In the spring of last year, amid the era of disinfecting groceries and pretending to enjoy Quiplash, I started taking baths. A lot of them. Once submerged in my porcelain basin, I'd begin to feel my worries slip away, dissolving alongside the requisite handfuls of Epsom salt. (The internet seems to agree that one cup per standard-sized tub is an appropriate amount.)
Sometimes I'd read. On other occasions, I'd let Netflix lull my monkey brain into a blissful state of ignorance. Almost always, I'd dim the lights, torch a candle and cast my phone into a drawer two rooms away. For those 30 minutes, there were no Slack chimes, no hoarded cans of beans, no former Governor Cuomo press conferences. It was my ritual, but it wasn't mine alone.
By early 2020, trend forecasters began picking up on a fresh wave of social media content that took my humble evening dip to an elaborate level. Baths were stylized as much for the camera as for the bather, the bathroom accessorized with flower petals, artisanal soap bars and enough $40 candles to host a small seance. As the pandemic stretched on, such lavish bathtimes became more frequently documented and of course, more extravagantly staged.
Trend-forecasting agency WGSN coined a term for such waterborne displays of excess last July. Called "bathscaping," the craze pays homage to bathing culture, "with hyper-stylized self-care products and accessories transforming the bathroom into a space of wonder, relaxation and escapism," where all baths are worthy of both Instagram and instant relief.
"During the pandemic, the daily ritual of washing became a source of wellbeing, adding structure to long days of lockdown," says Clare Varga, WGSN's head of beauty. "The bathroom became a sanctuary, with people creating indulgent 'soaksperiences' for self-care."
Naturally, social media ate it right up. According to data provided by video-sharing platform TikTok, shower and bathing content is trending across the app, racking up more than 2.2 billion views this year in the U.S. alone; hashtags like #shower (1 billion views), #bath (426 million), #showerroutine (206 million) and #bathbomb (156 million) are especially well-appointed. On Pinterest, WGSN reports searches for "deep soaking bathtub" increasing 145% year-over-year. And on search engines more broadly, WGSN found searches for "bath tea recipes" soaring by 60% over the same period.
Bathing, the practice, isn't anything new, of course. Among ancient cultures and Indigenous peoples, it's long been one of the most sacred healing rituals on earth. The only thing "new" about bathscaping is the medium through which it's shared — and to whom it's made available.
Contrary to what a non-bathtaker may presume, the "soaksperieces" of today aren't quite matters of hygiene. Now, one can still take baths for the express purpose of bodily cleanliness, but those aren't "soaksperiences." They're just baths. And this is a somewhat reliable pattern throughout world history, from the communal Japanese sento to a Nordic hot spring.
Historic records show that early civilizations took to bathing with varying intentions, often in social and ritual contexts, according to reporting from Discover Magazine. In the Western world, the most famous bathing culture may be that of ancient Rome, with its extensive network of aqueducts that dates back to 312 B.C. This technology supplied water to latrines, fountains and private households, but it also fed into the empire's lavish bath houses, where members of all social castes soaked — and perhaps more importantly, socialized — daily.
A millennia later, Europeans had changed their thinking. Concerned with any potential disease spread, early-modern Europe held such a fierce aversion to water that linen underwear served as their body's sole cleaning agent. When the first European colonizers arrived in what is now North America, they learned quickly that Native Americans subscribed to very different, much more hygienic cleansing beliefs. Not only were Indigenous peoples known to have bathed openly in rivers and streams, but their teeth were in better shape, too, cleaning their mouth and gums with chew sticks and fresh herbs.
Native Americans also considered bathing to be something more than a sanitary necessity. Among the sweat lodges of Alaska and the temazcals of the Aztecs and Mayans, steam bathing is still used to heal medical conditions, also helping women both before and after childbirth. Aztec and Mayan culture even recognized Temzcalteci as a goddess of the sweat bath, where entering the dark, damp structure was symbolic of entering her womb.
Bathscaping is no sacred sweat lodge. Really, it looks an awful lot like people on the internet clamoring for the kind of engagement that gives us those sweet dopamine hits, like after like.
On TikTok, bathscaping often takes the form of soothing clips that highlight the creator's daily bathtime regimen. There's comfort in the act of bathing itself, but there's also comfort in the mundane, especially when depicted so tranquilly. It's why, according to the platform, the most popular trends related to bathing were reviews of exceptionally ordinary things, like bath bombs, shower heads and exfoliating scrubs.
Meaghan Murphy, the self-proclaimed "Bathtok queen," has accrued more than half a million followers, presumably by detailing one of the most ornate bathtime routines known to internetkind. While her set-up isn't exactly accessible (there's a bath massager, underwater glow lights and, very frequently, dessert involved), her product line-up is a drugstore dream; Dr Teal's Epsom Salt Soaks and Vicks VapoBath appear to be among her current favorites.
This isn't the case within the staged tiles of Instagram. Still an app that rewards perfection, Instagram's bathscaping story is one of upscale consumerism. Varga, the WGSN analyst, has found that bath boards full of bougie projects resonate the most palpably; think artisanal bath salts, soap bars and the type of glassy candles you can buy off Net-a-Porter.
"After spending a year at home, people have had to find ways to make everyday activities exciting and special," explains Mary Keane-Dawson, group CEO of influencer-marketing agency TAKUMI. "Bathing is something that passes the time and can be made into an indulgent evening activity with the right products." As Keane-Dawson also notes, the pandemic very obviously induced a lot of stress. Bathing helped people switch off and develop a self-care ritual that allowed them to come home to themselves, however briefly.
Deborah Hanekamp, also known as Mama Medicine, believes this may very well be a primal response. For 20 years, the New York-based healer has offered one-on-one medicine readings that end with a prescription for a ritual bath. She even wrote a book on the subject: Called "Ritual Baths: Be Your Own Healer," the guide demonstrates how readers can incorporate common crystals, herbs and flowers into their bathtubs to "achieve inner peace and spiritual wellness." Included are 60 bath recipes (organized by aura color, of course) with names like "Awareness Wolf Bath," "I Am Nature Bath" and "Warrior Bath."
"The bath is a really familiar thing," says Hanekamp. "We all know we feel one way before we get in a bath and we feel another way when we get out. And I think that feeling of being cleansed goes much deeper than just our physical bodies. By just allowing ourselves to be submerged in water, there's this feeling of going back to the womb and rebirthing yourself as you come out."
To the average bathtaker, Hanekamp's recipes may read ambitious. A soaking blend meant to call new love into your life, for example, includes dragon fruit powder, rose essential oil and rose quartz crystal, hard-to-come-by ingredients that may not be available in the majority of franchise grocery stores. But Hanekamp insists those frills aren't necessary for the bath — or the bathscape — to result in the intended effects.
"A dream set-up would be embracing your inner kitchen witch, using different herbal teas that you have that you haven't drunk in years," she adds. "Maybe you have some fresh rosemary, or parsley, even, in your fridge, and maybe some oranges. You can use what's already accessible to you to create something beautiful for yourself."
This, in theory, is the beauty of bathscaping: You could indeed surround yourself with restorative crystals, or you could just turn off some lights and crank up on Debussy. The trend forecasters at WGSN argue, though, that products are necessary to the full picture — if the intention of your "soaksperience" is to post it for all the internet to covet, that is.
With bathhouse-style wellness treatments increasing in popularity, Varga predicts that items that recreate the benefits and escapism of the bathhouse at home will be in-demand. To evoke the energy of a Russian banya, she says, consumers are turning to Brooklyn-based design studio Sound's Banya Bath Salts and Body Oils, which use the traditional aromatherapeutic scents of hinoki and cedarwood. But whatever you use or don't use, buy or don't buy, stage or don't stage, is up to you. Your bath won't be any better or worse for it.
"There's a deep yearning to connect to the ancient," says Hanekamp. "Usually when you go back far enough into any culture, there's some sort of sacred alignment with water. We want to have that sense of contraction, of going within and finding our own internal caves."