From pampering to well-being: our search for bathing rituals


“ If there is magic on this planet, it is contained in water.”

-Loren Eiseley, The Immense Journey, 1957


The human body is made of 70% water.  The human brain is 80%  water, and about roughly 90% of our blood is made out of water.  It is of no wonder that throughout human history water has always remained an intrinsic part of well-being and spiritual beliefs.  Its spiritual and healing properties are seen in rites and rituals connected to the theme of ablution.  Ablution can be exercised in many arenas.  In medical practice water was seen as a facilitator of purification and rebirth.  In the course of discussing about the process of confinement and the development of the idea of curing or treating madness, Michel Foucault in Madness and Civilization (2001) runs through the initial cures such as purification and immersion that relate water to the body, in its affect on both body and soul.  He writes,

Water, the simple and primitive liquid, belongs to all that is purest in nature; all the dubious modifications man has been able to add to nature’s essential kindness cannot change the beneficence of water; when civilization, life in society, the imaginary desires aroused by novel reading and theatre going provoke nervous ailments, the return towater’s limpidity assumes the meaning of a ritual of purification; in that transparent coolness one is reborn to one’s first innocence (p158).

Water is seen here as both symbolic for the soul and as an universal physiological regulator.  An element that brings our bodies to equilibrium due to our own inherent body composition.  While Foucault sites a series of contrived experiments performed up to the 19th century, it is important to note that madness was not seen as an illness or something that could be treated. But Foucault suggests that even when the idea of a cure developed, it was not a medical development. Madness was still seen in terms of morality and the links between body and soul that come from a theory of the passions.


By the nineteenth century, a difference arose in the approach of techniques which focused on the moral improvements of the madman.  In a sense the fight became more psychologically focused.  In turn the valuation of water changed as well.   Water with all its powers, “wane in the very excess of its qualitative versatility: cold, it can heat; hot it can cool”(p163), writes  Foucault,  “In medical thought, it forms a therapeutic theme which can be used and manipulated unconditionally, and whose effects can be understood in the most diverse physiologies and pathologies”.  In fact, it is perhaps this polyvalence with which endless disputes were generated that finally neutralized water.

Though water was still used in medical practice at that time, its qualitative overtones had disappeared.  Showers, which were previously used less than baths had become the favored technique.

Water regains, beyond all the physiological variations of the preceding epoch, its simple function of purification.  The only quality attributed to it is violence, an irresistible flow washing away all impurities that form madness; by its own curative power, it reduces the individual to his simplest possible expression, to his merest and purest form of existence,thus affording him a second rebirth (Madness Civilization p163).


This symbolic interpretation of water is often cemented in our collective minds through the stereotyping of shower rituals of inmates during the process of incarceration in mainstream films.   We frequently see similar scenarios of inmates subjected to brutal forces of water to purge the corrupted and the damned out of them before they begin their rehabilitation in institutions.  These bathroom facilities carry with them an uncompromising quality of sterility and economy.  Contemporary healthcare institutions today often have bathrooms with similar qualities of sterility and economy.  These sites bear witness to just how much we had forgotten about the qualitative values of water.  While Foucault speaks about the perceptions of water’s value as a possible treatment to madness, he emphasized that the development in treatment was viewed more in terms of morality than to medical developments.  Along this path of thinking, western society lost its connection to water as intrinsic part of well-being and spiritual beliefs.  Through new defined virtues of economy and efficiency in modern society our changing notions of reverence to water can be traced by following the evolution of the bathroom.

The idea of a room in a home dedicated to personal hygiene and grooming is to some extent, a recent one.  For the most part, houses built much before the turn of the century did not have bathrooms.  In the span of about 100 years, the modern bathroom has evolved from a novelty into an almost-universal residential fixture.  Within that time, it took little more than half a century for the bathroom to transform itself  into a major player of domestic life.  Reinventing itself from a tiny sanitized cell of utilitarian purpose to embrace the physical, psychological and pleasurable dimensions that go beyond basic hygiene and grooming.

Like most changes in the home, this has been a gradual process.  Despite the fact that bathrooms are one of the most technically demanding rooms in the home, the drives for changes isn’t in the technological development but in the changes of social and cultural attitudes.  Attitude to sexuality and body, health and hygiene, physical and psychological wellbeing all influence how we position bathing in the domestic arena.


In 1960s and 1970s one of most influential manuals for bathroom design in Europe and the US was ‘The Bathroom’ (1966) by Alexander Kira. In essence Kira reduced bathing to a series of ergonomic studies showing how ablutions could be carried out with maximum efficiency in the minimum space.  It was a reflection of how little has changed since the 19th century’s attempts to compress washing into a science of hygiene, to free from disease and naked confrontation.  Kira quotes a report from the German press that claimed “More than half the population bathe only once a week and brush their teeth only rarely, and approximately 10% bathe once every four weeks.”  In the span of 10 years after Kira’s book was published, a new movement was underway.  Lead by Leonard Koren, the founder of ‘Wet: the magazine of gourmet bathing’, launched in 1976.  It was an idiosyncratic magazine from California, devoted to the free thinking counter culture that bubbled up around the hot tub.  It was an initial attempt in Koren’s crusade to arouse the possibilities of more imaginary and sensually charged bathing experiences that are shaping how we think today.


Adding to the changing attitudes towards bathrooms are the growing interest in fitness and the gym in the 1980s.  Together with the burgeoning market for interiors magazines, this helped make the bathroom a stage for the body beautiful.  Designers like Andrée Putman and Philippe Starck gave the bathroom a new gloss, helping shift ideas of luxury away from traditional style to a modern visual language.  Hotels played a significant role as well.  When ’boutique hotels’ mushroomed out, the bathrooms were photographed as much as the bar. Although bathroom as designer icon may seem remote from most daily washing experiences, like the influence of couture on high street fashion it has percolated through to mainstream thinking.


More recently interest in the non-western approaches to healing and wellbeing have profoundly influenced how we think about bathing and its increasing association with relaxation and regeneration. In the US expenditure on spas are on the rise, while surveys highlight shifting perceptions of the spa from ‘pampering’ or ‘indulgent’ to ‘important to wellbeing and staying healthy’.  One factor can be contributed to the technological democratization of the spa facilities.  The affordability of these services means that spas are no longer seen as a luxurious decadent experience, but much more integrated with daily routines and ritualistic maintenance of our body and soul.  The urge to reconnect with the physical and sensual is partly a side effect of our industrialized and virtual existence and the disquieting sense of spinning out of synch with natural rhythms.  In Undesigning the Bath (1996), Koren defines the great bath as “a place to escape from the depredations of the technological world, not revel in them.”  These sentiments and inclinations are coming home to our domestic setting not just in an appetite for essences, but in a way that metamorphosed the role of the bathroom in contemporary western society into the domestic center for well-being.  In 20 years time will our concept of the bathroom change even more? Will it occupy an even greater role in our domestic haven?  Where should we look to to inform us of our projections?

If we look into Japan’s refined bathing culture that has managed to endure for centuries, we can see that theirs is built around an intense relation to water and its enjoyment is characterized by an authentic simplicity designed to induce mental and spiritual repose and support a series of carefully honed rituals that make cleansing a separate activity from relaxing in the bath.  Another cultural model inspiring contemporary bathing rituals is the hamam, the Islamic bathhouse that grew out of the remains of Roman bathing culture around the Mediterranean. Although it originated as a place of ritual purification attached to the mosque , this world of shadows and light is also a sensual paradise, where the majestic womb like architecture and use of marble or stone create the setting for a bathing experience that is hard to match in the contemporary world.  This might seem a long way from the domestic sphere but it is exactly such places that are enriching current thinking about how we incorporate water in daily life.


One of the most obvious changes in the home is how bathing is prioritized in terms of space allocation.  Following the shift from a cellular room structure towards a more fluid living space, the bathroom is breaking down its component parts and reassembling in different configurations.  Another obvious change is how bathing is connected to other activities.  The common merger is bathing and sleeping, with bathing recast as a relaxation ritual as much about intimacy and play as body care, and often sociable rather than strictly private. Such arrangements acknowledge that rituals are different at the start and end of the day, with the shower more likely to be a morning routine and the bath takes place in the evening.  Again Hotels are leading the way. For an exhibition on “Grand Hotels’ Toyo Ito designed an ideal hotel room for New York City where more or less the entire floor space is occupied by two large circular pens, one for sleeping and one for bathing and both equally playful and eroticized.  When we see these developments happening it is clear that western society moving towards finding its relationship with water again.  As an intrinsic part of well-being and spiritual beliefs.  New typologies will rise out of this movement.  Not just for our domestic settings but for institutions as well.  Given the medical merits of hydro-therapy and the tactile and sensual pleasures of the spa, one can easily see the integration of these elements into not only our domestic bathrooms but healthcare institutions. As we see the notions of well-being becoming a consistent part of our personal maintenance of our body and soul; As we associate the bathroom more and more as the space of escape from the world of technology and speed; As our space of equilibrium; As our space to connect to water.  We will need to define our own bathing rituals that would allow us to tap into out sense of well-being.