral ground for those who’ve been having massages for years – simply because they feel good. But the observation is underscored by Oxford Health Care, a health-maintenance organization that has been a leader in covering alternative health-care practices like acupuncture and that covers 25 to 40 percent of the fee for in-plan massage therapists.

Van Morrison pours out of the radio as Carrie DeMers, a compact brunette with hands you suspect could easily break boards, applies lotion and elbow pressure to Alexander Alimanestianu, 38, the executive vice-president of Town Sports International, who’s been suffering for several months from tennis shoulder. While DeMers works on his back, 3-year-old Charlotte works on her father’s feet, and Charlotte’s mom, Sally Maca, works on getting the child out of the living room, DeMers’s usual area of operation, “because it generally has the space and the sound system.”

“I definitely think you’re loosening up,” she tells Alimanestianu as he relinquishes the portable massage table to his wife, a ritual performed increasingly around the city as harried couples seize on relaxation that can be ordered in.

“It took Alex three months before he’d see Carrie,” notes Maca. “Then he’d only see her for half an hour. Then he’d start to say, ‘When’s Carrie coming?’ Now he says, ‘I wish Carrie were coming tonight.’”

Though most massage therapists say their practice is pretty evenly divided between men and women, some of the initial resistance may be gender-related. “Women are more accustomed than men to being touched,” says Swedish-Shiatsu-Reiki therapist Chloe Maglietta, whose client pool consists largely of “folks on a spiritual path” and business executives. “I think men are afraid sometimes because their relationship to touch has generally been sexual or football.”

“I have a lot of women who tell me, ‘I would love my husband to come, but he would never do it,’ adds Upper East Side therapist Anat Raz. Paris Gordon has no truck with this attitude. “If, when I start to go out with someone, he says, ‘I wouldn’t have a massage; I don’t want anybody to touch my body,’ that tells me something about him,” she says. “I wonder how cuddly he can be.”

But it’s the cultural resistance – massage is too self-indulgent, I don’t need it, I don’t like strange people touching me – that practitioners would like laid to rest (along with the idea that there’s something seamy about massage, which is the main reason the Great American Back Rub isn’t called the Great American Massage, according to Zanker). “I can’t just go and book a massage, because I feel it’s decadent and I should be spending the money on my kids,” admits one Upper East Side art appraiser. “So I try and make up a reason to go. I say, ‘Gee, I hurt my back when I lifted a heavy box.’

“When I used to see a therapist, I would cheerily tell people where,” the art dealer adds. “But massage is different, because it isn’t like you have a problem and that’s why you’re going. You’re going because you want to be indulged.”

Bill Bellamy is having a little cavity anxiety, so he’s having a little massage. The aggressively cuddly actor and MTV V.J. is just now getting comfortable in the massage chair at the foot of the steps leading to dentist Marc Lowenberg’s examining rooms when massage therapist Michael Taylor Cameron is called upstairs to tend to a patient with taut nerves and bad gums. “I get anxious,” admits rug dealer Vivian Collins, opening wide as Cameron kneads her neck and shoulder.

“In terms of patient response, this has been amazing,” says Lowenberg, estimating that 75 percent of his patients take advantage of the free massage service that’s offered from ten to six every Tuesday and Thursday. “Patients who used to give me a lot of problems because of their anxiety now like to come. Sometimes, they stop by on days they don’t have appointments just to get a massage.”

The Albany office in charge of state board examinations for massage also administers the licensing tests for psychologists. “There’s a connection between the two, don’t you think so?” says a staff member. Sure, one could point out the obvious similarities between psychoanalysis and massage therapy: Both require you to lie down. Both touch on sore spots.

“I’ve heard about eating obsessions, parents’ struggles with their children, marital difficulties,” says Anat Raz. “This is like a little haven, so people come, they get their treatment, and they can fall apart on the table. Occasionally, people cry. There are those who believe that the soft tissues store memories, and as you do physical work it may release those memories.

“For me, as for a therapist, it’s important to keep everything private,” adds Raz, who uses a Swedish-acupressure blend. “I see husbands and wives; I see mothers and daughters or people who are close friends, and everything that is said here stays here.”

At the Great American Back Rub one recent Friday afternoon, four massage therapists in blue T-shirts with the company logo are standing, squatting, bending, kneeling through an eighteen-step sequence that covers the neck, arms, shoulder, back, and lower back – all in full view of sometimes startled passersby.

“At first I thought it was weird to do it out in the open like this,” says Ann Heimberger, 27, a law student who has just topped off her monthly massage with a reflexology session. “But you get so lost in the massage you don’t even notice. So much weird stuff goes on in New York that someone getting a massage in a storefront is the least of it.”

The idea for the Great American Back Rub began nibbling at Bill Zanker almost ten years ago during a morning jog in San Francisco when he saw a man on a park bench giving massages for a dollar a minute. “He looked kind of dirty, but people were lining up. I waited and I got a massage and it felt really good. I would try to go for a massage before work, but it took too long and I kept thinking of the guy in San Francisco,” Zanker says. “Then in a Sharper Image store, I saw those massage products and thought to myself, ‘Why don’t you put those two things together?’”

There are those in the business who dismiss Great American Back Rub, who view it as the McDonald’s of massage. “I find it degrading even to use the words back rub, because it’s so unprofessional,” says Anat Raz. “A back rub is something you give your spouse for five minutes before you make love.”

But Zanker takes the big-tent approach: Massage – any kind of massage – is good.

“We’re in a generation of people who are saying, ‘What else is there to do?’” he says. “You’re not smoking, you’re not drinking, you’re not taking drugs. You can’t have sex. This is something you can do and nobody is getting hurt. And you feel jazzed afterward.”

Pressing the Flesh