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Hands-On Activism

We live in interesting times, as the curse goes.

As the world seems to grow ever darker (or, to use a different frame, as the things that are dark about the world become more unavoidably obvious to more people), I often feel guilty that I'm not "doing more activism." I'm not going to rallies, I don't have congresspeople to call, and I've never been very good at organizing. A lot of the things that traditionally fall under the umbrella of "activism" are things I'm not very good at and don't enjoy.

But I realized recently that my activism does go beyond signal-boosting on Twitter. There's a reason I never seem to have the energy for the things I think "count" as activism: the work that I do every day as a massage therapist at Freed Bodyworks is full-time activism.

A huge part of our mission is to make wellness care accessible, and specifically to make it accessible to people who are marginalized in other healthcare settings. There's a lot involved in creating a safer space for people to access healing. We all work to make sure we're educated on the various forms of marginalization our clients might face so that we can give them the best care and create a haven where they can (we hope) count on being understood and supported without having to educate. We're conscious of what kinds of conversations happen in the lobby, we share resources on various forms of oppression to keep ourselves and each other up to speed, we listen when our clients need to talk, and we center our messaging and outreach around inclusiveness so people don't have to wonder whether they're welcome here. Those of us who do massage spend extra time with people who are getting their first massage (and with all new clients) and do what we can to put everyone at ease before they get on the table; we ask people if there’s anywhere they’re not comfortable being touched and specify that they should undress only to their comfort level, and then we respect those boundaries around touch and nudity. We check in with clients before each treatment and make a session plan together, so they know what to expect and know that we’re tailoring the massage to their needs that day. We also see sliding-scale clients because financial access is a huge part of the larger access question, and who can and cannot afford things like massage is not determined at random or unconnected to systemic oppression. We all work together to build Freed Bodyworks as a space that feels safe and welcoming in every way we can think of. I probably spend as much energy creating and maintaining Freed as a safer space as I do actually doing massage.

The healing work we do here is also important and "counts" for its own sake. Healing is my work in the world, and even when it doesn't directly intersect with the ways people are marginalized, creating space for that healing in each session is terribly important work. From reaching deep into my own well of calm to care for a client who's come in primarily for help navigating grief or anxiety, to gently pushing back on a client's negative talk about their body, to bringing all of my skill and knowledge to bear on intractable lower back pain, I bring my focus to every client I see as we collaborate on their healing.

Conversely, another way I do activism through my work at Freed is by educating clients when the opportunity arises. I've had clients ask me everything from why we have fliers up for an organization that works with sex workers (and if you're not familiar with the harm reduction work HIPS does with sex workers and drug users in the District, they're definitely worth checking out and supporting) to why Freed's messaging is so hyper-conscious of gender. These are conversations I'm always happy to have, in the lobby or in the treatment room--I'm proud of the work we do to create space and educate, and I love being part of it.

Over the years I've been a massage therapist, I've also worked to figure out how to talk about loaded subjects gently, in a way that won't damage the therapeutic space we create together. Working at Freed affords me an opportunity to build relationships with clients in a way I never could working in a spa, and that means we end up talking about a lot of things. I've had great conversations with clients on subjects ranging from toxic masculinity and emotional labor to why certain expressions are hurtful or offensive and what alternatives could convey their intended meaning without the hurtfulness. My top priority is always maintaining a therapeutic relationship in which we can work together, but when there's space within that to address challenging topics, it's an honor to be part of.

All of that said, the need for activism feels extra pressing these days, and a lot of us feel called right now to do more than we have been. The work I do in my day job doesn't necessarily always feel like enough. But when I'm feeling guilty for not having the energy to go to that rally or organize that meeting, it's important to remind myself that I'm already a full-time activist. And I think the work we do at Freed is important and a worthwhile use of all the energy I can muster.

#massagetherapy #massage #activism #politics #avivapittle

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