We asked a trans massage therapist how positive, self-guided physical touch can alleviate stress and speed post-op recovery for transitioning trans patients.
Physical touch can be a major source of stress and fear for members of the trans community. And understandably so: trans people have been conditioned to expect discrimination, harassment, and even physical violence from the people around them — including medical professionals, as trans healthcare discrimination becomes more widely acknowledged. This near-constant anxiety has deep and harmful effects on the health of the community: 28 percent of trans individuals don’t seek out the medical attention they need for fear of mistreatment, and 70 percent of trans folks report having experienced personal or healthcare discrimination in medical settings. The immediate effect is that many trans and GNC individuals are not getting care they need when they need it — a pattern that can contribute to chronic health problems down the line.
“For the most part, we’re just trying to get through our day without being harassed or assaulted, or even worse — killed — let alone thinking about what positive touch can mean to us,” says massage therapist, trans advocate, and Lighthouse provider Pooya Mohseni. “And yet, as a trans massage therapist, it’s very important to me to preach the benefits of therapeutic touch to the trans community.”
We sat down with Mohseni to discuss how massage therapy can benefit trans individuals both emotionally and physically, and help the community not only survive, but thrive, in the midst of a transphobic society.
The Effects of Positive Touch on Your Mental Health
According to the American Massage Therapy Association, massage therapy can ease physical pain and soothe strained muscles, as well as reduce anxiety. For the trans community, these benefits are especially important, as past trauma may mean that touch itself is a source of stress. This makes massage therapy, like energy healing techniques such as reiki or tantra, a way to normalize positive touch.
“It’s important for trans patients to know that therapeutic touch is within their control and happening at their discretion,” explains Mohseni. “Massage therapy isn’t something that’s done to them. It’s something in which they are an active participant. It’s a safe space. It’s something they’re guiding, not following.”
If medical attention has been a source for concern for trans patients who’ve experienced disrespect or dehumanization, massage therapy can be the first step in a journey back to self-love, self-care, and a revitalized mind-body connection.
“Massage therapy has proven positive effects for everyone — whether you’re part of the LGBTQ community or not,” continues Mohseni, “But many trans people may have no experience with positive physical touch whatsoever. I approach every patient with the knowledge that this may be the first time they’re experiencing positive physical touch.”
Overcoming Negative Body Image
For trans patients, the emotional and physical understanding provided by LGBTQ-friendly massage therapists — and trans-affirming massage therapists in particular — not only mitigates anxiety and improves overall well-being, but can also help patients overcome negative body image that societal transphobia has instilled and reinforced.
Like everyone in our society, trans people are exposed to unattainable, gendered beauty standards. But these standards have an arguably more damaging impact on trans people whose body shapes and sizes may not fit typical cisgender ideals. For instance, a trans woman may be taller or have broader shoulders than the cisgender women elevated and celebrated in the media. And while there are countless body shapes out there — there are plenty of tall, broad shouldered, cisgender women, too — these physical ideals can be particularly harmful for people carving out a new gender identity for themselves.
“Everyone has a different level of comfort with their own body,” says Mohseni. “So when you’re in a vulnerable state on a massage table, maybe without much clothing on, and you add the idea that you might be judged by a therapist who hasn’t gone through this experience, or who may be fetishizing you, or who is just uncomfortable, you can miss out on all of the positive benefits.”
“I like to approach every encounter from the perspective that this patient may not be comfortable in their own body,” she continues, “so I make sure they know that they’re guiding this experience. That they’re in control. That they’re in a safe space.”
Massage Therapy and Post-Op Care
As Mohseni puts it, the trans experience is “an emotional and spiritual journey toward seeing yourself in the way that brings you joy and contentment.” For some trans individuals — but not all — transitioning genders through surgery can be an important step in this journey. Whatever type of procedure that may be, post-operative care should be tailored to the specific needs of your trans experience.
“Whether it’s scar tissue revision, swelling management, or the remobilization of areas that may have been stationary during recovery, massage therapy can be tailored to focus on your specific needs,” says Mohseni, who offers scar tissue work and lymph work in addition to traditional types of massage therapy like Swedish, deep tissue, myofascial release, and deep stretching.
While post-op care is available through Mohseni’s practice, she sees a wider need for it in the trans community: “It’s a way for patients to become acquainted with their bodies on their own terms after an operation.”
Finding the Right Massage Therapist
While healing touch can benefit people of all seuxalties and gender expressions, its potential for the trans community is especially significant. The right massage therapist can meet you where you are, ask about your medical history in a trans-affirming way, and devote particular attention to health concerns unique to trans patients. Trans massage therapists like Mohseni can even bring expertise from their own life to make you feel comfortable, valued, and safe.