Commerce And Culture July/August 2006

The Next Starbucks?

How massage went from the strip club to the strip mall
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When you step off a plane in Indianapolis, one of the first things you see—right next to the directions to baggage claim and ground transport—is a sign advertising massages, from the fifteen-minute “Fast Track” for $18 to the half-hour “Extended Stay” for $33. Travelers can find similar services at airports in Providence, Anchorage, Cedar Rapids, and Baltimore. The Seattle-based Massage Bar has expanded from Sea-Tac to airports serving Nashville, Newark, and Washington, D.C.

And you don’t have to go to the airport. Car washes in Dallas and Austin offer chair massages while you wait. Tired shoppers can get them at the Fashion Show mall on the Vegas Strip, at Whole Foods Markets, and at many large bookstores. Massage breaks are regular features at business conventions and sporting events. `

Once a specialized therapy for injured athletes, an indulgence for the idle rich, or a cover for prostitution, massage has become a legitimate and seemingly ubiquitous enterprise. Between August 2004 and July 2005, about 47 million American adults got at least one massage, up 2 million from the previous year, according to the American Massage Therapy Association’s annual consumer survey.

Nationally, massage revenue is variously estimated at $6 billion to $11 billion a year. The AMTA estimates that there are between 230,000 and 280,000 massage therapists practicing in the United States, up from between 160,000 and 200,000 in 2000. Massage is one answer to the question, Where will new jobs come from?

It’s also the sort of growth industry that doesn’t count for much in our public debates about the economy. It’s new but not high tech. It’s flourishing but fairly small, with annual revenues about the same as Enterprise Rent-A-Car, the snack-chips business, or Hollywood’s domestic box office.

The massage industry’s product is invisible, less “real” than a hamburger or a video game. It doesn’t contribute to national power or prestige the way semiconductors or aircraft do. It doesn’t create world-famous stars like sports or the movies. Its establishments are small, often run by a single individual, and most of its practitioners lack a college education. It is literally touchy-feely.

When Americans think about the economy, we tend to focus on familiar, “serious” businesses—computers or autos or high finance. We don’t notice Starbucks until there’s one on every corner, changing not only what we drink but also how we live and work. Massage may not be the biggest new industry or the most influential, but it’s a microcosm of how commerce and culture interact. The same creativity and resilience that built the industries of the past, and the ways of life that evolved with them, are still at work, spinning out new enterprises serving new values.

As a business, massage has two basic problems. The first is that prostitution is generally illegal. A brothel can’t openly advertise its services: no “Madame Julia’s House of Great Sex.” Instead, Madame Julia pretends she runs a “massage parlor,” which creates confusion, and sometimes legal obstacles, for people who want to buy and sell back rubs.

The second problem is that most potential customers consider massage a luxury—an optional indulgence, if not a slightly shameful extravagance. So they’re acutely sensitive to price. A massage business can’t pass high labor costs along to consumers without suffering a rapid drop in sales.

One way to attack these problems is to declare massage a medical service. Hence in 1983 the American Massage & Therapy Association dropped its ampersand to create a new profession: “massage therapy.” Customers and legal authorities can be pretty sure—though not 100 percent certain—that a massage therapist isn’t selling sex. A therapist not only will keep the client discreetly draped with a sheet but also will take a reassuringly clinical approach to kneading naked flesh. A masseuse, on the other hand, may well be a hooker in a skimpy disguise.

Calling massage a “therapy” also suggests that it’s good for you, which means you don’t have to feel guilty about spending money on it. You might even be able to pass the bill on to your insurance company (only rarely, so far). Massage therapists understandably want their clients to think of massage as a necessity. “At one point in my career I had to defend massage against the ‘prostitution attitude,’” says Brenda L. Griffith, a massage therapist in Richmond, Virginia, who has been practicing since 1988. “Now I have to defend massage against the ‘pampering attitude.’” Many of her clients do, in fact, have chronic ailments for which massage offers some relief.

But relentlessly touting the healing power of touch makes too many massage therapists sound like quacks. The medical strategy also treats clients as patients, eliminating potential customers who feel healthy. It attracts clients by turning everyday life into a disease. Who, after all, doesn’t suffer from stress? Like graphic and industrial designers who refuse to talk about aesthetics, massage therapists seem embarrassed to say they make people feel good.

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Virginia Postrel is an Atlantic contributing editor and the editor in chief of deepglamour.net. She is writing a book about glamour. More

Contributing editor for The Atlantic and author of The Substance of Style and The Future and Its Enemies. Editor-in-chief of DeepGlamour.net.
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