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Pampering and positivity

Reclaiming the spa as a body positive space

A visit to the spa can be a profoundly healing experience. Entering that tranquil space, stripped of the clutter and noise of the outside world, creates an opportunity for reflection and self-examination. It can also be a time of great vulnerability for the spa client. This raw state can be a great opportunity for a deep and meaningful experience, but it can also cause clients’ insecurities about their bodies and appearance to bubble to the surface.

Spa professionals must ensure that clients come to see the spa as a haven of acceptance and wellbeing. In order to create such an environment, it is important to be aware of the signals sent to clients about their physical being, consciously or unconsciously.

Part of what tells a spa client that a spa is safe and welcoming is the environment. Perhaps it is the lack of magazines plastered with gamin celebrities or the fact that the spa is equipped with inclusive spa robe sizes and furniture. The most important contributing factor of an inclusive environment, however, is an inclusive and welcoming spa staff.

The Look

“I can’t overemphasize the power of one person’s reaction to another person,” says social worker Trixie Hennessey. “Warmth and kindness goes a long way. As basic as that sounds, it’s not everybody’s experience walking in anywhere.”

Hennessey works as a program manager at the Looking Glass Foundation in British Columbia, one of the first publicly-funded eating disorders programs in Canada, and as an individual and family counselor in her own private practice. She comes into contact with people who suffer from a variety of eating disorders and mental health issues such as anxiety, depression, and OCD.

“When someone has an eating disorder or is suffering from anxiety and depression related to body image, they’re hyper-aware of what they perceive people to be thinking about them,” Hennessey says. The people she works with are particularly sensitive to negative messages that tell them they should fit a certain standard of beauty, a certain shape or size.

She talks about the “I see you” look, the look that makes eye contact with the other person and acknowledges them as a fellow human being, as opposed to the elevator look – often unconsciously done – that assesses their physical appearance. It’s something that lasts mere seconds, Hennessey says, but makes a lasting impact.

Hennessey has had her own negative experience at the spa. She recalls feeling objectified and judged. “It was what I perceived the [spa practitioners] to think about me or feel about me,” she says. “It came as subtle body language, a couple of comments about my appearance – and those are not even issues that are really prevalent for me. And I left feeling frustrated with myself that I didn’t address it at the time.” There is a vulnerability inherent in the spa experience, Hennessey says. Naked and exposed beneath their spa robes, clients are aware that the spa practitioner is in a position of considerable unspoken power over them. That’s why it is so important for the practitioner to be aware of the nonverbal messages they are communicating to their client.

“It’s a sense felt by people I work with and I think all people can identify with this issue at a certain level,” she says. “You might not know what exactly it’s about, but people with severe body issues will internalize it as a shame issue. Like, ‘this is about me and it must be about how I look.’”

It’s not just a problem that exists in the mind of the client. Everyone, spa staff and clients alike, carries around preconceived notions about what a healthy, beautiful body should look like. “There’s definitely a beauty bias and it needs to be acknowledged,” Hennessey says. “If we can get to the root of it or we can discuss those things out loud instead of sweeping it under the carpet, then we can overcome it. But it’s when we feel the need to tuck it in and not deal with it, that it comes out.”

Empowering Spa Clients

Early in March, Spa Inc magazine participated in a Twitter live chat about body positivity hosted by European spa recommendation service Spa Breaks and positive body image charity Body Gossip. During the discussion, the question was raised about how spas could facilitate a discussion on body positivity, and how they could be part of the solution.

Here’s what Spa Breaks had to say: “It’s a lot to put into 140 characters. We promote spas for all people, and we think the more spas that get involved with these initiatives the better. People are supposed to feel comfortable at spas, and if it’s the choice of single-sex spas, or even something as simples as robes that fit everyone, we can start to combat body confidence issues.” Glama Gal Tween Spa is a spa that has shown initiative in this area. Founders and sisters Laura and Josie Cannone built a spa around their combined passions for aesthetics and empowering young girls. What started in 2006 as a party-planning business they ran out of their parents’ garage has now grown into eight locations across Ontario.

The name of the spa isn’t just a play on the word glamour, Laura Cannone explains; it stands for Girls Leading And Motivating Altogether. The Glama Gal spa staff is a diverse team of aestheticians and educators who make a special point of engaging with their young clients about important issues like bullying, relationships, and body image. Besides these informal conversations, they hold events designed to build self-esteem and teach the power of positive, affirming language.

Even the treatments and products at the Glama Gal spas use affirming language. There is the Confidently Me Teen Facial-Clear Start Micro Zone Treatment by Dermalogica, and the Mini Inspiration Spa Sampler. They are currently developing a natural water-based nail polish line called Shine as Bright as You. One wall in every Glama Gal spa is designated as the Glamspiration Wall and adorned with inspiring quotes that the girls can look at while getting their treatments.

“If we’re giving them that perfect manicure or that perfect pedicure, that’s only the surface of what a spa is,” Cannone says. “It’s really about an inner wellbeing to me. If you’re taking care of the outer, you need to take care of the inner as well.” Spas aren’t always seen as the beacons of positive energy they can be, however. Some moms are hesitant to send their daughters to a spa, Cannone says, perhaps because they want to protect them from what they perceive to be a space focused on a very adult perception of beauty. Cannone has certainly experienced her share of that negative side of the spa. She recalls an incident where her masseuse decided to encourage her to work out and lose some weight. “There needs to be a filter,” she says. “There needs to be a certain lingo, a positive lingo. How can you put a message in a positive way?”

Tips For Creating A Body Positive, Inclusive Spa Environment

  • Limit or altogether eliminate the presence of fashion magazines and other items that perpetuate a narrow ideal of beauty. Limit things that explicitly say ‘”Beauty is about how you look.”
  • Make sure spa robes are available in a variety of sizes and that spa furniture is comfortably proportioned for all body types and sizes.
  • Have a manifesto or written message of inclusivity and body positivity on display in your spa, explaining how clients should be treated or expect to be treated while in that space.
  • Be intentional about defining and putting into practice the body positive philosophy of your spa.
  • Reframe the messaging around anti-aging and cosmetic solutions offered at the spa. It shouldn’t be about fixing what’s wrong with the client, but rather centred in self-compassion and self-care.
Hermione Wilson

Hermione has a background in lifestyle and entertainment journalism. After graduating from Humber College’s journalism program, where she wrote for the school’s newspaper and various magazines, Hermione interned at TV Guide Canada, writing television reviews, and at Canadian Living, where she sampled goodies from the Test Kitchen.

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