When 30-year-old Hollie-Ann Brooks got into the swimming pool at Paris spa hotel The Nolinski earlier this year, she was in tears.
The pool had a hoist to lower disabled people into the water, meaning that Brooks, who is a wheelchair user, was able to get in. The relief she felt as she entered the water was overwhelming.
“I just cried my eyes out, because it was something I’d thought I’d never be able to do again,” says Brooks, who lost the use of her legs after contracting sepsis and meningitis in 2018. “Just to be in this really gorgeous relaxing environment with my boyfriend, feeling so free, and chilled out, was incredible.”
Since at least Roman times, humans have stripped down, left the world behind and immersed ourselves in steaming vats of water. Some believe the word “spa” is an acronym of the Latin phrase “salus per aquam”, which translates as “health through water”. If true, it’s a fitting description of the spa as a healing space. Who hasn’t felt better after submerging themselves in warm water, whether it’s a bath after a stressful day at work, or a spa weekend after a busy month? It’s a cultural pursuit that’s been amply represented on celluloid, from Dr. No (1962), the first James Bond film, starring Sean Connery in a cornflower-blue towelling robe, to 1978 erotic classic The Stud, featuring Joan Collins cavorting naughtily on a rope swing.
Spas have forever been spaces to recoup, recharge and heal yourself, as well as important social spaces – the Romans talked business, traded salacious gossip and even romanced each other in public baths. In the 19th century, fashionable London society decamped en masse to spa towns to take the water, recoup and recharge away from the filthy, polluted streets of the capital. (Jane Austen’s final completed novel, Persuasion, is set in Bath, where elite society “drinks the water, gets all the new publications, and has a very large acquaintance”.) They’re still social spaces to this day. From spa days with the girls, to hen dos and pampering weekends, the spa has inserted itself into British culture as a particularly female sacred space.
But this important healing and social space is all too often not accessible to those who could most benefit from its therapeutic potential: disabled people. The spa that Brooks visited was very much the exception. Although there’s no reliable data on how many spas are fully accessible, the lived experience of many disabled people attests to the fact that, so often, the choice to access a spa is out of their control.
Broken lifts, treatment rooms only reachable via steps, changing rooms so narrow there’s no space to manoeuvre a wheelchair, no hoists to lower into pools, no disabled parking spaces outside the venue – the challenges and restrictions are manifold. Often, venues don’t even realise they’re inaccessible until disabled people attempt to use the facilities.
“If you want to go away with the girls to a spa break for the weekend, and you’re the only disabled one in the group, sometimes it’s easier to turn that invitation down than go through the rigamarole of finding somewhere that treats you like everybody else,” says Brooks.
Blogger and social media manager Georgina Grogan, 24, tells me about going to a spa in her home town of Sheffield in 2016. Although she’d been previously and it had been wheelchair accessible, on the day she visited, the lift was out of service. “I had to walk down two flights of stairs to get to the spa,” says says Grogan. After a car accident five years ago, she suffers from spinal pain and chronic fatigue syndrome. “I was radiating pain.”
Then, even if you are able to physically access the space, clueless therapists may make symptoms worse. The last time 25-year-old writer and video producer Eve Adler went to a spa it was far from a positive, healing experience. The masseuse ignored her request for a gentle massage because her skin is sensitive and bruises easily.
“I came away with bruises,” Adler recalls. “It solidified the idea that spas are no longer a place for me, because most don’t know how to alter their treatments to include everyone.”
Given how spas typically market themselves using the language of self-care, it’s troubling that so many have these issues, not least the idea has its origins in radical activist culture.
“When we hear the concept of self-care today, I think a lot of people think of the commodified version – the hashtag on Instagram, often with a link to buy something like a manicure,” explains Natalia Mehlman-Petrzela, an associate professor of history at The New School in New York. “There’s this softly-lit room with a thin person, often a white woman, with glowing skin – [and] that’s someone who’s involved in self-care. That sensibility and that aesthetic permeates a lot of the more visible images of self-care today.”
But it wasn’t always this way. “Self-care really began as a form of radical resistance to dominant structures in society,” Mehlman-Petrzela explains. “Particularly around health, where you have activists who were resisting a system that told them that their bodies were undesirable, that they were unhealthy, and that they were weak.” She references a quote from activist and writer Audre Lorde: “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.”
Self-care has been adopted by the wellness industry, and distorted in ways that would make Lorde gasp. Whether it’s appetite-suppressant lollipops marketed by irresponsible influencers on Instagram, or so-called “detoxifying cleanses” which are starvation by another name, self-care has been twisted beyond all recognition. And we see this reflected in the ways in which the modern spa is marketed to women.
These are (expensive) spaces to beautify yourself according to Western beauty standards. Browse the marketing materials for any of the major spa chains, and you’ll see bright-eyed white women glowing back on you, towels on head. It’s even reflected in the treatments on offer. Slimming and toning wraps; spray tans to colour your skin to precisely the right shade (but no darker) – spas reinforce existing social narratives about which bodies we choose to value as beautiful, and which bodies we leave out. It’s a brutal irony, given those radical origins of the movement.
Any spa facility that appropriates the language of self-care, yet isn’t accessible to the group of people most in need of it, is, then, fundamentally hypocritical.
“Self-care isn’t just for able-bodied people,” notes Adler. She’s frustrated by the ways in which the spa – as an important healing space for people with disabilities – has been appropriated by the wellness industry. As well as suffering from skin issues, Adler experiences widespread chronic pain, and is a wheelchair user. So for her, a well-run, inclusive spa is a lifeline. “It’s really easy to lose your sense of self when you’re involved in the medical side of things, so spas are a nice reminder that you’re human.”
Grogan echoes that sentiment. “For people like me, we’re in constant pain. Massages, hot water, hydrotherapy jets and hot and cold spa rooms are absolutely amazing for us.” Going to a spa isn’t, then, a frivolous luxury – it’s a vital act of self-care, in the truest sense of the words. Little wonder Grogan hopes that spa providers will work to make their facilities accessible to everyone. “Disabled people deserve to relax and be pampered just as much as anyone else.”
As a space where you go to focus exclusively on your body, going to a spa can – and should – be an emotionally charged experience. It’s the reason Brooks felt overwhelmed when sinking into the swimming pool at the Nolinski. And it’s the reason that it’s important that spas should be open to all. Because when you’re weightless, in water, we’re all just bodies – there’s no distinction between disabled and able-bodied people.
“I feel confident and comfortable in spas,” says Grogan. “We’re all half-naked and just there to enjoy ourselves.” Unlike in public swimming pools, “there isn’t that pressure to be swimming. You can just do your own thing and really relax.”
There’s another reason for full accessibility: it’s the law.
“The Equality Act 2010 covers the provision of services, including leisure and spa facilities, to members of the public,” explains Professor Anna Lawson, an expert in disability law at the University of Leeds. “It makes it unlawful to discriminate against a disabled person in connection with accessing services offered to the public. Discrimination can take various forms, including direct discrimination, indirect discrimination, discrimination arising in consequence of a disability and a failure to make a reasonable adjustment.”
Yet passing a law is only the start. Lawson tells me that a parliamentary select committee reviewed the effectiveness of the Equality Act’s provisions in 2016, and found that its implementation was problematic. Also, spas can legally refuse access to disabled people if, Lawson explains, “it would not be reasonable for them to make an adjustment to allow them to access the service”.
“Disabled customers should have equal access to leisure facilities,” states James Taylor, head of policy and campaigns at disability equality charity Scope. “[But] disabled people still face unnecessary difficulties while out doing day-to-day activities, with issues such as poor accessibility and lack of awareness from staff… What should be a relaxing experience turns into something far more stressful.” He believes that businesses need to do more. “Three-quarters of disabled people and their families have left a shop or business because it didn’t properly cater to them… Accessibility should be a priority for all businesses.”
But things are changing, slowly. Across society, people whose bodies have been discredited and denied – people of colour, disabled people, the gender non-conforming – are slowly reclaiming agency, and demanding that self-care returns to its historic, inclusive roots. Mehlman-Petrzela tells me she’s been enthused to see radical activist circles reclaiming the concept from late capitalism. “There is a very powerful resurgence of self-care in activist circles [and] in radical groups, spearheaded by women of colour and people with disabilities, who are revitalising that older tradition and infusing it with new meaning.”
Until that reclamation is complete, women like Brooks, Grogan and Adler may struggle to book that pampering weekend with the girls that the able-bodied so often take for granted.