When you travel a lot and carry a lot, over time the body wearies and stiffens. Muscles contract and aches set into bones. It can feel like a compression, a slow squeezing into a smaller shape, a body too big for its skin. You long to unravel it all.
A decade or two, or three, or 5, of packing and hauling and holding and waiting, breath held, just for that one image, inevitably gives a photographer a tense, twisted skeleton that we love to complain about. Imagine if there was a medicine that could undo all those years in just a few minutes, wouldn’t it be impossibly expensive and rare. Well, not according to some thousand years of traditional herbal medicine. Seaweed, found wild and clinging to rocks all over the UK and Irish coastline, contains such high quantities of vitamins, trace elements and minerals that it can restore the body from the outside in.
That’s the theory I was testing as I lowered myself into what looked like a bottomless black bathtub, thick with tentacles of the finest Atlantic seaweed. The water was hot and the seaweed was slimey. I made sure I was sufficiently physically exhausted on the day of the test to see for sure how it might make me feel. Within a couple of minutes I felt like I was melting into the tub. Dark tendrils of rubbery seaweed wrapped themselves around my legs and neck. I found them strangely comforting. With each passing minute stress and tension seemed to be dissipating. I squeezed handfuls of seaweed in my fists (to release the oils apparently) and rubbed them up my arms and shins. I’d read about the anti-inflammatory and anti-aging compounds in seaweed, and, keen to get involved, I rubbed the oil in my hair and all over my face. It smelt deeply of the ocean, and of the cliffs and swells of the Atlantic. It wasn’t unpleasant, more evocative, transporting me to wind and waves and seabirds.
Thalassotherapy – soaking in a tub full of seawater and seaweed – is a traditional European health and beauty treatment that softens the skin, improves circulation and drains the lymphatic system. Nutrients from the seaweed enter the body transdermally, and as the skin is our largest organ, there’s a huge surface area available for absorption. Magnesium and iodine, both found in high quantities in seaweed, relieve aches, pains, arthritis, rheumatism, inflammation, psoriasis, eczema, allergies, anxiety, stress, depression, cellulite… there isn’t much they can’t do.
Seaweed baths were common in Europe at the end of the 19th century, Ireland boasting 300 or so traditional bathhouses across the country offering seaweed bathing. These days you can treat yourself at home without having to travel, with many companies offering a dried seaweed bath package that you immerse in your own bathtub. I was undertaking this experiment in the heart of Berlin, a landlocked city pretty far from any sea. I tried bath soaks from Irish companies Voya Seaweed Baths, Mungo Murphy’s Seaweed Co, and also the Cornish Seaweed Bath Company. With all of them, I imagined the process of hand harvesting and drying the seaweed out in the sea air and wondered for the thousandth time at how all these remedies are out there in nature, ready for the picking, if only we can find where to look.
As the water cooled I got out of the tub and noted my skin coated in a light oil. It felt smooth and supple. I stood up straighter. My joints were hydrated and invigorated. My brain tingled and felt light, almost to the point of dizziness. Perhaps it had been a very hot bath, or perhaps it was all those toxins leaving me. Either way I needed to get dressed for dinner. Thankful for not needing any moisturiser, I dried and dressed and took a look in the mirror. My face was, truly, glowing and clean. I looked like I’d just walked across the Moors. About to leave the house, I suddenly realised that the scent of seawater was hanging around me like a fog. Too late to deal with it. I wishfully thought maybe the Berlin night air would blow it away. Arriving at the restaurant I kissed a friend, who clocked the scent in seconds. Feeling a little mortified I began to explain but she stopped me, saying I smelt of her childhood holidays. Now if only that scent could be bottled, how expensive and rare it would be.
Words and images by Kate Friend
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