Sunday, 17 April 2011

My day in a spa: some thoughts about 'pampering', feminism and capitalism

Yesterday, courtesy of some vouchers my mum bought me a few months ago, I spent a day in The Sanctuary, a women-only day spa in Covent Garden. The Sanctuary, in its brochure, describes itself as a 'little piece of heaven on earth' where, 'Leaving behind the pressures of everyday life, you enter a haven where relaxing is essential and indulgence is a must'.
I have always had a few feminist issues with all this pampering yourself stuff, finding its terms of reference all slightly consumerist and self-obsessed. But I do, unapologetically, love to be massaged and I appreciate being given the chance to relax, in peace and quiet, reading and staring into space. Having had a fairly stressful and tiring few months and suffering, as a teacher, from work-related tension in my shoulders and neck, I jumped on the opportunity that the Easter holidays gave me to use my vouchers. And all things considered, I had a lovely day. I spent the day there, some of it alone and some of it with a friend who arrived later. I had a 50 minute massage, lazed around, chatted, read and swam.
The Sanctuary, as a place, is quite a phenomenon It has been going for over 30 years and, according to its website, was originally designed as a space for female dancers from the nearby Opera House to relax and unwind. It has moved with the times and with the growth of the multi-million pound industry of female grooming and pampering, and now caters for the hen party market, the work away day market and the girly day out just-because-you-deserve-it market. They now have branches in Bristol and Cambridge and their own line of toiletries that you can buy in most mainstream chemists. Their range of treatments now reflect all the latest trends in spa therapies – hot stone massages, flotation techniques, mud wraps– snake-oil at its finest, some might say.

It is an amazingly efficient, if somewhat impersonal, operation. On arriving yesterday, I was greeted brusquely by a uniformed receptionist, and then shown to my locker and issued with the standard white Sanctuary robe. After I had changed, I was then shown to the main relaxation area, the Koi Carp lounge, where there were couches, chairs and beds, and where there are fish swimming in a pool in the centre of the area.
It was a busy day in the Sanctuary yesterday, no doubt because of the holidays, and the place was a sea of white-robed women – groups of friends, mothers and daughters and some women, like me, on their own. I had about 45 minutes until the complimentary 'sleep retreat'' session I was booked into, so I settled into a vast bowl-like wicker sofa to read for a bit. I was next to a mother and daughter who were reading magazines, drinking tea and eating cake.
At this point, I was feeling somewhat cynical about the whole thing. For somewhere that bills itself as a haven of peace and tranquillity it was remarkably noisy with the sound of chattering and the clatter of plates and cups from the coffee bar in the corner. It seemed a bit creepy to be in a room full of women in their dressing gowns and from what I could see, the magazines dotted around the place were all pretty vacuous specimens – Cosmo, Vogue and various celeb gossip rags. And around the women tucking into their muffins and slabs of cake there was a air of 'oooh I musn't', reminiscent of one of those banal office conversations about diets. So far, so unsisterly.
When it was time for my sleep retreat I was led up some stairs into a darkened room with about ten other women. The treatment involved lying on a couch in a darkened room for about half an hour, listening to an audio recording of a woman's voice, which was designed to talk us all into a meditative state, while the couch vibrated gently. The woman's voice had a sort of affected softness, the kind that you might hear in an advert for chocolate or anti-ageing cream. She told us to cast aside our worries, our thoughts and concentrate on finding peace. She told us to imagine ourselves in a garden, first by a fountain, then in a hammock. The background of this narrative was the sound of running water and various chirping birds, and her description of the scene went on to include various other details, such as the feeling of freshly-cut grass under foot and the passing clouds in a clear blue sky. If I was so inclined, I could have spent much of this half hour laughing heartily at the whole affair, as looked at from most perspectives, it was rather ridiculous.
However, I had gone to the Sanctuary with the intention of relaxing and so I was pretty determined to try and enter into the spirit of the whole thing, however ridiculous it was. The woman's description of the scene was interspersed with repeated reminders to us that we had nothing to worry about in this peaceful place, that our problems were set aside for the time being, and that no one expected anything from us here. And, actually, that last bit struck a chord.
'No one expects anything from you'. For many women that's a very powerful, and not often heard, message. Women across the world spend their lives having things expected of them. They spend their time caring for children, partners, relatives, friends and doing huge amounts of work, physical and emotional, on behalf of other people. As a feminist, I take that basic argument as read.
Lying there in the darkness, for a minute, some of this pampering stuff made sense to me and, if you ignore the capitalist crap and the alternative therapy mumbo-jumbo for a second (admittedly not that easy), I could see that slivers of it come from a good place. In a small way, the creation of spaces like The Sanctuary, is a recognition that women, in their day-to-day lives, spend too much time thinking about other people and not enough time looking after themselves.
But, of course, within all of that, there are points about power and class to be made, such as the fact that relatively affluent women such as myself, who frequent places like The Sanctuary, do not do anywhere near as much of that work as women from other parts of the world or from other classes do. Even more important to point out is that in our beauty spas we are paying other, poorer women, to do work on our behalf, as affluent women increasingly do in other spheres like housework and childcare.
It's unfortunate also, that, at 73 quid just to get into the Sanctuary, and treatments that can cost as much as £120 on top of that, these spaces are not affordable to those who could probably most do with them. These prohibitive costs are, of course, not beside the point. The branding and marketing of spas, as places of indulgence, relaxation and luxury, rely heavily on the exclusivity and 'treat' aspects, which you just wouldn't get if nothing cost more than a tenner.
There is also a strange quasi-religioius, institutional aesthetic dominating the Sanctuary. At one point in the day, my friend and I lay on one of the beds by the relaxation pool, watching as groups of women in their identikit white robes padded past us. The absurdity of it struck us both – we joked that it was like a lunatic asylum or some kind of dystopic sci-fi scenario – women trapped together in a building with no men and all forced to dress the same, like something out of The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Attwood. There was a kind of somnolence about the place, that struck me at times throughout the day as a bit infantilising and cult-like.
So, yes, women need to look after themselves, but, as a socialist as well as a feminist, I do object to the rather narrow, and somewhat alienated set of options for doing this that women are presented with in mainstream culture. Feeling stressed? Worried about something? Treat yourself! Get a manicure! Have a day with the girls! From a young age, females are subtley encouraged through a variety of societal pressures to be private rather than public figures – to look inwards, individualise our problems and locate our identities in our bodies, our relationships, our feelings and the various imperfections therein. Moreover, much of what underpins the ethos of of me-time and pampering is about consumption, about buying your way out of your unhappiness, be it through a pedicure, a shopping trip, or a piece of chocolate cake. Why does no one suggest going for a walk, watching some sport, reading a book, a bit of political activism?
When I got home from my day, I searched the Internet for reviews of the place to see what other women had to say about it. Most were fairly complimentary but there was one review, in its praise, that encapsulated a lot of what I dislike about the branding of these places. The reviewer gives a little prĂ©cis of The Sanctuary schtick – if you feel good about your body you feel good about yourself etc, etc. She then goes on to say 'Feels a bit unfair to the lads but if the boys reading this are anything like mine you're just happy to watch your favourite team win.'
This sort of gender polarisation makes me uneasy – it is patronising and insulting. I am just not happy with this notion that as women we go and pamper ourselves while 'the lads' go and watch the football. But these cringe-worthy stereotypes are absolutely essential, not only to the female beauty industry, but to our consumerist culture as a whole (think of the ways that beer or football are marketed to men – they're probably equally as insulting). It is all of this that probably means I'll always be a little bit uncomfortable in the 'little piece of heaven on earth' that is The Sanctuary.


  1. It's a classic case of "the bullshit that goes with". It's interesting that the Sanctuary did actually begin as somewhere for working women to go. Paradoxically women who did physically demanding, low paid work entertaining other people who almost certainly earned more than they did. The idea that our bodies need to be "pampered" reveals I think a profound distaste for the body - in particular the working body (male or female). Indeed... capitalism and alienation. I'm a great believer in physical self awareness - which would include exercise and massage. There's a great little chinese place near me which does a fantastic massage for 20 quid - no white robes, candles and the other bullshit. Much better than the sanctuary.

  2. I don't make a habit of linking to Julie Burchill articles these days, but she wrote a good piece about the whole pampering thing in the Guardian a few years back, agreeing with your point about distaste for the body. Worth checking out.

  3. Enjoyable read.

    I largely share your point of view, there's an essence of being served by the people who work there that I'd be uncomfortable with. I went on a posh all inclusive holiday once which left me with the same sense of unease that I'd been exploiting other people for my own enjoyment.

    As a trades unionist I have to take issue with the whole concept of needing places like The Sanctuary to help you manage the stress brought on by your work. If stress is a workplace issue, then it should be dealt with in the workplace as employers have a responsibility for the health, safety and welfare of their staff. I'd love to know if the Royal Opera House provided The Sanctuary for their dancers or whether it was always a commercial enterprise.

    Of course it's far less straightforward to find other people to blame for the causes of our stresses away from work; family issues, fear for the future, money etc and I think that's where your point about buying our way out of our stress is well made. Consumerism defines our society in so many ways, and you can de-stress for a little while so long as you have the means.

    Speaking of which there's bit in the sleep retreat (which, yes, I could not have taken seriously if I tried, and I have tried something similar in the past) where the woman's voice reassures you that you had nothing to worry about in that peaceful place and that your problems were set aside, at least for the time being. Heroin does that for you too, and it's considerably cheaper....

    But we're not here to talk about that. We're here to talk about bodies: "If you feel good about your body, you feel good about yourself" It's true, and it's at the heart of what Thin's all about. If you feel good about your body because it's part of what makes you you and you're happy with your individuality then great. If you're happy with your body because you've made it's appearance conform to what's regarded as the norm, then not so good. If you don't feel good about yourself because you don't feel good about your body, then there's a problem.

    On that basis, the question is this: are The Sanctuary the good guys? Do they make you feel good about your body/self because they make you value who you are? Or are they the bad guys? They make you feel good about your body/self because you've spent a day and some money working towards conforming to an ideal? Or are they neither?

    I like your summing up. Consumerism = Marketing = Stereotyping. That's the problem, or at least part of it

  4. I went ten years ago and have hurried past it ever since. Your words ring true - lunatic assylum, prohibitive costs...True relaxation can never, in my opinion, come in a production-line environment. I felt more Stepford wife than liberated, relaxed human being. I look forward to the day when I can relax in a jacuzzi reading Prospect magazine. Or maybe I'll just stick to my own bath which, as always occupied by others, will probably never happen....

  5. Louise, yes, a definite Stepford Wives vibe. Glad I wasn't the only person who found relaxion a little difficult in there.

    Steve, interesting points. As a trade unionist myself, I agree that we should be pushing for employers to take more responsibility for work-related stress among workers - not just uncomplainingly trotting off to places like The Sanctuary to shell out silly money. It's funny - I've just received an email about a 'managing stress' workshop at my college, which management have no doubt organised as a sop to union complaints about stressed-out staff. It seems to me that the best way to reduce stress in the workplace is to reduce over-work and improve pay and conditions, not organising workshops.

    That said, people's stress does manifest itself in different ways, - mine comes out through tension in my neck and shoulders and the fact is that having a massage does physically make me feel better. I'm happy for that massage to take place well away from my workplace (though it probably wouldn't be a bad idea for them to foot the bill)

    I'm not necessarily questioning the value of places like the Sanctuary per se. In itself, I don't see anything wrong with paying somebody to massage me, any more than, say, paying for somebody to cut my hair or dry-clean my clothes. (As long as they're being paid a decent wage - which is where we come back to trade unionism) The fact is that many of the people who work at the Sanctuary have trained hard to do their jobs, probably enjoy them and are very knowledgeable about what they do - I don't wish to denigrate that. It's the consumerist crap behind it and the way that these things are overwhelmingly marketed towards women. On a certain level, The Sanctuary is harmless (unlike heroin) - it is cetainly one of the more benign manifestations of the beauty industry. But it's ultimately a business and it makes money by creating a certain rhetoric and feeding into, and playing on, certain very unhelpful stereotypes about women just being obsessed with their bodies, rather than other more public concerns.

    As you might say 'Give a shit about the planet, not your size 14s' ;-)