RISKY BUSINESS: Getting France the message on massage

by Alison Benney


Classified ads using these disclaimers may not sound as if they are promoting a particularly thoughtful Christmas present, but in the US a gift certificate for therapeutic massage is much appreciated by family and friends. In France, however, massage for healthy relaxation is relatively unknown and even the blatant injunctions above don’t deter the average French male from considering it an invitation to sex.

“The New Age hasn’t quite arrived in France,” explained Sara Petlin, an American specialist in movement and relaxation. “People here just don’t understand the point of massage as they do in the States,” agreed Evy Jester, a French massage therapist. “In this country, massage has only three functions: medical, esthetic and sexual.”

It’s true that the term massage has carried an unfortunate erotic connection to the word “parlor”. But in the last 30 years it’s also been stretched to include wellness and relaxation, sports preparation and recovery, pain relief, personal transformation, physical rehabilitation, chiropractic aid and just plain pampering.

Jester studied at the prestigious Santa Monica School of Massage in California and ran a successful massage business there for 10 years. When she returned to France in 1992, she found it almost impossible to build a clientele. “I tried putting ads in health magazines,” she said, ”but mostly got calls from men looking for sex or French women who expected massage to help them to lose weight or get rid of cellulite - they just don’t understand the holistic concept of bodywork.”

To make it worse, deciphering the message of massage ads has become tricky since the authorities cracked down on adverts for erotic massage. Currently, even legitimate therapists can’t legally use the “M” word unless the service is provided by a doctor, and wording like “détente corporelle”, “soins anti-stress” and “technique douce” leave lots of room for ambiguity.

But the practice has an honorable history. According to The Book of Massage by Lucinda Lidell, Hippocrates, the father of medicine, recommended “rubbing” for healing; and Julius Caesar “was daily pinched all-over, to ease his neuralgia and headaches.”

The most widely known touch therapy in the West is Swedish massage, developed by Per Henrik Ling in the early 1800s to treat both physical and mental “dis-ease.” Derived from Chinese, Egyptian, Greek and Roman techniques, it involves five main strokes: gliding, kneading, friction, vibration and percussion. This sort of bodywork was abandoned in the 1920s in favor of such mental health cures as shock treatment and psychiatric medicine, but in the last 30 years it has skyrocketed back to popularity, thanks to consciousness-raising in the ‘60s, the fitness boom and the rapidly growing alternative health movement.

Today, in many countries, massage is considered a conventional treatment for stress and as a tool for physical, spiritual and emotional health. The book Massage: A Career at Your Fingertips, by Martin Ashley, lists over 300 schools, half a dozen professional associations and more than 50 established varieties of bodywork in the US alone. The UK has established schools and professional guidelines, and popular techniques have come out of Germany and The Netherlands. “Convenience” backrubs are offered on New York City sidewalks for yuppie-types and recently this journalist paid 10 dollars for a delightful 10-minute neck-and-shoulder massage at the airport in Tallahassee, Florida.

Then there’s France, a country in which wine is defined in sensuous terms, nudity goes practically un-noticed and prostitution is legal; yet there is a distinct uneasiness about massage for relaxation and pleasure. This, despite a recent study revealing that the French are the largest consumers in the world of stress medications, such as anti-depressants, tranquilizers and sleeping pills.

Moreover, the need for touch has been well documented as a means for personal identification, reassurance and grounding. As Jester stated, “We are cuddled, hugged and caressed as babies, but suddenly as adults we’re expected to do without.” An American school director added, “Massage therapy recognizes that underneath each person’s tension, stress, even illness and injury, is an unmet need for energetic nourishment, i.e. love.”

What better argument for giving the gift of touch this year? But when you’re shopping around for that perfect masseuse, don’t even joke about sex. It’s the massage therapist’s dilemma, a real pain in the neck.

   Paris massage therapy tips   

The average price of a full-body massage is 70-100 euros. It is possible to get a generic massage in Paris at certain beauty salons, hotels and spas, but the quality will vary.
Some of the techniques listed in Paris ads include:

California massage: typically a mix of Swedish massage, shiatsu, reflexology and aromatherapy.
Shiatsu: involves pressure on the acupuncture points to facilitate the vital force known as “chi” that flows through channels, or meridians, in the body.
Reflexology: manipulation of the feet and/or hands, based on the principle that there are areas, or reflex points, on the hands and feet that correspond to each organ, gland and structure in the body.
Aromatherapy: incorporating aroma, often scented oils, into the healing technique.
Thai massage: similar to shiatsu but also involving manipulation and manual stretching of the body.
Lymphatic drainage: referring to directed stroking that stimulates the lymph glands. In fact,imho, any good massage will accomplish this.

English-speaking massage therapists I can recommend:

Craig Dennis

Chris Dobbs: chrisdobbs @ promessage.com

Evy Jester (see also: Massage Therapy by Evy Jester)