Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Real Men Don't Like Spas?

This article appeared in the Times UK the other day. I don't have a "valid" opinion on this, having never been to a spa. However, I don't like to be pampered, to get a facial or any other type of spa treatment - hell, I don't even like to get haircuts, so I do them myself (easy, since I have very short hair).

This article is actually a bit of humor piece, making fun of the masculine uneasiness with being pampered, and also taking aim at the "spa experience," from the made-for-women gowns, to the music, to the fear of public arousal.

But, the author is a bit of an expert, and he actually likes some of the places he has been.

There really is nothing wrong with a bit of self-care from time to time. I do like a good massage, as long as it's not like the one described here - "some failed hairdresser rhythmically tickles away at my flabby parts as if petting a consumptive hamster." Sounds wrong.

Why real men don't like spas

Ill-fitting gowns, whale songs and lavender candles... no wonder many men struggle with the spa experience

Man enjoying hot stone massage

It's the incessant, cod-monastic whispering I can't stand. “If you'd like to come through ... would you mind turning over ... is that pressure OK for you?” What? What? Speak up, woman, for heaven's sake! This is not a church; it's a treatment room. We are the only two people in the room. Nobody will complain if you adjust the volume from snooker commentator to, say, cocktail waitress, will they?

Why is it that the average spa's music system playlist is firmly stuck in the bad early-1990s, during that preposterous “new age” period after the acid-house boom but before the upscale scented candle boom? Why do we always get massaged to the bleating, aural kapok of Enya and Enigma and those ubiquitous, Peruvian sodding panpipes? Why don't they see that it's a man lying face down on the upholstered slab and give us some Elgar, Beethoven, Chopin or Ryuichi Sakamoto? Why not a selection of Bowie's instrumentals from his Low/Heroes period? Why not William Orbit or Kraftwerk? Why not the sound of newborn babies gurgling, the soporific white noise of an unattended hotel telly, or Scarlett Johansson softly reciting passages from Proust?

Then there's the overwhelming feeling of disappointment and pointlessness that comes when you get a masseur who doesn't work your soft bits hard enough. You know this from the very first touch when his/her pressure is akin to a tentative stroke of a friend's new puppy. Great, you think. Now I am going to have to lie here for the next hour, with no trousers on, basted like a Christmas turkey, bloody Enya simpering away in my ear, while some failed hairdresser rhythmically tickles away at my flabby parts as if petting a consumptive hamster.

I don't think women have this sort of trouble when they spa. (The word “spa” has become a verb, joining “summer” and “party” - dreadful). They just cruise into a pre-ordained spa sisterhood, completing a business-like introduction at reception, and changing into the provided dressing gown before wafting through into the warm womb of planet pamper beyond.

Why don't men know how to spa? Well, we feel awkward, adiposal and clumsy. We feel vaguely absurd, incongruous and, frankly, rather appalled that we have surrendered to that chink in our masculinity that is required to get us through the door of one of these establishments.

If we sign up for treatment at a mixed facility, the experience is never anything less than sweat-inducingly humiliating. The girls on the reception desk appear to be making fun of us as we fill in the health questionnaire, the throwaway sandals are at least four sizes too small, and the gown is comically short in the leg and arm. We don't have the nous to say exactly what we want because we don't want to appear overly expert in such arrant girliness.

It is almost impossible to make things pleasurable for any man who isn't a spoilt, self-serving, over-indulgent Premier League footballer. The environment is skewed towards the type of narcissism that makes most men squirm. We simply do not know the form, and to cover our arses (quite literally, in those shorty gowns), we start to act like nervy, cowed saps, doing as we are told and never asking any questions.

We certainly can't relax. If it's a massage that we are in for, we are concentrating so intently on not farting or entering a state of visible arousal that our bodies tense up like England footballers during a semi-final penalty shootout. That is bad enough if the person doing the massage is a woman. If it's a man's fingers on us, the tension is trebled.

I tell you all this drawing on some not inconsiderable experience. As a former editor of a health and fitness magazine and a former male grooming columnist for a newspaper, my reflexologised, pedicurised plates of meat have spent more time in disposable flip-flops than I would care to admit, and for a worrying period in my mid-thirties I was clocking up about three treatments a week.

Some of it was actually good fun. Some of it was even vaguely beneficial. At Champneys health spa in Tring, I spent a highly amusing afternoon in the company of Ian Wright and Paul “Gazza” Gascoigne (a physically bipolar sort who adopted the train/cane method of intensive boozing followed by intensive detoxing). Both men appeared to be living at this old-school health farm full time and sneaking glasses of dry white wine into their rooms to wash down the alfalfa sprouts and mashed yeast lunches on which they were forced to subsist. Wrighty was particular unhappy with the arrangement. “I don't really like vegetables,” he told me. Then again he also appeared to be as fit as the proverbial meat vendor's canine.

At various spas around the world I had colonic irrigation (disappointing), had my feet encased in benign ski-bootee things attached to a Heath Robinson-ish hydraulic device (why? Search me). I had my eyebrows threaded (not bad - I looked, oooh, several weeks younger) and I had lots of facials ... most of which seemed to give me spots. Two young women manipulating me, in carefully choreographed syncopation, for a four-handed “Hawaiian Wave” massage was a definite highlight, but the memory of the afternoon when I fell asleep by a deserted pool in Cologne hotel spa bed only to wake up half an hour later surrounded by naked pensioners apparently on some geriatric, naturist happy-hour deal, haunts me to this day.

What I found most frustrating about spa life was this: given that we occupy a world where lifestyles are increasingly homogenised, why hasn't the global spa fraternity come up with some form of standard operating procedure (OK - poor choice of phrase, but you know what I mean)?

Is it undercrackers on or off when a chap goes for a massage? Should we tip our therapist or will that make her feel like a zipless hooker? Are there any countries where it is acceptable to request the mythical “happy ending”?

Each spa is a law unto its pampered self. Once, for example, I had a massage in a Honolulu hotel where Polynesian spa protocol insisted that customers avoid eye contact with the masseur. Obediently, I entered the treatment room alone, lay face down with my face squashed into that padded-hole thing, while a female (I think) walked in and began to deftly drape my bare bum with a cotton throw, oil me up and begin her skilled pummelling.

When I turned over, she held the cotton sheet up above her face to protect my modesty and placed a warm mask over my eyes. After some more kneading she whispered her farewell and I heard the gentle hiss-click of the door closing. It was weird, a bit like being massaged by a pervy, faceless character from that useless Stanley Kubrick film with Tom and Nicole.

But do you know what? I loved it. This was a treatment with mystery, intrigue and an unseen hand. The hem of her crisply laundered trousers provided an astringent and gently erotic thrill. Read into this what you will, but I liked being told what to do. I liked the idea of there being rules and a strict code of behaviour.

At the beginning of Ian Fleming's Thunderball, M tells a haggard-looking 007 that he is out of shape and has to go off to a health farm - “place called Shrublands near Washington, Sussex ... Very up-to-date equipment ... even has its own herb garden.” Bond is indignant. He holds it together while he is in M's office, but when the door shuts and he is face to face with Moneypenny, the usually cool agent loses it. “I'm damned if I'm going,” he protests before threatening to give her such a spanking that she'll have to do her typing “off a block of Dunlopillo”. Mmm.

But when he gets to Shrublands, Bond rather enjoys the experience ... and you can see why. It's a slightly institutionalised, vaguely Teutonic facility with lots of girls in taut, sexy uniforms. Bond does as he is told and gets the odd “invigorating rubdown”. He is treated like somebody who wants to be rejuvenated and spruced up instead of someone who wants to smell like Coleen Rooney's knicker drawer and flounce around in a girl's housecoat.

The closest thing to a James Bond-style rubdown that I have come across recently is available at Gentlemen's Tonic, a men-only grooming spa with branches in Mayfair and at Selfridges. At reception a man in a black tunic put me at ease by talking to me about my bicycle. A nice, no- nonsense woman took me on a brief tour of the individual haircutting and wet-shave rooms. There was no robe to put on and I was told to keep my pants on. I was massaged using a tried-and-tested “Swedish” technique - no Hopi Indians or scented candles here.

Best of all, Gentlemen's Tonic is in a smart cobbled mews that is also home to the bespoke tailor Timothy Everest and, best of all, directly opposite the Guinea Grill, a nice posh boozer that is known for its award-winning steak-and-kidney pies. I am pleased to report that your male grooming hack's post-massage pie and retoxing pint went down an absolute treat.

1 comment:

B. said...

Go to Spa World in Virginia!

Ok, I'm a woman, and the only woman in my immediate family who likes spas. It's an authentic Korean spa and a whole bunch of Korean men like it!

Oh yeah, and if you get a scrub, I promise you it will not be wimpy. They scrub you within an inch of your life. While you are naked.