The Serious Business of Reviewing Massages (and Other Wellness Pursuits)

The Serious Business of Reviewing Massages (and Other Wellness Pursuits)


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Most people get massages in order to relax. But as The New York Times’s Me Time columnist, I get them as part of my job.

I realize just how lucky that is. I take my monthly column in Styles about first-person wellness experiences — encompassing health, beauty, and fitness — seriously. There is a definite difference between getting a massage (or a facial or acupuncture, or going to a yoga class) for my own enjoyment and getting one for the column. I try to think critically about each experience: whether it’s worth the money, if I feel better after, or if I spent the whole time trying to tune out the woman next to me talking about her recent trip to Namibia. (That did happen, during a facial.)

My editor, Anita Leclerc, and I do our best to include a mix of treatments that are woo-woo (crystal healing), luxurious (a $200 facial), fitness based (a ballet class taught by a ballerina-turned-social-media wiz) and beauty focused (a cut with the Hair Witch, who cleanses your aura while trimming your hair). Sometimes the column focuses on something that is uniquely New York (like a private gym that specializes in recovery from exercise), and other times, on things that could easily be found in any city (like learning to meditate).

Some of the ideas are generated from my own life. I’ve never really understood how to put on makeup, so last summer I scheduled a session with a makeup artist to learn how to make myself look put together in five minutes.

My background informs my curiosity. I grew up in Santa Cruz, Calif., where, even in the 1980s, my family bought organic food and made green smoothies and went to acupuncture. When I began to work as a journalist soon after college, I started to get assigned pieces about the emerging wellness scene because I was already accustomed to that world and editors liked that I had an open mind, or at least a high tolerance for the unusual.

I also like to cover areas of rapid growth, like meal delivery or acupuncture, where lots of companies seem to be coming onto the scene at once. Publicists send me news releases, and I keep an eye on what my friends and family on the West Coast are doing. (One of my dad’s best friends emails me about sound baths he goes to.) For a long time, Los Angeles was ahead of the curve, but I’m not sure that’s true anymore, and this scene’s ubiquity is probably why The Times has a devoted a column to it. (That, and people want to know what cryotherapy is like before they spend $75 for three minutes in a minus-230-degree chamber to reduce inflammation.)

Plus, New York City has a very New York City approach to its wellness scene. People are intense and dedicated here, and we tend to extend that to our wellness pursuits. A recent column on WTHN, which is trying to be the Drybar of acupuncture, is a good example. It purposefully leased ground-floor retail space and developed a treatment menu that was easy to understand for first-timers, and added a large vanity area where clients can freshen up after sessions.

The word-of-mouth network is usually effective — I’ll hear about someone who calls herself a vaginal chiropractor and I’ll have to investigate. If someone is really hard to get a hold of or has very few appointments, I get even more intrigued.

At any given time, I have a list on my computer of at least a dozen ideas for future columns. Every few months, Anita and I discuss them over tea. She asks me the hard questions, like why you’d want to get something other than just to say you tried it. What’s the benefit? Why now? On that basis, we’ll narrow my ideas down to four or five to try out.

I do take a certain pride in being willing to try anything, even if people cringe when I tell them about it — up to and including snake massage, the subject of this month’s column. I draw the line at treatments that are too permanent, like microblading (a method of tattooing on eyebrows) or anything that sounds like it’s too far from being approved by the F.D.A. I also keep costs in mind (we don’t accept free services or travel).

Being so gung-ho hasn’t always served me well — last summer, while reporting a column about a yoga retreat, I jumped into a lake and broke my ankle. I stayed and finished reporting the story with a cast and crutches, though.

I always go in wanting to love the treatment I’m testing, hoping it will be the missing piece that will make my life come together. But I am a reporter, too, and I am careful to approach each column with facts and a healthy dose of skepticism. In this industry, people love to promise results — say, crystals to treat depression — that are in no way based on scientific evidence.

Snake massage, on the other hand …? It depends on how you feel about six-foot-long boa constrictors wrapping themselves around your head. Find out more here.


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