09 May 2011

I had a watsu session and it felt great

The Hot Bath, where I had my treatment
I had one of the most extraordinary experiences of fat embodiment in my life on Saturday afternoon.

I went to Thermae Bath. This is the thermal baths complex in Bath, in Somerset. I'll try and explain this without being too confusing. Bath is a town. There are remains of Roman baths there, you can visit them to look but you cannot bathe in them. For a long time you could bathe in other baths in Bath, but then they closed. A new bathing complex was opened a few years ago. This complex comprises an inside pool, an outside rooftop pool, some steam rooms, and a hot bath where treatments are given. There is a separate building with a smaller bath. The baths are the only place in the UK where you can bathe in water heated by geothermal activity. Bath is also Britain's most well-known spa town, but that's another story.

(Quick and grumpy aside: If you are fat, the robes at Thermae Bath will not fit you, but the receptionist will insist "You'll be okay" without listening to you when you ask what size they come in. Although people of many sizes come and bathe at the baths, the robes only come in one standard size that does not cover someone of my size. This is extremely annoying, especially given that the complex has otherwise really good access for disabled people. I don’t know why they don't have some larger robes available. I have been to bath houses in Japan, a country where people tend to be much smaller than me, and I have been adequately clothed there, but not at Bath. Tip for fat people: bring your own.)

Thermae Bath at peak visiting time is not relaxing in the way that the brochure pictures promise. It is heaving with people who do not know about spa etiquette. So there is a lot of loud chatter, dashing around, and people seem unable to switch off and just experience the heat, the water, the ambiance. My partner and I bobbed around in the warm water with everyone else. It was not a holy experience, but it was fun and relaxing in its own way.

The baths are a great place to witness yourself amongst a spectrum of bodies, to see the myth of bodily normativity at first hand, and to treat your own body with gentle kindness. Bobbing, floating, sweating, napping, all feel good. Going to the baths is not the only way in which I have learned to feel okay in my own skin, but it's part of the story. I would love to see a fat activist reclamation of David Walliams and Matt Lucas' hate-filled Little Britain stereotype Bubbles DeVere. I resent that mean appropriation of my fat, naked, spa-loving self!

The hot bath from outside
I also find the idea of spa treatments interesting because they inhabit a quasi-medical, or para-medical space. Often practitioners will have a professional qualification and will wear a uniform. Sometimes the division between acting medical and being medical is blurred, especially with treatments like colonic irrigation and botox, and spa treatments can look very much like possibly-discredited treatments of yesteryear, electrified and radon baths spring to mind here. Negotiating medicalised space when you're fat is generally a complex and fraught experience, and sometimes the space of the para-medical spa treatment is anxiety-provoking in similar ways. Will the gown fit? Will the equipment fit? How will my body be evaluated? But spa-space can also be a much more free space because the authority of the practitioner is not as powerful as a common or garden health professional, here there is room for negotiation, their status can be more easily questioned, and this can embolden one to refute passivity more easily when dealing with real doctors and medics. Anyway, I think messing around with your body is a way of claiming your body.

So I had a treatment whilst I was at Thermae Bath. I'm almost embarrassed to say it because the name of the treatment – Watsu – sounds like so much orientalist mumbo-jumbo. I've since found out that it's a portmanteau of water and Shiatsu, a type of massage that emphasises pressure points. The evidence that Shiatsu is effective treatment for disease is unconvincing, but it feels really good. Watsu was invented by who else but a California hippy called Harold Dull in 1980, fact fans. Few people offer it in the UK because there aren't many pools appropriate for it. It can be very pricey and my session was no different, though I didn’t pay for it, it was a belated xmas present. I chose to have a Watsu session not because I am diseased, but because I wanted to be swished around in the water for an hour and can just about handle its inherent bourgie woo. I knew that Watsu would feel nice and relaxing but I wasn't expecting the experience to be as intense and strange as it was.

My session took place in the Hot Bath, a stunning pool at the centre of the building. I've included pictures of it here. When I looked up I could see clouds and sky through the glass roof. There was some music playing in the distance, and gurgles and pops made by the water, but the setting was incredibly serene, almost like a virtual reality environment.

My therapist was called C. It was just us in the pool. She told me what she was going to do and tied some floats to my legs. Two didn’t fit but there was no fuss and I am plenty buoyant anyway.

We did some breathing together, our bodies rose and fell in the water as our lungs filled and emptied with air. C invited me to lean back into her arms when I was ready. She took my head and swished me around, pulling and turning me. I looked up at the sky and then closed my eyes for the rest of the session.

What I saw when I looked up
I felt like a tadpole, something evolving from the primordial soup. Sometimes I was bobbed up and down and tilted out of the water. I was in constant motion, feeling the water swoosh past my limbs. I concentrated on my breathing and letting go of tension in my body, and of the sensation of the water around me, and of C's hands. She advised me earlier to be like a piece of seaweed, so I tried to do that. As the session went on, C incorporated stretches that would be impossible for me to do on land. She used her hands and feet, her whole body. I don't know how she did it, perhaps she grew some extra limbs. It felt amazing. At one point she stuck my head in a floating bonnet type thing (I still had my eyes closed so have no idea what this looked like) and pressed pressure points in my feet, hands and shoulders. At the end of the session she placed me upright against a wall in the pool and massaged my face. She gave me some time to come round. I said goodbye to the pool and stepped into a fluffy towel and had a rest on a recliner, under a blanket.

The whole session felt extremely intimate and special. I felt changed by it. I don't know if this was because I had been able to relax and trust that I would be okay, I think it may have something to do with surrendering to vulnerability in the water and allowing myself to be cared for. I have various histories of abuse to my name, which I have been thinking about a lot lately, and it felt mind-blowing to be held physically in this way. There is something about the way this takes place in warm water, too, which feels very elemental, and is somewhere I feel at home.

I was aware of how close our bodies were during the treatment and this could be disturbing if you didn't trust the person doing it. C's head was close to mine, I was in her arms almost all of the time, and my hand brushed past her breast and her armpit at various stages. There was intense eye contact. I was aware that my magical moment was work to her, and I thought about the treatment as being on a spectrum of embodied work that includes other kinds of massage and sex work. I felt like a John of sorts, but perhaps this is the only way I can rationalise this kind of gendered, paid-for, embodied experience.

I felt very moved that C was able to handle me. There's something really amazing when young and pretties (my girlfriend's term for normatively embodied people, perhaps those who have never encountered non-normative embodiment, or fear or deride it) are able to treat people with bodies like mine with respect. Being old, unruly, hairy-legged, ungroomed, fat, scarred, wobbly, messy, and all the rest of it does not always send people running for the hills – who knew? It is absolutely brilliant when people who may not be in the firing line themselves step up and show that they have done their work. C looked after me and modelled ways in which I might care for myself. Thank you!

I thought of the journey I've taken with my body, how many fat people, people, would not be able to do what I did, and not just because of financial or other practical access reasons either. It was almost too enormous to think about, and I still feel that I could become a big blubbering mess if I thought about it deeply, so maybe I'll come back to that in a while, or take my time in picking it apart.

How did this all end? I walked back to the pool to see Kay, grinning, full of wonder, and with a profound sense that I'm alright, really.


RachelB said...

I still feel that I could become a big blubbering mess if I thought about it deeply,

I became a blubbering mess just reading about your experience with watsu. It sounds wonderful. Healing. I'm glad you were able to do it, and thank you for sharing it.

Charlotte Cooper said...

Haha! It was great!

Suzanne said...

I have had experiences like that and your post made me teary and wobbly with good memories. Bless you. We all need to be good to ourselves and good to others!

Also, Bath, England was the first place I ever saw a feminist bookstore. No idea if it is still there but it made a big impression on me when I was 18 (a million years ago).

Charlotte Cooper said...


I can't imagine Bath still has a feminist bookshop.

Well-Rounded Mama said...

I've been to Bath, years ago. Wish this had been open then!

This sounds like it was an absolutely heavenly experience. What a wonderful treat!

I hope you copy this post and mail it to C, to let her know just how powerful an experience it was to be treated in this way, and to thank her for her willingness to do bodywork on people of size (not all bodyworkers do). She (and her superiors) need to know just how important and life-changing it can be.

I'm so happy you had this experience! But now I'm suffering from Watsu-envy. Sigh.

mollybennett said...

A few years ago when I went to my first Body Electric (http://www.bodyelectric.org/), I had an experience similar to the one you're describing, in the sense of being amazed that the young and pretties were interacting with my body in a very normalizing way. It surprised me, that these tall, thin, lithe women were in no way disgusted by my body, and treated it (and me) with respect and dignity. It was one more step on the path of learning to be similarly gentle with myself. :)

Charlotte Cooper said...

Glad to hear it Molly.