Fascia Blasters, Persian Spas, and the ‘Painful’ French Rub-down: A Brief History of the World’s Best Massages
The ancient Greeks thought it could melt fat, the Victorians used it to cure hysteria, and the French like it to be as painful as possible.
Anyone engaged in the quest for bodily perfection knows that it is hard to change the shape of your body. Without a surgical strike, diet is more like carpet bombing the unruly parts of the body. The billion-dollar beauty industry is cluttered with creams, exercise equipment, compression underwear, and nutritional plans that claim to solve the problem, but 2017 has been the year of the painful massage.
In Paris, French aesthetician Martine de Richeville developed a particular form of massage known as rémodelage that claims to reshape the silhouette, banish cellulite, and release stored toxins. The experience isn’t pleasant: the body is pinched and kneaded into submission, but she is fully booked and recently opened a satellite studio at Saks Fifth Avenue.
De Richeville’s hands-on techniques cater to those with time and money. Meanwhile Ashley Black, the author of The Cellulite Myth: It’s not Fat it’s Fascia, is bringing body manipulation to the masses. A former sports therapist, Black’s research and experience led her to develop a variety of “fascia blasters”—claw-adorned handled sticks that reshape the body. The body is heated, oiled, and pummeled into the desired shape. The level of discomfort is up to the individual, but the effects can be quite striking; Black’s loyal disciples proudly display their results and their bruises on her invitation-only Facebook group. The blasters are marketed to the cellulite-obsessed crowd, but Black claims that her techniques can improve posture and reduce pain (she is currently conducting a study on hair loss).
All of this sounds like a faddish trend catering to a narcissistic public. Surely fascia blasters are just our version of the Thigh Master? If it is just a trend, it isn’t new; people have been using massage to reshape the body for thousands of years.
Father of medicine, Hippocrates, insisted that a good physician be skilled in the art of “rubbing,” or massage. Rubbing, he says, can bind or loosen the joints and flesh. Rubbing hard will bind the body; massaging softly will loosen it; excessive rubbing with cause the flesh to waste away; while a moderate amount would promote its growth.
But massage can have even more profound effects on the body. In dispensing pediatric advice, the ancient gynecologist Soranus (fl. 1st-2nd century CE) suggested that nurses should massage the male infant into an appropriate bodily shape. The buttocks, head, limbs, nose, and other parts of the baby’s body could be manipulated so that it reflected a more masculine “nature.” There’s something ironic and oddly revealing about the idea that you can push your body into a better version of its “natural” (ideal) state, but there’s also something very particular about the soft pliable bodies of babies. Just the experience of being born can distort the shape of the cranium.
But it wasn’t only the bodies of infants that were susceptible to change. The 11th-century Persian medic Avicenna (Ibn Sina)’s encyclopedic The Canon of Medicine contains several dozen references to the use of medical massage. Drawing on the work of the Roman doctor Galen, Avicenna recommends a kind of kneading technique and rubbing that is usually referred to as friction. Friction, he recommends, “should be used in preparation for exercise, [in order to help] the bowels and [open] the pores of the skin.” The rubbing technique should use a rough towel and should continue until the skin shows “a florid blush.” The purpose of the massage was to remove “effete matter” from the body. To the modern ear this sounds a great deal like the removal of toxins from the body, and his methods sound oddly similar to dry body brushing or fascia blasting.
In her personal study of the global techniques of body treatments and skin manipulation, Ashley Black sampled a whole host of traditional methods. Black told The Daily Beast that she has “tried Gu Shau, cupping, acupuncture, Tua Na, medical wraps, full body massage, walking-on-your-body massage, specialty foot treatments and massages, sound bowls, chanting, Korean massage and Japanese Onsens.” Not all of these practices are intended to change the body’s shape, but they do illustrate the ways in which good health and beauty are intimately linked.
As Dr. Jessica Baron, of the Reilly Center for Science, Technology and Values at the University of Notre Dame, told me, “If you go back to 11th-century Persia, you can see that ‘spa culture’ continues to evolve in the Muslim world as part of medicine. Beauty (meaning long, thick hair, an even skin tone, a fit body) was seen as an essential part of health and … a spa day at the baths could include cracking the joints, exfoliating the body and feet, and kneading the flesh. Relaxing music and appealing décor were also a part of Avicenna’s ‘spa.’”
The history of massage starts, however, not in the baths of Persia or Rome, but in third millennium BCE China. The earliest known massage manual is The Canon of the Yellow Emperor. The principles contained in the handbook continue to be influential, not just for instruction in massage, but also for the study of acupuncture and acupressure. Eighteenth-century Jesuit missionaries Jean Joseph Marie Amiot (best known for his translation of Sun Tzu’s the Art of War) and his colleague Pierre-Martial Cibot, stumbled across the Canon and translated it for French audiences.
These techniques were appealing to Amiot and Cibot because the French had been using massage for centuries. The word massage comes from the French verb masseur, “to shampoo.” Two hundred years before missionaries “discovered” Chinese massage, the pioneering Barber Surgeon Ambroise Paré, (father of the modern ligature and the first obstetrician to induce labor in high-risk pregnancy cases), used massage to treat patients at the Royal Court. He is even said to have successfully treated Mary Queen of Scots of some ailment, though for what we will likely never know what it was.
The origins of the world’s most-offered massage technique, Swedish massage, are widely misrepresented. Handbooks on the subject identify Peter Henry Ling (1776-1837), a Swede, as the "father of Swedish massage." Ling was the founder of the Swedish Gymnastic Movements and the Royal Central Gymnastic Institute, but massage was not a part of the curriculum of either. The terms for the elements of “Swedish massage” almost certainly go back to the Dutch practitioner Johan Georg Mezger (1838-1909). Mezger did not receive the credit, but his terminology and taxonomy have become so standardized that the menu of options on modern massage chairs almost always use his taxonomy of clapping, knocking, stroking, kneading, pulling, shaking and vibrating.
By the 19th century, medical massage had worked its way into the doctor’s toolkit. William Murrell’s Massage as a Mode of Treatment devotes 80 pages to describing the use of massage as a treatment for various ailments, including constipation, rheumatoid arthritis, anemia, and even cardiac disease. Several stockbrokers of his acquaintance, he mentions with some sense of surprise, used massage to “calm the nervous system” and allay “excessive irritability.”
Most astonishingly, Murrell relays several stories about rapid weight loss in those prescribed massage. He includes a number of anecdotes in which “obese” young women lose 20 pounds in two months without any change in diet or exercise and would, coincidentally enough, become more pleasant. Arguably his best weight loss success is the case of a 35-year-old woman who, “had her waist reduced by massage from 25 to 20 inches and made an excellent marriage.”
Where massage found a special niche, however, was for the treatment women suffering from hysteria (a now debunked condition that includes anxiety, mild depression, and loss of sexual appetite). In these cases, pelvic massage to the point of “hysterical paroxysm” (orgasm) was the standard treatment. The use of pelvic massage dates back to Hippocrates, but became more common during the 19th century when the medical profession became convinced that they were in the throes of an epidemic. Dr. Russell Trall, an American hydrotherapist, speculated, without the benefit of any empirical evidence, that up to 75 percent of women suffered from “female hysteria.”
Dr. Baron told The Daily Beast, “If we look back into the history of women’s medicine, even into the ancient period, we see vaginal massage to the point of orgasm performed by both male doctors and female midwives in the treatment of ‘hysteria,’ particularly in older women and widows.” The problem was that pelvic massage is an exhausting and challenging technique to master. As early 1660 Nathaniel Highmore noted that it was difficult to learn to produce orgasm in this way, comparing it to “that game of boys in which they try to rub their stomachs with one hand and pat their heads with the other." It was efforts to streamline the process and make it less physically taxing for the physician that brought us the vibrator.
The connections between sex and massage are not always shrouded in the air of medical respectability. Massage continues to be a euphemism for prostitution and masseurs working at reputable franchised establishments often find themselves propositioned by clients. Aire Ancient Baths, a high-end spa in New York City modeled on the Roman baths, found itself in hot water last year when an employee allegedly sexually assaulted a customer.
The ancient Greek geographer Strabo tells us that the Indian monarch contemporaneous with Alexander the Great used to receive foreign ambassadors while being rubbed down and shaped his body using ebony rollers. It’s the kind of ‘self-care’ can only be partially replicated with on-demand massage services like Zeel. The hygienic protocols of the Ayur-Veda recommend that everyone should rise early, bathe, wash one’s mouth, anoint one’s body with oil, submit oneself to friction and exercise. Black would tell us to exercise first and exert friction afterwards, but as regimens go, you could do much worse.