Recently the Global Spa & Wellness Summit put out a question to the spa industry on their blog: Would you get rid of the word “spa”? At a recent conference, panelist Peter Rummell, formerly head of imagineering at the Disney corporation, suggested this might be a good idea because “The deadly definition of ‘spa is that it is for rich, white women.” Many commentators had strong opinions on the subject. Here is my response…

Would you get rid of the word “spa”?

Absolutely not.

And besides, we can’t.

We can no more get rid of the word spa than we can get rid of the word “asparagus.” It’s part of the vernacular. What Mr. Rummell said is true; these businesses we call spas are indeed positioned as a product for rich white women. The problem is that even though we in the spa industry spend a lot of time and research money trying to prove otherwise, we actually want it this way. In some deep, dark corner of our minds, we like being exclusive. I spoke to this issue in my book, Touchy Subjects. “It’s no accident that the most successful spa chain, with hundreds of locations in the U.S. and hundreds of millions of dollars in annual sales, is called Massage Envy. The founder of this company had a good grasp of middle class consumers’ aspirational mentality. Massages there, at $49 for an introductory session and $59 a pop month-to-month, are almost cheap, but not quite. They still have an aura of something to be envied, and as the middle classes struggle mightily to keep from falling into the lower classes during tough economic times, they find that getting massages is a way to reassure themselves that they’re not poor, at least not yet, because poor people, as a general rule, don’t get massages. What these consumers most likely don’t know is that the founder of Massage Envy sold the company, and it’s now owned by the same group that owns Taco Bell, Pizza Hut, and Church’s Fried Chicken. Massages in this setting are basically a form of fast-food packaged to look like the luxurious offerings at the St. Regis and Mandarin Oriental.”

So, even when the spa industry tries to offer value, it still plays the exclusivity card. Mr. Rummell knew what he was talking about. As the former head of Disney Imagineering, he has spent a great deal of time creating unreal experiences for vast numbers of people. That’s what people pay for when they go to Disney—to escape reality, not embrace it. And if he’s suggesting something similar here—that by branding the industry differently and calling spas by another name, we can offer vast numbers of people yet another way to escape reality—then I would suggest this is not what we as an industry actually want. Even though at times we may profess a desire to attract a wider, more inclusive audience, we don’t, in our hearts, want people to approach spas like they approach Disney World—as an escape from reality. For us, spas are not an escape from reality; they are reality. Those of us in the industry know that lots of healthy human contact and a wellness lifestyle are optimal for everyone, yet when we present our product to the public, we continue to brand ourselves with yet another advertising campaign or product launch or press release touting our spas as “exclusive” or “the ultimate in luxury” for “a very select few.”

If we limit our definition of “spa” to what we see represented at the big trade shows, we will most likely end up with a vision of our own industry that is skewed toward the upper classes. That’s ok, if that’s what we want. But don’t we want something more? Isn’t that why we ask someone like Mr. Rummell to analyze our industry in the first place?

Our problem may be that we’re afraid of our own humble roots. My own role of massage therapist, for example, has been historically played by slaves, dating from the Roman Empire until the present day. Even as you read this, human traffickers are snatching young women from their homelands and ensnaring them in “spas” all around the world. We may try to distance ourselves from this seedy underbelly of our industry, making absolutely sure the public knows that we and our establishments are legitimate, but that won’t make it go away. And it is this distancing that is part of the problem. If we are really serious about change, we should not bother getting rid of the word spa. Rather, we should begin by admitting what the word has come to mean. We should fight against human trafficking in a strong and vocal way. We as an industry can and should do much more on this issue because, in a certain sense, these women are our spa sisters and our spa daughters. To deny the reality of their situation is to deny a part of our own reality, and this denial makes our problem worse. People perceive spas as unreal, as places where unrealistically beautiful (and rich) white women go to have unrealistically expensive experiences that, in the end, are absolutely unnecessary. We brand ourselves that way. Like Gucci purses, spas are status symbols, and the masses envy people who get massages. This, again, is similar to what the imagineers at Disney World do, as I mention in my book: “Modern spas, with their hushed tones, marble hallways and heavenly music playing, can sometimes become a little like Disney themselves, touted as ‘escapes’ from reality, just like the Magic Kingdom. I dislike this about spas, and that’s why I prefer to receive massages lying on a mattress on the floor of a little storefront in Thailand with roosters crowing and traffic passing by and children crying in the background. This is what massage used to be like in ancient times and still is in much of the world today—integrated into daily life. It’s only recently that massage and spas, in certain places, have undergone Disneyfication and become more like Fantasyland than reality.”

We don’t need to get rid of the word spa but rather embrace everything that the word spa represents. In my experience, “spa” can also represent something truly sublime. For the past two years I have been working with a friend and colleague in Kathmandu, Nepal. When Rob Buckley was a Peace Corps volunteer in that country, he was amazed how little was being done for the “untouchables,” those people on the lowest rungs of the persistent caste system that has kept hundreds of millions locked in poverty and disgrace for generations. After the Peace Corp, Rob came home to the US to study massage therapy, and when it came time to chose his career path, he knew what he had to do. Returning to Nepal on his own, he opened the first massage school in that country, calling it Himalayan Healers. In this school, for the past eight years, he has trained over a hundred “untouchables” to become massage therapists. He guarantees each one of them a job after graduation in one of several spas he has opened in hotels and trekking lodges. These spas are not fancy. Entering one, you would not get the impression they were designed exclusively for “rich white women.” They are clean and humble, and they hum with the vibrations of a place where something special is going on. I call it love.
Enter a Himalayan Healers spa, and you’d never know that the proud, smiling person giving you your treatment was raped and left for dead in the jungle, or abandoned by her family, or widowed in a civil war. Rob Buckley’s program helps these people overcome past traumas and the prejudices of an entire culture. One by one, they learn to trust again. They learn that their touch is not dirty. They learn that they themselves are not “untouchable.” The international visitors and upper class Nepalis they come into contact with in their new positions do not share the same prejudices that have kept them ensnared in the caste system. Working in these spas, they make ten times the salary they could otherwise, up to three hundred dollars a month. Himalayan Healers has been named humanitarian spa of the year by Asia Spa magazine.

Rob Buckley continues to struggle. He has received death threats. Corrupt organizations have set up rival “massage schools” that were nothing more than fronts to siphon money from government coffers. But day after day, Rob carries on. I’ve visited his operation twice and witnessed what he’s been doing. I’ve talked to the people whose lives he’s changed. I’ve helped him raise funds to keep going.
When you step foot inside a Himalayan Healers spa, something begins to vibrate in  your heart. It’s just a tiny drop in the bucket in a vast sea of human suffering, but that tiny drop fills you up. “This,” you say to yourself, “is what spas can be.”

By embracing all that the word spa can mean–by fighting human trafficking in our industry, by championing the humble mom-and-pop storefront spas around the world where people proudly offer their touch and their love, by supporting the efforts of people like Rob Buckley who literally change lives through their missions in the spa industry, and yes, by enjoying the luxurious experience of a Five-Star spa now and again (perhaps funneling a tiny percentage of the money spent there to help others like Rob doing great things in our industry), then we’d have a word to be proud of, a word that people could sink their teeth into, to believe in.
Isn’t that what we want from the word “spa”? To believe in it? Be proud of it? To not squirm ever so slightly in our seats when the word is mentioned? Well, then, we have some work to do. And it just may be the most satisfying work yet.