Since puberty, I’ve had a fraught relationship with my breasts. I stuffed my training bra with toilet paper when my breasts didn’t grow fast enough in middle school; in high school they grew “too big,” prompting rumors of implants and promiscuity. After pregnancy, childbirth, breastfeeding, and pumping, they became flatter and saggier. Now that I'm in my 30s, I’ve reached a basic level of bodily acceptance, but I admit to lingering insecurities. Particularly when I have to spread my breasts east and west on a massage table just so I can lay comfortably on my stomach.
The spa room in New Delhi smelled like jasmine.Working in near-darkness, a man in a crisp white uniform stepped barefoot around the bed, kneading deeply and slowly into my muscles.
“Full-body, ma’am?” the therapist asked.
“Yes, full-body, thank you.”
“Full-body is chest, too.”
I paused, a little unsure, but mostly curious.“I’ll do what you think is best,” I said.
“Yes, full-body is best. It’s good for health.”
“Achchha, theek,” I said in my limited Hindi. Good, OK.
I had just moved to India from the U.S. with my husband and two children for my husband’s job. The adjustment was taking a toll on my physical and mental health, so I committed to routine massages. For my first session, I selected a 90-minute deep tissue at a hotel spa, hoping the kinks in my neck would be worked out and I could experience a few pain-free days. I had no idea a chest massage (also called a breast massage) was part of the standard treatment.
With my body undraped to my waist, the therapist made long, sweeping strokes up and down my legs with the long edge of his forearm. He applied pressure to my back, section by section, carefully working out the knots with his fingertips. I could feel the ropes of my muscle tissue untangle with each twist. My sinew crackled like pop rocks. After stretching my back and neck, he requested that I turn over. He poured warm oil on my upper abdomen, rubbed my rib cage, and stroked down my sternum. With each circular motion, he kneaded into my chest wall and pectoral muscles. When he finished massaging my rib cage, he massaged each breast, one at a time, mimicking a gynecological breast exam, but in a less clinical way. Any graze over my nipple with his palm or arm felt unintentional.
“Everything OK?” he asked.
“Yes, it’s OK,” I said. But was it? It took a full minute to settle the tension between what I’ve been conditioned to think about a man touching my breasts and what was actually happening, but he treated the bones, muscles, and tissue in my chest and breasts just as he would another arm or a leg: neutrally and therapeutically. After a while, I felt comfortable, safe, and relaxed. Since that first breast massage, I’ve had several more, by men and women, and felt extremely liberated, but not everyone sees the benefit.
In the U.S., breast massages for women are legal, but they aren’t widely practiced, and access to them is extremely limited. Breast massages remain stigmatized, and their practice is mostly clinically focused. Some insurance companies cover breast massages if they’re provided “in office” by a medical professional, and typically only performed for medical reasons like scarring from breast surgery, blocked ducts in breastfeeding mothers, and managing lymphedema, a buildup of lymph fluid in the fatty tissues under the skin, in cancer patients.
More specifically, a massage technique called Manual Lymphatic Drainage (MLD) can be performed on several parts of the body (including the breasts) for people experiencing mild or chronic lymphedema, according to The American Cancer Society. Despite MLD’s recognition in the medical world, much of its effectiveness is anecdotal and loosely linked to research. The most recent study on MLD efficacy, in 2011, used near-infrared fluorescence imaging in MLD therapy patients and found increased lymph velocities, or flow, when comparing pre- and post-treatments. This was encouraging news for those who believe maintaining lymph flow in the body is a necessary component to health. But lack of information about breast massages, as well as scant hard evidence as to their benefits, makes it very difficult for breast massages to be justified both clinically and therapeutically in this country.
Massage therapy, in general, has been widely accepted and believed to bring direct benefits to a person’s well-being. “I am in my 60s, and many of my clients are 50–90 years old. Many of us are getting less touch than we did when we were younger,” according to massage therapist Barbara Helynn Heard's website. Touch hunger (also called skin hunger) is a term psychologists coined to describe the yearning and inherent need humans have for physical contact. Research indicates that regular touch is associated with reduced the levels of the stress hormone cortisol, as well as aggression. It can also help with body image issues.
“Many people experience their bodies as somehow not good enough,” Heard told VICE. “Massaging the chest and breasts can often help a person experience their own inner and outer beauty and goodness.” Heard noted that breast dissatisfaction is not an issue unique to women—people of all genders struggle with their breasts.
At her private practice, Awareness Massage, Heard integrates chest and breast massages into her full-body sessions for all genders for therapeutic, treatment-focused purposes, like neck and back tension, as well as overall mental and physical wellness. “Professional, non–sexual wellness–focused massage that includes the breasts can help us truly feel that our body is OK just the way it is, without changing a thing. For many folks, this experience can be miraculously transformative,” she said.
Heard requires her clients to complete a detailed consent form listing all of the different ways she can perform the breast or chest massage. The client is encouraged to pick the options they feel most comfortable with. For some, it’s full chest or partial chest; draped or undraped. For others, it’s none at all. Clients are reassured that they can change their mind from their original choice at any time during the treatment.
Dr. Ben Benjamin, the founder of the Muscular Therapy Institute in Massachusetts and the co-author of The Ethics of Touch, believes ethical considerations for breast massages, including consent, require further exploration in the U.S. “Without excellent training in sexuality, ethics, and boundaries, breast massage could easily turn sexual,” he told VICE. He believes education could bridge the gap between barriers and access and pointed to Canada as a model for integrating breast massages responsibly into holistic health practices. “Massage therapists have over 2,000 hours of training in their curriculum and study many things [that are] not taught in the United States,” he said.
Breast massages are not for everyone. One American friend living in India hates them, even when they're performed by women therapists. Some days, I’d rather not have one as part of my treatment, particularly during PMS when my breasts are extremely tender. But when I do get my massages, I feel like a human being, not just a woman with breasts and all of the loaded sexual connotations that comes with them; they become the antidote to my breast insecurities, and I feel happier, and healed, in my body.
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