More Than a Massage

More Than a Massage:
The Healing Touch of Mary Ann Townsend

Tara Pettit

It’s the 1970s—a time period in which strict limitations and expectations for the “new, professional, working woman” are still in place. Radical was a mother working full time at the office alongside men, abandoning her domestic duties and child-rearing responsibilities for a life as the household bread-winner. Beyond radical and almost incomprehensible was the rare woman diving head first into a career path of her own, pursuing entrepreneurship and dare say, passion, in a field of practice that was largely undefined and unheard of by majority of the western population.

This is the lifestyle Mary Ann Townsend found herself living during this transitional period in history, passionately pursuing a profession that was not only unfamiliar, but wildly misinterpreted and discounted along with other practices considered fringe at the time. However, what was not and could not be casted into society’s imagined cesspool of illegitimate professions and unsubstantial career explorations during those professionally trying times was Mary Ann’s determination, perseverance and overall vision for an emerging practice that today lends itself to immense credibility, bridging the gap between physical and mental well-being.

Mary Ann became a pioneering female figure in the development of massage therapy as a legitimized, certified field of work from the moment it occurred to her to develop a business utilizing these healing services in the Midwest region. Although at the time the idea of massage as a therapeutic outlet was circulating west coast regions like California, as with many revolutionary ideas and practices, the more conservative Midwest lagged behind in the implementation of such novel notions, leaving it up to some of the boldest to familiarize these areas with new streams of thought. So it was with the idea of “massage,” a term that was typically associated with “massage parlors,” or prostitution, and a concept that was hard for the average person at the time to link to medicine, health or therapy.

“Being part of such a revolutionary time for massage has been exciting and very educational,” she says.

Mary Ann did not always know she wanted to be a massage therapist, but she did always know she wanted to work with people. This led her into her initial career as a social worker after she received a degree in social work from Antioch College in Yellow Springs. However, as a rehabilitation counselor, she felt “boxed in” with the old style medical model that was used in the field and realized she could better apply the skills she had developed from her college studies to pursue her interest in more well-rounded and expansive ideas regarding human health.

After connecting with a college friend who shared the same passion for massage therapy, and then continuing on to become certified in the practice, Mary Ann’s vision for establishing a massage therapy business met reality. However, the road to success was trying and the battle to obtain credibility and respect was long and painful. Likewise, because it was not an established profession, materials and necessary facility amendments were hard to find.

“We had to make most of our own equipment, including massage tables and oils. I also had to design and create the layout of the building and after six months we were able to open it to the public. We were literally the first business of this type.”

Once the business was in operation, Mary Ann and her partner quickly realized that massage therapy didn’t even have listings in the business yellow pages. This changed, however, when the owner of the local Yellow Pages became a client of Mary Ann’s and worked with her to create the very first Yellow Page listing for massage, one of the many “firsts” Mary Ann brought to the evolution of professional massaging.

While an official Yellow Page listing evoked a sense of establishment and progress for the business, it actually created whole new obstacles for Mary Ann and her partner to overcome regarding legitimacy and clientele expectations.

“It was a struggle working with male clients who had not transitioned to the understanding that we were not a ‘massage parlor,’ no matter how many ways you told them. You can imagine the kind of calls we received because of this transition that had not happened in people’s minds.”

Furthermore, the idea of massage as a tool for mind-body healing was largely discounted by the general public and became a road block against the overall vision Mary Ann had for her business, which emphasized the connection between our mental and physical state. The ideas were apart of unexplored territory at that time in the medical community, which made it that much more difficult to effectively market such holistic concepts in mainstream culture. Nevertheless, Mary Ann forged ahead, working with her struggles rather than against them in order to learn new strategies to overcome—a mechanism that drove her to achieve and which she had adapted from earlier life experience.

“I had several tragedies in my family that really fueled me to do something creative and pioneering.”

Mary Ann’s business gained even more clientele through repeat referral as her healing methods, combining therapeutic bodywork and mind work, were discovered to be truly effective and even life changing for many of her customers. Mary Ann can attest to the power that her healing touch has had on countless people suffering physical ailments that, through her careful exploration of tensed muscle and bound body tissue reveal deeper internal issues.

“I had come from a family that was not ‘touchy, feely,’ so this was really an opening in my life to have this kind of contact with people and feeling totally comfortable. I became more confident in my skills and the emotional intimacy that can occur as you get to know people and their bodies is pretty connective.”

After 32 years, Mary Ann has become renowned in her profession and has massaged countless bodies, including stars like Frank Sinatra and M.C. Hammer. She has undoubtedly left a legacy in the massage therapy profession, but even more importantly to her, in the lives of some of her closest clients.

“I have met so many wonderful people. Being able to sit at the bedside of dying patients and having that intimacy with them has been very special.”

For Mary Ann, her work has been infinitely more than working out the back kinks. Mary Ann’s massages are about bringing your whole self to the table—physical, mental and emotional- and allowing all three parts, which are naturally connected, to be worked out, kneaded out, by the hands and ears of another human being. She treats each person individually and specifically to their needs, while never valuing one over another.

“I have realized over time that no matter where you travel or who you come into contact with, people basically want the same things in life. I have heard all types of people’s stories and learned about their lives just through conversation and bodywork.”

Humbly, Mary Ann has spent her life, her career, in dedication and service to others. She acknowledges she is fortunate that her passions and interests have aligned with what she has felt called to pursue as her life’s work and that she has been able to utilize struggles she has faced in her life to transform her into the person, the masseuse, she is today.

“I have morphed qualities of myself into something productive and have learned about myself through learning about other people, entering challenging relationships and through the nature of my bodywork. It’s helped me to have faith, live in the moment and pursue mindful living.”

about the author
After fleeing her birthplace of Brookville, Ohio, to immerse herself in the progressive culture of Athens, Ohio, Tara Pettit pursued journalism at Ohio University’s Scripps School of Journalism. She broke free from her hometown mold by becoming an impassioned cultural observer and writer. Tara found herself drawn to environmental and social justice reporting and has written for various publications, including the InterActivist, Athens Messenger, Collective for Women, Southeast Ohio, and BookPage. She considers herself a sort of “ramblin’ woman” who dabbles in many different activities and projects, which often lead her to her next literary idea. Currently, Tara is a writing partner with the United Nations, and has been devoting many of her freelance writing projects to her interests in Ayurveda, nature and social justice.