A brief cartography of baths
For the ninth issue of Counterpoint, E Jamieson wrote about the relationships to baths held among themselves and their friends; bathing for cleanliness, bathing as luxury and bathing as an intimate social phenomenon. Illustration by Susie Purvis.
The bath as function
Where else to start but with the bath’s original, honest cause: hygiene. A 2014 study from researchers at the Universities of Manchester, Lancaster, Edinburgh and Southampton found that “bathing [in the UK] seems to be almost extinct as an approach to cleanliness, people having baths often only when constrained to do so” – in effect, when there is no available shower.
I once romanticised this experience, during one warm summer week with a broken electric shower and nowhere urgent to be. I boiled soup pots full of water to transfer to the tub, and elegantly languished in the resulting puddle. However, Kay Lovelace experienced a true shower-less period in their first flat after graduating. They developed a routine in which they would run as many/few inches of warm water as the boiler would allow, before preparing breakfast (two bagels with peanut butter, a Berocca and an instant espresso) which they would subsequently eat in the bath before completing the routine by washing their hair from the tap. They completed this routine every morning before work for around eight months, and, as it turns out, relying on the bath for functional cleanliness removes much of the pleasure.
“I would never take a bath again. I wasn’t particularly big on baths before. But now… they hold no interest for me.”
- Christina Clark (2007) “Bathing” The Massachusetts Review 48(3) pp. 455
- Imtiaz Dharker (2006) “Women Bathing” The Terrorist at My Table
- Amy Lowell (1955) “Bath” The Complete Poetical Works of Amy Lowell
The bath as luxury
Never having been truly subjected to the horror of a working life without a shower, however, I am firmly of the opinion that a bath is a glorious pastime. Capable of alleviating so much pressure, enveloping you in warmth, allowing you some time away from responsibilities (it’s hard to work in a bath). The “bath as luxury” trope is firmly embedded in societal consciousness
However, luxury bath fans’ ideas of a good bath vary; personally, I like my bath to be so hot I have to take breaks in order to remain conscious. I don’t watch or listen to anything. Radox Muscle Soak is my poison. I often lie back with my ears under the surface and let myself be silently suspended in the water.
Elly Hocking is a fellow bath fan, who regularly texts me with updates of her most recent Lush bath bomb purchases and pictures of the emerald green water she is at that moment submerged in. Entirely unlike me, she likes to read in the bath. She doesn’t want the water to be scalding, and she doesn’t like to get her hair wet.
“I only wash my hair when I shower. For me showers are functional, baths are for relaxing. A good bath usually makes me feel very clean, very sleepy and relaxed. It'll take the tension out of my muscles, it'll help me calm down a bit. It's quiet time, basically.”
- Björk “Bath” (from Drawing Restraint 9, 2005)
- Iamnobodi “Bubble Bath Dreams” (from Elevated, 2013)
- Air “Bathroom Girl” (from The Virgin Suicides, 2000)
The bath as social
Some messages I have received about baths:
- “I am having a bath and I am very happy about this so I thought I'd share this with you” CS 17/07/14
- “feel like taking a 3 hour bath but feel this will endanger my work/ social life/ life in general/” AM 06/12/15
- “Guess where i am rn?? I’ll give you a clue. Most of me is underwater.” EH 01/02/16
The final angle on bathing I want to explore is the idea of the bath as a social experience. Of course, public bathing is not a recent phenomenon – however, here I will focus on the very specific shared bathing experiences of young people (mostly, but not always, women) and their friends: think Girls and Broad City. I have never experienced a social bath in this respect, though I am a regular recipient of positive bath discourse, as can be seen in the messages above.
My flatmate, Zoë Leung, informs me that there is a scene in Girls which Hannah (Lena Dunham) is in the bath and Marnie (Allison Williams) sits in the bathroom chatting to her – this is Zoë’s idea of “peak friendship”: sharing a level of intimacy and freedom between friends that may otherwise be reserved for family or romantic partners only.
Girls’ baths were also important for Chloë Smith, who told me that she loved a particular scene in which Jessa (Jemima Kirke) climbs into the bath with a sad Hannah, citing the way in which taking a bath with a friend can make you feel closer, but also can simply be more fun. Chloë studied choreography and visual art at university, and found that “social baths” developed for her because baths in themselves were healing when she was aching after a long day of dance.
“Alice, Sophie, Dee and I would pile into the small room with the bath, one of us would be in the bath and we would gossip. Often we would drink those mini bottles of wine … I would highly recommend it”
- RECOMMENDED VIEWING:
- Ginger and Rosa (2012) (dir: Sally Potter)
- The Dreamers (2003) (dir: Bernardo Bertolucci)
- “The One Where Chandler Takes a Bath” Friends S08E13