A Distorted View: How Massage Impacts Body Image Issues

A Distorted View: How Massage Impacts Body Image Issues

Having concerns or worrying about body size, weight and appearance is quite common. However, in some cases, this concern becomes a problem which can lead to a distorted view of one's self, unhealthy eating and confusing views of the body. These thoughts are often complicated by negative feelings, low self-esteem and depression. Massage therapy providers may find value in learning more about supporting clients with body image differences.

Eating disorders are complex, with both anorexia and bulimia having their own treatment concerns, criteria and issues. At the core of anorexia is the belief that being thin will lead to a better life, while bulimia consists of the pattern of binging and purging, often used as a coping mechanism during times of stress.

Anorexia often leads sufferers to become severely underweight, while bulimics are often able to maintain a normal weight. The largest contrast studies have found between anorexia and bulimia is impulsivity. Control is the main motivator for many anorexics, while impulsivity, or the action of releasing pressure from unrealistic standards, cause the action of binge and purge for bulimics. It is not uncommon to see both diagnoses together and it is important to note that physical symptoms may not be obvious for both conditions.

Statistics and Lack of Touch

A recent study on the prevalence of eating disorders in adolescents estimates approximately a half million teens struggle with eating disorders or disordered eating. Even more disturbing was the finding that the onset of these eating behaviors starts around ages 12 and 13, but are most typically found in the late teenage years and continue into adulthood.

Eating disorders are often related to emotional issues such as control and self-esteem. There are typically a number of contributing factors including difficult relationships with friends or family, physical, emotional or sexual abuse, loss and grief, stress or feelings of losing control.

Why Nurturing Touch?

Nurturing touch and massage have been linked not only as a prevention method early in life, but as a form of treatment for those suffering from eating disorders and disordered eating. In the early years, it has been further observed that when body boundaries have not been consistently outlined by touch, caress and secure holding, individuals in later life experience their body image as disproportionate, misshapen and overly large. Research findings suggest that physical modes of nurturing, that is, "nurturance by touching and hugging," are of importance in the development of body image, especially among females.

The Benefits

A study focused on anorexia nervosa followed nineteen women who either received standard treatment or standard treatment plus massage therapy twice a week for five weeks. Using standard Swedish massage techniques, the participants received a 30-minute full body massage. The massage group reported lower stress and anxiety levels and had lower cortisol (stress) hormone levels following massage. Over the five-week treatment period, they also reported decreases in body dissatisfaction on the Eating Disorder Inventory and showed increased dopamine and norepinephrine levels.

In a similar study, 24 adolescent females affected by bulimia were randomly assigned into either a massage therapy or control group. The massage therapy group received massage two days a week for five days, all were administered by massage therapists. The patients remained fully clothed and were massaged on various areas of their body, including 15 minutes in the supine position and 15 minutes in the prone position. The results showed an immediate reduction in anxiety/depression and by the last day of the therapy, results showed they had lower depression scores, lower cortisol (stress) levels and higher dopamine levels.

A Massage Therapists Approach

As with all clients, safety and ethical practice are our first concern. Always perform a detailed client intake and personal health history. In some cases, having eating differences, body image issues, anorexia nervosa and bulimia may cause complications and other health issues. Follow all known contraindications to massage therapy.

When working with youth who are dealing with body image issues, or are diagnosed with anorexia or bulimia, practice with client confidentiality and comfort in mind. Provide a safe and nurturing environment where the client can choose to disrobe or not, to their individual comfort level. Always allow the client to choose position for the massage, whether that be sitting up or lying down and take time to work slowly, allowing for time to take breaks as the client may request. A gentle, supportive approach is best in creating a safe session for youth.