A spy in the house of harsh light

Self-awareness is studded with blind spots.
‘I’, Helen Garner
Ana Teresa FernandezUntitled by Ana Teresa Fernandez

No one told me that getting a body wrap meant getting naked in front of a stranger. There was a pair of very small paper knickers between us, so not total nakedness – but on the nakedness spectrum, a 9.8 out of 10. I wish I could have kept a pair (I almost said ‘a copy’) of the knickers. They were like an origami crane – delicate, papery, not comfortable to wear.

Lying naked on a table was difficult. I saw my body as a problem for someone else to deal with. Beauticians must face this every day – the human body as a thankless, Sisyphean task: the skin keeps puckering, the tan keeps fading, the hair comes back. No matter how great the technology at the beautician’s disposal, it will never win. The body is the champion at getting older and hairier.

There are joys to be had from the beauty industry. Nothing compares with the lightness of a new haircut, or finding a hideously great old lipstick in the drawer and wearing it while pottering round the flat.

But because of the self-dissatisfaction that a visit to a serious beautician requires, you go in expecting to feel much better about yourself, and somehow this expectation becomes embarrassingly apparent when you’re lying naked on a table under a harsh light. Suddenly you don’t feel very good about yourself. “We don’t see things as they are; we see things as we are,” Anaïs Nin said. In the heat of the moment of looking at things, she’s wrong. I see way too clearly how those things are.

Black Bear by Travis ShillingBlack Bear by Travis Shilling

“What we’ll do is cover you in a sort of thermal mud to draw out impurities from your skin, then we’ll wrap you in a sort of insulated blanket,” said the woman, “and you’ll sweat for twenty minutes, then we’ll unwrap you and wash the mud off. You’ll be smooth as a baby’s bottom. Hopefully you’ll lose a few inches too.”

At this moment I wanted to flee, taking my inches.

by Mike Guppy via Beware

When Helen Garner described in detail her stay at a Thai health spa where she fasted and took enemas twice a day (“A Spy in the House of Excrement”), a lot of people were grossed out and taken aback by this ruthless self-exposure. In this wonderful short piece in Meanjin, ‘I’, she responds: “I don’t feel exposed, because in this mysterious way … the ‘I’ in the story is never completely me.” And this makes sense – it’s part Helen herself, part projection of a certain role she’s playing, part persona that, in the writing, has crystallised between her and the story. BUT you probably wouldn’t have thought about any of that when you were reading “A Spy in the House of Excrement”. As far as I was concerned, there was one I, and it was the real Helen Garner, and that was her, in her “purple stockings and sensible shoes”, worrying about the reluctant gunk lining the walls of her colon, and that was Helen Garner grappling with a tube …

So how do you get around it? There’s the urge to share, but then there’s the ordinary urge to hide, to be unknown – perhaps to yourself as well. So you couch your sharing inside a persona who is ‘never completely’ you. But for all intents and purposes, it’s you.

Maybe it would help if I explained my motives for going to get a body wrap? There was a special deal on body wraps. I’d never been body-wrapped. Plus I could try to write about it. The “Now I Can Write About It” mind-set is your experience infrastructure. It helps you to contain yourself. It can also help you to detach yourself from unusual happenings in order to view them with a cold eye (ideally, not ice-cold – more tepid; a tepid eye). It is a fine line. NICWAI can cheat you out of fully experiencing things. It’s like taking scenic photos of hills. Paradoxically, you didn’t properly see those hills, because you were too busy recording them.

NICWAI can also be a way of justifying certain experiences to yourself. As Garner calls it, the hope is that we’ll somehow get below the “superficial levels of perviness” and into something more connected. That’s the hope. That’s always the hope. Garner says:

I know for sure that there is nothing in my way of
experiencing the world, in all its pleasure and
ordinariness and suffering, nothing about me as
a writer or as a person, that marks me off as
forever separate and unique, or disconnects me
from the rest.

So I spent twenty minutes like a sausage roll – trapped, sweating. Meanwhile the beauty therapist tinkered around with her potions and asked questions about the scenery of New Zealand. I’ve never felt less like myself, or further from home.

Fourth of July advance (Ocean Park Beach), 1952Fourth of July advance (Ocean Park Beach), 1952, via USC Digital Library

About ashleighlou

Person, usually on bike
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2 Responses to A spy in the house of harsh light

  1. Totally unrelated to NICWAI, but related to beauty treatments – in 2006 I spent a month yoga ashram in India. They had an Ayurvedic clinic attached to the ashram and I went each week to have a hot oil and stone massage. This meant stripping of my clothes and lying on a wooden slab so the very composed practitioner could vigorously rub oil into my muscles and pound them with hot stones in cloth. She was so unconcerned about my nudity (even when she had one ankle on her should and was doing my thigh!) that I was too. It was a strange experience.


    • That actually sounds kind of nice! I like the idea of such a composed and vigorous practitioner, too – completely unflustered by the business. Weird how other people’s total indifference to our bodies can have such a calming effect. I have to say, the most UN-relaxing treatment I’ve ever had was a post-half-marathon sports massage – excruciating. The therapist insisted on talking the whole time as well, about his various sporting pursuits, when really I just wanted to focus on not screaming…


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