That’s a difficult question. The answer depends on personal definitions and on the way the terms are used legally. In the state of Florida, hands-on advanced bodywork is regulated under “massage therapy” and every bodyworker who touches people professionally needs a massage license. But in the eyes of bodyworkers, a “massage” is the following:
Your therapist brings you to the treatment room, asks a few simple questions, then explains to you that you’ll remove all or almost all clothing, get on the table and cover yourself with a sheet. All that happens with the therapist outside the room.
Usually they knock on the door before coming back in, or, in some cases you can click a button when you’re ready and modestly covered.
The room is dimly lit, maybe slightly scented, and soft music is playing.
Relaxation is the main theme. Some massage rooms are really very dark.
The therapist starts the session, always just unwrapping the body part that is being worked on. Usually they use oil or lotion, but sometimes other treatments for skincare are also used. Most people are actually naked under the sheet, and the therapists are schooled in always keeping breasts and genitals covered. There are clever techniques to stay completely decent even while the glutes are being massaged–but in some cases, the therapists don’t even touch your butt at all.
This isn’t necessary a fluffy treatment, as some deep tissue specialists really work hard into the tissue!
At some point, you’re asked to turn over. Again, the therapist has special training to lift the sheet partially, giving you room to turn, while they can’t look at your body.
In some other countries, there’s not as much worry about keeping everything covered. For example, in European spas, people are often totally naked and don’t get covered at all, and in massage clinics patients are usually wearing underwear and it’s normal to only cover parts of the body when it’s too cold in the room. But in the US, proper draping is even the law in some states! In Florida, the genitals and breasts have to stay covered, either with clothing or with sheets.
So after all that unwrapping of one part, oiling it, massaging it, re-wrapping, moving on to the next part, turning over, repeating the process, and so forth, the therapist leaves the room again, and you are still on the table, instructed to “take your time.”
That typically means “get up, put your clothes on, and meet me in the reception area.”
So there you are; your therapist will hand you some water, let you pay, and often expect a tip.
The massage can be meant to relax you, or it can have medical purposes, but sometimes it’s just supposed to make your skin feel nice.Now, that’s the way the terms are mostly used in the US…in Europe, most massage is more like bodywork.
In regards to a medical-grade massage, we prefer bodywork sessions. In a bodywork session, the practitioner only leaves the room if they are very concerned about modesty, or if you have to change into other clothes for the session. Some bodywork modalities require full clothing in stretchy, loose fabric, but in most cases you’re good in gym shorts and a comfortable bra. Not the very restrictive sports bras–more the ones you’d wear to just lounge around. Bikini tops are ideal, actually. The bodyworker would want to look at your body, maybe ask you to move around, probably check your posture and general alignment. So the room is usually lit well.
In some types of bodywork, you don’t even get any hands-on work, it’s more like a session of guided exercises, but in most cases, you’ll eventually lie on the table. During the hands-on work, there is a lot more communication than during a massage, and the therapist will check in with you frequently about how you feel. They might ask you to get up, or change positions, from lying down to lying on one side, or sitting up. That’s why it makes sense to wear some clothes. You usually don’t get all oily; most bodyworkers don’t use any oil or lotion, or just very little. You might get stretched in addition to strokes that feel like very slow, very deep massage.
Toward the end of the session, the practitioner might ask you to move around again, try out specific movements or exercises, then give you some advice and homework. That part is most important to us: if you’re getting a treatment for pain, or to improve range of motion, how do you know if it worked if you can’t try it out? And what if you try, but you’re alone in the room, and there’s no chance to do any more work?
So in cases when clients are looking for real change, they often prefer bodywork. They report it doesn’t make them feel heavy and sleepy like a massage, more light and clear. For therapists, bodywork education often follows massage training.
And that, to us at least, is the difference between massage and bodywork.