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We the Bathers

A journey in sadness and joy

This article was written by Fiona Ward, a journalist living in the UK.

Up until my early twenties, I was firmly a shower person. While both my mother and sister would revel in a long soak in the bath, as a teenager I would always prefer to stand under the hot, pouring water, feeling it pummel my skin like rain. As time went on, my love of showers turned into what I saw as simple necessity. Spending much of my time and brain space desperately trying to make my way in my career, cope with an anxiety disorder, and adapt to adult life and responsibility, the notion of self-care or relaxation never really resonated with me.

You guessed it, I can be pretty intense.

Years later, something happened that stopped me in my tracks for once. My dog died. Insignificant though it may sound to some (though to many it will make complete sense), it floored me in a way I had never expected. I had experienced all-consuming grief before—my mum died in a sudden accident a few years previously, and all my beloved grandparents had long passed—yet this loss had me expressing my grief publicly, openly, like never before.

I remember this time so explicitly because though I'd lost so much previously, the death of our family dog brought with it an ending I could never have imagined. While mourning the loss of a companion I'd adored, I also realized I'd have to let go of one of the last pieces of my mum, who had loved our miniature schnauzer like a child. I cried like a baby myself that day. In the office at work, in the park on my lunch break, sat in a packed station waiting for a delayed train and the entire two-hour commute home, I sobbed—despite having never cried in public before in my adult life.

When I arrived home, inconsolable, my boyfriend suggested I run a bath. So, I did. As I slid into the warm water and let the tears merge with it, I allowed myself to be still with my feelings for once. It would be cliché, and undeserving of the moment, to say all my troubles were washed away, but that night I felt the creeping calm of a hot bath at exactly the right time.

These days, I admit I'm still a shower person most days, but bathing is a tool I rely on in times of sadness or anxiety. Like most, I've always known that the feeling of immersing yourself in warm water is comforting, but I've since realized that the simple stillness of taking a bath is actually what's incredibly powerful. While I often can't find quiet in my busy brain, the physical act of running the water, dimming the lights and climbing in gives my mind the rest that sleep sometimes doesn't.

In fact, a 2018 study found that taking regular afternoon baths could lift the moods of those suffering with depression. The science goes that the change in temperature can strengthen the body's circadian rhythms (the patterns that determine our sleeping and eating behaviors), which can be disrupted in those with depression. Equally, the change in temperature as you emerge from the bath can help induce a better night's rest.

In the years since my tub-based epiphany, I've come to realize that bathing isn't just a form of therapy in the emotional sense. I've begun to enjoy trying oils that leave my skin feeling soft, and fragrances that are soothing and delicious. I now get just as much pleasure changing the color of the water with a bath bomb as I would shading my eyelids with pigment. It's fun. While I've always found joy in makeup and beauty products, I've discovered a new love for the playful nature of bathing. After all, our early bath experiences are often of sitting in the tub as children, surrounded by colorful toys.

Today, as I approach my thirties, my now somewhat sacred bathtub has surprised me once again. My first nephew entered the world, and with him came unparalleled love—a treasured new cog in a family system that had been a little broken before. Helping my sister bathe him for the first time as a new mum is a moment I will never forget. Watching his miniature facial expressions, visibly soothed and interested as he felt the new sensation of warm water spilling over his newborn skin, I realized again that bathing is so much more than a means for personal hygiene.

The act of bathing is treasured across the world as something special and spiritual, and while my humble bathtub at home is lowly in comparison to a gloriously-tiled Turkish hammam or an idyllic Japanese onsen, I like to think I've developed my very own personal bathing culture over the years. No doubt we all have. I might even start calling myself a bath person.

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Illustration: Eleanor Hardiman