Every detail in Noah Afshar’s soon-to-open massage studio in Merrimack, Water and Stone, is intentional: the soft twinkly lights, the angle of the bed, the poster of the human muscular system.
The figure in that poster doesn’t show a body with huge pecs and bulging quads. Instead, it has a softer shape.
“That’s what most people’s bodies look like,” Afshar said.
The piece of thick blue masking tape covering the “Female” label on that poster is also intentional, Afshar said: “Outside of some ligaments, specifically around the groin area … it’s the same system.”
This is just one of the ways Afshar is trying to ensure their business, which is set to open on July 20, is welcoming and safe for all bodies — and how they’re trying to shatter the narrow image of what massage can be and who it’s for.
Afshar didn’t grow up with dreams of being a massage therapist. Art was their longtime passion. After graduating from a small arts college, they worked 60 hours weeks at an unpaid internship, until one day the studio owners stopped showing up. Then, they bounced around in food service and retail jobs. During that time, they also felt far from their own body.
“If you aren't in sync with your body, if you aren't able to make choices on your body's behalf,” they said. “You’re going to be feeling extremely adrift.”
Finding massage therapy helped Afshar, who is trans, feel more grounded. But after they got their license in 2019, many of the massage chains and chiropractors offices they initially worked in had a narrow clientele.
“We never had trans clients,” they recalled.
Those businesses were exclusionary in other ways, too. For one, Afshar said, they only had "tables that just don't accommodate fat bodies."
“Massage therapists would purposefully give bad massages to overweight clients so they would not rebook with them,” they added.
Afshar also noticed clients would often apologize for forgetting to shave their legs or having messy hair — which didn’t seem like the kind of things that warrant an apology.
All of that has pushed them to take a different approach with their own studio, to encourage all clients to show up as they are.
Afshar bought a massage table that can support people who weigh up to 1,000 pounds. They make it clear that getting a massage doesn’t mean you have to take your clothes off. They have artwork by local trans artists throughout the studio.
They also developed a graded pricing model to try and make the service more affordable. While some health insurance plans reimburse for massage therapy, that typically requires people to first secure a prescription or referral from a doctor.
These investments have added up, but Afshar said they’re worth it. To help afford their new space, they are living with their parents and sister in Manchester.
And to Afshar, massage therapy is more than just a luxury; it’s health care. That means it’s essential to be aware of both the emotional and physical needs of the people coming through their doors.
For some trans clients, for example, Afshar said it’s important to understand how certain hormone therapies can make skin more sensitive. They said they also pay attention to how chest binding can compress nerves and blood vessels, or how slouching to hide one’s breasts can cause roundness in the back.
Afshar’s also keenly aware of the significant discrimination that can impact a trans person’s desire and ability to access health care.
“Because trans people don't feel safe enough to have another person help them with that or just seek relief, it just gets worse” they said.
Afshar said they built their new studio to be “trans-centered” from the beginning. But that also comes with its own complicated pressures — especially as they book trans clients who feel like they don’t have other places to go for this type of care.
“You have a lot of pressure to be way better than everybody else on the market because you have to be, because there’s no other option,” Afshar said. “And I hate that. It’s nerve-wracking.”
They’re also still weighing how best to describe what they do: Are they a "trans massage therapist," or a "massage therapist" who serves a range of people, with a focus on those who are trans?
On one hand, Afshar said, calling themself a trans massage therapist is a way to emphasize the lived experience they bring to their work, but it can also be its own box.
“It's hard,” Afshar said, “only in that I don't want to be just reduced to being trans. It loses the nuance.”
These tensions are messy and they’re unresolved, but Afshar is determined to try and work through them — because they know how much this space is needed.
This story is a production of New England News Collaborative. It was originally published by New Hampshire Public Radio.