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Guys Who Spa

Daniel Vasconcellos

(page 1 of 3)

The secret is out: Men are fighting side by side with women to look young, stay healthy and enjoy pampering. But when men exchange street clothes for terrycloth robes, the trip to spa-land is uniquely male.

For life outside the spa walls — these days especially — one needs thick skin, hard edges, a little fear and tension, every single brain cell. There are no flutes out here, no sweetly scented air, no one waiting on the other side of the door to lead you from one place to the next. You simply have to accept reality: Work hard, make a load of money, and repeat.

But what if you could step off the treadmill and transport yourself to some inner sanctum for an afternoon? Call me a girly-man, but after recently touring spas in Fairfield County, I’m in — with both pedicured feet.

Of course, it used to be that most men wouldn’t be caught dead in a day spa. Now you can hardly keep us out. The International Spa Association reports that men currently account for more than 30 percent of spa clients and 48 percent of spas in the country offer services and packages for men.

As spa services have grown in popularity, they have also evolved into upscale combinations of relaxation, skin care and medical spas, offering high-level surgical and non-surgical services for both sexes. “It’s a way of providing wellness and medical care in a relaxed setting, as the stage just before mainstream doctors,” says Alan Cohen, general manager of Elixir Day Spa & Elixir Skin Spa in Westport. Here, a plastic surgeon, a body surgeon and an alternative medicine physician are on duty several days a week. The result is a menu of services that is still focused on appearances but is increasingly oriented toward what Cohen calls “healthspan.”

Guys today are seeking practically every service available to women — pedicures, facials and massages, as well as peels, laser treatments and Botox injections — and it doesn’t seem linked to what they do for a living. “We see executives who are stressed out, guys who work for themselves and have flexibility throughout the day, and a lot of weekend spa warriors,” says Lori Dodd, manager of Dream Spa in Westport. “The most popular service for men is, of course, massage. Many of our male clients have been coming in weekly for years.”

Prices start at $80 for a sports massage, $80 for a facial, and $50 for a pedicure, a back wax or foot reflexology. The boasted benefits? Rejuvenation, elimination of sun damage, reduced stress, renewed energy and concentration, and better relationships (romantic and otherwise).

Naturally, in order to verify these claims and fully understand the spa experience well enough to translate it for the curious, someone had do the research by actually going to a number of day spas. Why not me?

Getting an early start on this punishing assignment, I recently visited Elixir Day Spa & Elixir Skin Spa, on Main Street in Westport, founded by Joann (Jo Jo) Salerno, who is also a senior medical aesthetician, and Cohen.

French doors lead into a small reception area with sand-colored floor tiles and a large clay jar filled with tall river reeds. The area opens into a spacious, high-ceilinged, central room of makeup stations and cabinets of skincare products, with treatment rooms spinning off like the spokes of a wheel. The space is airy, fresh and filled with light from large windows overlooking the Saugatuck River.

Representative of the new breed of spas, Elixir incorporates medical treatments with traditional spa services, offering skin care and peels, laser and body treatments, relaxation therapies, and plastic surgery. Being deeply superficial, I opt for pure pleasure over substantive change and choose the foundation of relaxation treatments: a foot massage. Monica, a medical aesthetician and licensed reflexologist, leads me into a treatment room that is instantly soothing: low lights, a few candles burning, New Age music filtering the scented air. In the middle of the room is a narrow treatment table, soft and heated, which is the most comfortable, plush surface I have ever lain on.

 I begin asking questions and mentally taking notes (I am going to have to write about this at some point) but within minutes give up this foolish business as stress, fatigue and thoughts drain away. By the end of the thirty-minute session, I’m so relaxed that I glide rather than walk and can barely talk (while this may not bode well for writing, either, the good news is that I don’t really care).

Afterwards, I’m led into another room for a facial consultation with Jo Jo. I’m told she has been in the business for twenty-seven years, but this is hard to believe since her skin doesn’t look much older than that. It is china-white and flawless, and this, I learn in the days to come, is one sign of a spa’s potency: How relaxed and pampered the personnel look.

During my facial she administers chroma-light therapy to tone the skin and lympho-energetic drainage to detoxify and improve circulation. She then begins a traditional Chinese facial, applying layer after layer of essential oils and lotions. As if finger painting, she circles the eyes and mouth, brushes the upper lip and chin, strokes the temples and forehead, and massages the scalp. Since the head is connected to the neck and the neck to the shoulders, she massages these areas, too, then moves down my arms and uses reflexology on my fingers and palms. While my face “sets” under a mask of hydrating gel, she calls in Monica again to work on my feet.

I am proof that men do love facials.

Out on the sidewalk, I feel both different than I did before and different from other guys. And I am — I’ve just spa-ed! This distinction between men who spa and men who don’t is one of the more ridiculous and fleeting notions I’ve ever entertained. But for a little while, I feel special.