I love a massage. About a hundred years ago, when I ran 5k a day and worked out as well, I got a massage every month. I’ve had deep tissue massages that made me sing ‘hurts so good’, I’ve had small Thai women walk on me, I’ve even been double-teamed – two masseurs working on me at once.  At the first sign of stress my shoulders bunch up around my neck and seize up – a side effect of being hunched over a computer most of the day – and it’s been a full-on few months, so when my partner suggested we get a massage while on a short break away, I jumped at it.

And then I remembered. Nine times out of ten, to get a massage, you have to submit yourself to the ludicrous faux-medical, faux spiritual world of the Spa.

I’m not going to name and shame the spa in Malta, because there are thousands like it: hell I had the choice of three within walking distance of my hotel room. Spas – the businesses formerly known as beauty parlours  – are the modern equivalent of snake oil salesmen and travelling medicine shows. They’ve diversified from prettification to include massage and assorted alternative ‘therapies’, but they are so unconvinced that anyone would part with good money just to lie in a darkened room and have someone rub their troubles away that everything on offer is wrapped up in pseudo-medical/pseudo-spiritual bull.

The sign by the pool said couples could enjoy a Holistic Hot Stone Massage & Indian Head Massage each for a total price of €100. I’d had a hot stone massage before. Basically they use different sized stones, heated in a bath of hot water, instead of their fingers. The heat is lovely. Two 60 minutes massages for that price is a pretty good deal in most places, plus you’d get a head massage as well. Sweet! But I felt like a facial instead, so I asked if I could swap out the head massage for a facial and was told I could. Book it in, I said.

The decor was typical: neutral walls and pale timbers, with potted ‘lucky’ bamboo plants and water features to reassure you you’re in a spiritual place. The effect is always somewhat ruined by the glossy display stands for the products they’re going to push on you, but more on that later.

We’re greeted by a woman dressed like a nurse and led to the ‘relaxation room’ (wooden loungers, incense and gossip magazines) and asked to complete a consultation form. Keep in mind we are in a holiday resort, known to be tourists: the form is two pages long and asks for a ‘medical history’. It’s actually a random collection of ‘conditions’ organised by the body parts affected.  In the UK it would be in breach of the Data Protection Act.

Do you suffer from flatulence? it asks. My partner and I snigger: ‘usually it’s other people who suffer, he he he’. I can understand that it might be nice for a masseur to know if you’re likely to be letting off a stinker in the enclosed space they work in, but flatulence is a by-product of eating: we all do it.

But I’m an obedient sort of girl and I tick the box for epilepsy out of habit. When our ‘therapists’ introduce themselves to us, mine grills me closely on this. Massage and epilepsy are contraindicated, she tells me gravely. I really want this massage so I don’t snarkily remark that my neurologist never mentioned that, I just strip off and lie down on the massage table while telling her (truthfully) it’s completely controlled. I’m pretty sure what she means is ‘we’re scared you’ll fall off the table if you have a fit’ – or possibly just ‘we’re scared’ – seizures can be pretty freaky. I don’t have a problem with that, but the co-opting of medical language pisses me off. Therapists, treatments, contraindicated…the language, like the nurse-like uniforms, is intended to delude you into believing this stuff is more than it is.

The faux spirituality and the co-opting of indigenous cultures serves the same purpose. All spas, it seems, come equipped with zen gardens, incense or essential oils burning and other assorted signifiers of their powers of spiritual healing. It’s always a hokey mish-mash of ideas borrowed from assorted world religions: at this spa they’ve gone for a sort of Japanese minimalism rather than the full hippie (crystals and bodhisattva icons), but the idea’s the same. My partner asks questions about the theory behind the treatment and gets told all about the special healing powers of the stones and ‘some stuff about chakras’ (he’s vague on the details). Google ‘holistic hot stone massage’ and you can read how this treatment has been practiced by (unspecified) cultures around the world for thousands of years…without any actual evidence of who and where. At least this is a vague claim but others are very specific, like the spas in Australia that claim to be using techniques 40,000 years old, and it’s all BS. The Hopi tribe are actively campaigning to have their name disassociated from the practice of ear-candling.  This is the worst sort of cultural appropriation, exploiting- or faking – other cultures’ traditional beliefs for profit.

Meanwhile, I am starting to realise that the promise that I could swap out the Indian Head Massage for the facial is not being fulfilled. Judging by the number of times the CD of relaxation music has looped (why is it always Enya?), I am getting two full services, rather than a package treatment. I have to concentrate to stay relaxed, anticipating that when I get out I’m going to find I get charged a whole lot more than we were quoted. Sure enough, after I’ve declined the offer to spend €35 on a cream apparently essential to getting the best out of the facial, I am presented with a bill almost double what we were quoted and the relaxing effect of the massage is somewhat diminished by having to haggle a better price.

I’m not against alternative medicine per se. When I’ve had chronic conditions my GP can’t help with, I’ve tried a variety of alternatives and some of them have given me relief. The placebo effect is a well-documented phenomena and my personal philosophy is that if you can afford it and you get the result you want it doesn’t much matter whether the treatment worked or your mind/body sorted it out. I certainly believe that massage has very real benefits: especially for stress relief and muscular tension. But I object the false claims that are made: go back to those sites describing hot stone massage and you’ll see claims that they treat fybromyalgia and multiple sclerosis. At best, they offer some relief from the symptoms, but they are not a treatment, which implies a cure. I applaud Ben Goldacre for his efforts to stamp out this sort of practice: at it’s worst it is downright dangerous.

The massage I had was actually very good. It absolutely did the job of wiping away my workday tensions and loosening the tight muscles in my shoulders and back. My skin is brighter and more moisturised after the facial (despite the fact I used my £5 moisturiser not the extra special one). I’m happy that I got what I wanted. But I would have been a lot happier if I hadn’t felt like the whole experience – including the bait & switch on the package price – was a bit of a con job. Masseurs of the world, hear my plea: ditch the hokey new age palaver. No one likes to feel like a mark.

4 thoughts on “Spa-humbug

  1. So true! As usual, you’ve hit the nail right on the head. Most people going to a spa are surely making the visit in order to feel the basic physical benefits of the services and don’t need the fabricated cultural origins of the practices constantly shoved at them in a “we’re legitimate”, needy kind of way (to say nothing of the offense to those cultures). Our muscles are tense – massage relieves that. Spinning a yarn isn’t required. Mind you, the additional stress caused by the on-selling is probably a fairly sound business strategy. If they make us begin to tense up again as we dodge the lotions, potions and dodgy pricing, we will need to return for another ‘treatment’ all the sooner!!


  2. Yep – totally agree, all BS and jellybeans. When I had a day at teh (can’t remember what they were called then, but I think not Spas), it was brilliant, and I have never experienced it that good again. There were no psuedo medical/religious overtones (or smack you in the face promotion of) just a lovely manicure, pedicure, facial and to finish, the best massage I have ever had.(but it was a gift – may have cost the gifters heaps!) These days, when the shoulders get too tight to bear, I go on down to the shopping centre in Tweed, and have a 20 min chinese massage. Cheap-$30- always works, no onselling – just perfect.


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