Inspired by a new exhibition on the culture of personal hygiene, we consider the quiet power of social scrubbing and its five key tenets
For as long as human beings have walked the face of the earth we’ve had bodies to bathe and dedicated places in which to wash them, and yet for the most part, personal hygiene is an area of everyday life which remains shrouded in mystery – or at the very least, concealed behind translucent glass and plentiful terry-towelling. As such, sites dedicated to communal bathing, be they swimming pools, spas, oceans or lakes, assume a precious significance within society’s delicate structure. They are arenas of equality, and, when used correctly, can promote an unparalleled sense of serenity.
This September a new exhibition entitled Soak, Steam, Dream: Reinventing Bathing Culture opens at Roca London Gallery, exploring the many and varied ways in which to wash. To celebrate, we bring you five of the unwritten rules of communal bathing. Go forth and get clean!
1. Go outside
There's a world beyond the remit of our carefully controlled bathrooms, and it is positively brimming with natural resources which have been self-refining since the beginning of civilisation. From geothermal spas – Reykjavik’s stunning Blue Lagoon is rich in silica mud, which has long been renowned for its deep-cleansing and pore-refining abilities – to salt lakes – the Dead Sea, bordering Israel, the West Bank and Jordan, was accredited as far back as in the Book of Genesis for its cosmetic gifts – you’ll soon discover that plumbing is by no means a prerequisite for getting clean.
If a trip to Israel, Iceland, or a similarly exotic locale is out of the question, you might opt for installing a more rudimentary solution: an outdoor shower will add an uplifting new dimension to your day, or failing that, an exhilarating dance in the rain might suffice. Keep an arsenal of well-placed soap suds within arms reach to guard against nosy neighbours. Alternatively, bathe in the attention.
2. Be naked
Whether or not you care for the age-old Christian morality tale which first sought to shame human nakedness (not to mention Eve’s inability to resist sensual temptations), there’s no denying that clothes, and society’s insistence that we wear them at all times, exist primarily as a means of oppression. As American intellectual Mark Twain wrote in 1905: “There is no power without clothes. It is the power that governs the human race. Strip its chiefs to the skin, and no State could be governed; naked officials could exercise no authority; they would look (and be) like everybody else.”
Not so in communal bathing, where nudity’s prolific power to democratise runs rings around such foolish ideas, creating a universal sense of belonging. Get your kit off, and swathe your body instead in the reassuring notion that you are as extraordinary as each and every one of your soldiers in arms (read: fellow naked people).
3. Enjoy the view, but don't stare
As a child, I learned far more from looking on wide-eyed in the group showers at my local swimming pool than I ever did in biology, and in the process I picked up a thing or two about the social courtesy which accompanies such displays of admiration. In short, there's appreciation for the human form, and then there's staring – and nothing endangers the precious balance of trust in communal nudity so irremediably as perceiving judgment in your peers. Leave your phone with your belongings, for fear of accidentally opening your camera, and if you unwittingly let your eyes linger for a moment too long, follow up with a smile. As an adult, this extends to the realms of beauty salons, dressing rooms in clothing stores – anywhere, in fact, you might be required to let your guard down, however momentarily.
There are few spaces in which the absence of urgency is directly proportionate to pleasure, but in the case of personal hygiene it is absolutely crucial. Allow yourself ample time, play some music or savour the silence, and luxuriate in the rare peace which comes from stepping out of the digital sphere – your mind, body and spirit will thank you.
When Wet! magazine was first founded by American artist and writer Leonard Koren in 1976, it wasn’t filling any obvious gap in the market; as its music editor Kristine McKenna wrote, “the world wasn’t crying out for a periodical on bathing”. Nonetheless, it started something: over and above simply extolling the virtues of taking care of one’s body, through considered articles and groundbreaking art direction, The Magazine of Gourmet Bathing, (as it was subtitled) captured a zeitgeist of 1970s California, disseminating the newest in philosophy and photography.
Wet!’s life was a short one – it lasted five years and 34 issues in total – but its impact on the publishing industry continues to resonate today. “Though I had no skills in writing, editing, designing, art direction, advertising, sales, publishing or business generally, I didn’t consider this an impediment,” Koren wrote in a recent book, Making WET: The Magazine of Gourmet Bathing. Neither did his readers: it has since been widely lauded for its innovative design, and perhaps even more importantly, launched the careers of the likes of David Lynch, Herb Ritts and Laurie Anderson, and catalysed the arrive of a starkly modern new America. “Koren had the imagination and audacity to create his own world, and that’s exactly what he did with Wet,” McKenna continues.
All of which begs the question – why not take Koren’s lead? From Instagramming one’s hygiene habits to writing short stories about the ambiguous activities inside a Russian or Turkish spa, there’s no end to modern means for celebrating our personal routines. Cleanliness is next to godliness, after all.
Soak, Steam, Dream: Reinventing Bathing Culture runs from September 15, 2016 until January 28, 2017 at Roca London Gallery.