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As an anthropologist, I’m a big believer in the power of ceremony and ritual to mark a life transition, especially when very little about your physical environment will be changing. Something needs to mark that boundary. Recently I got a new job, but it’s in the same company. (I don’t actually work in anthropology anymore. I work in data analytics. But it turns out you can take a person out of an academic career in cultural studies, but you can’t take the cultural studies out of her.) To mark my move from one analytics role to another, I chose a form of cleansing ritual. Starting a new life phase with a pause for cleansing is common: many cultures make use of this to mark out boundaries as diverse as taking a new religion to returning from war to becoming adults. In my case, I was just moving a few rows of desks, but I felt it was important anyway.
When I say ‘cleansing ritual’ what I actually mean is ‘a half-day at a spa,’ which is our culturally acceptable form of cleansing ritual. Or at least, I got over my feelings of extravagance and overindulgence by telling myself it was a cleansing ritual and therefore, like, imbued with esoteric meanings that had nothing to do with my surface personal appearance and everything to do with my deep inner soul.
I opted for a treatment package which included a body wrap. I’d never had a body wrap before, but I knew it would involve slathering me with goop. I was prepared for the goop. I entered the treatment room completely goop-ready. But there were aspects of this ritual that, despite my years of ethnographic training, I hadn’t fully anticipated. After coating me with goop, the aesthetician wrapped me up in what looked like a giant paper towel. Then she folded me up in the metallic space blanket I’d been lying on, which I’d assumed was there just to catch any excess goop. Nope. Turns out it was there so she could wrap me up like a giant Caitlin-burrito.
I was then faced with a problem: as soon as I thought up the phrase ‘giant Caitlin-burrito’ I wanted to laugh. I wanted to laugh so badly. But I knew it would disturb the ritual. The aesthetician wraps people up like burritos all the time and I bet not a single one of them ever laughs, because it’s supposed to be deeply cleansing and warming and centering and give you a sense of mind-body balance and well-being and all that stuff. It’s not funny. Not even a tiny little bit funny.
But inside I was suppressing a deep and almost irresistible wave of mirth, not least because I’m so tall that she had to go get extra foil stuff to put over my feet so that the bottom bit of the burrito wasn’t poking out. We all know what happens when your burrito comes undone at the bottom. Bad times.
I tried to reframe the situation and think anthropologically about what spa treatments say about us as a society: all the wrapping does give a very warm and secure feeling, like a snuggle. A cleansing, mind-body balancing snuggle. Do these kinds of treatments represent a mechanism for seeking the feeling of security that comes from human touch as a response to increasing alienation in urban environments, where as an adult there are very few socially acceptable arenas for physical contact? If you, like me, live far from your family and you’re not in a sexual relationship with somebody, there are relatively few people you can snuggle with. My life is at a low ebb for non-sexual physical affection, because as a grownup, physical contact beyond a brief greeting or parting hug is almost always assumed to indicate a desire for something else. This assumption has the effect of making the only person who you can be physically affectionate with, even in a non-sexual way, a sexual partner. Maybe people who aren’t getting any are combating their feelings of isolation by becoming burritos. Or maybe the burrito-people just like that all-over body glow which is the promised benefit of the treatment.
Did I mention that the goop was gold? A sort of creamy pastel gold, not full-on ‘the girl from Goldfinger’ gold. But that didn’t stop me from humming the theme tune in my head while the aesthetician was painting it on, yet another reason that I was having a hard time maintaining my inner peace and well-being while in my newly discovered burrito form. That, and I couldn’t stop thinking about another time that I struggled to maintain a straight face during a spa treatment.
When I was a teenager my parents and I went to Hong Kong together. My mom, a seasoned traveler whose sales territory included Hong Kong, wanted to introduce me to some of the experiences she enjoyed on her trips there. We decided to get some reflexology together. We found a tiny place up a flight of stairs where our feet were appropriately scrubbed, soaked, and rubbed while we relaxed in massage chairs. When all that was done the staff brought out a pair of boots that looked a little like those air casts you get for a sprain. Mom and I looked at one another in confusion but I complaisantly put my feet in them. Then the boots were plugged in and they began to repeatedly inflate and deflate, making a ‘hsssht-psssht’ sound. Nothing in my prior life experience had prepared me for this. I looked down at my exploding go-go booties. I looked at my mother. I began to laugh. I laughed and laughed and laughed. The reflexology staff looked concerned. Perhaps they thought I was ticklish. My mom also began to laugh. We laughed so hard that the staff too began to laugh.
So as I lay there, mid-burrito, I thought about that wonderful moment of joy and cultural discovery and mother-daughter bonding through spa treatments. And maybe I giggled just a tiny bit.