Friday, 11 September 2015

The rationalist spa: an unmet need

I’ve had a few spa experiences, though I’m hardly a connoisseur. I've found  a spa is a good place to chill out and gossip with friends, and on the rare occasions when I stay at a fancy hotel, I’ve come to enjoy the process of whiling away the period between lunch and cocktails in a hot bubbly tub.

At the same time, I’ve become fascinated by the language used to advertise the available activities. I suspect most people who go to a spa don’t have any specific ailments, but they want to come away feeling more relaxed and vibrant, and the talk of 'therapies' and 'treatments' manages to create the comforting illusion that health can be shifted from suboptimal to optimal by various potions and practices. Particularly intriguing is the focus on foodstuffs. In a spa, you don’t ingest food: you rub it on the skin, sniff it, or slather yourself with it. I’ve always suspected there is an element of sublimation in this: most women who wish to remain slender have to suppress the desire to eat delicious things, and the spa provides an opportunity to interact with food without getting fat.
In the hotel I’ve been staying in you could be massaged with essential oils of grapefruit, have mango butter rubbed on your feet or head, be scrubbed with papaya and mandarin, or have your muscles relaxed by a concoction of rice and milk. Rather disappointingly, they didn't offer the ultimate decadence: a ‘chocolate wrap’, where you start with a warm milk soak, then get scrubbed with vanilla and bran, before being enveloped in a warm cocoa butter ‘masque’ (a word that always reminds me of Edgar Allan Poe's scary story).
It’s clear that there’s a lucrative market for this kind of thing. Many of us feel stressed by modern life, and if being smothered in chocolate or fruit makes us feel relaxed, why not?
Alas, though, for me the sense of relaxation is counteracted by irritation with the garbage that you have to endure while undergoing something as basic as a pedicure. Some of it is just overblown advertising guff, e.g. “Drawing on the elemental wisdom of nature, our treatments both invoke and restore the body’s natural equilibrium”. What does this even mean? The images are of blockage and decay being removed: “Clearing stagnant energy is the focus of the Spring Clean Scrub”. But the worst examples are those with medical overtones, with talk of healing, detoxification, and wellness. We are told that: “This wrap is highly effective in purging toxins and boosting the blood and lymphatic circulation” or "The polyphenols in cocoa delay the ageing process, causing you to look younger". Or even “The body is generously encased within a cooling serum”. Cripes! If you look up serum in a dictionary, this is a seriously scary idea.
I have, of course, always just gone with the flow. Attempting to debate the scientific basis of aromatherapy or ayurveda with a practitioner who makes their living administering these treatments is unlikely to make either of us more relaxed or vibrant. But I do wish someone would open a spa for rationalists, where one could go and get a good massage or get encased in mud just for the fun of it, without a lot of guff about energy blockages and deep-seated toxins.


  1. Drawing on the ancient knowledge of the Mohawk nation, we apply the centuries old native techniques of maple syrup massage and applications of authentic beaver musk to improve your quantum comfort as you recline in the traditional sweat lodge while waves of sacred tobacco smoke waft over you.

    (For all I know it might sell but it could be a sticky business.)

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