To be female and to bathe is to always be prepared for onlookers.
What does that mean to take care? To take implies action: to reach for and lay hold of. What am I reaching toward? Is reaching only to be done in solitude? Can progress be made if there is no one to bear witness to the change? What did Lisa want to see?
The ultimate depiction of bathing as self-care may be a photograph of Susan Sontag in the tub taken by her partner Annie Leibovitz in 1992. I first encountered this image online: It is one in a series of four black and white pictures of Sontag lying in the basin of her London Terrace apartment on West 23rd Street. Three of the photographs are shot from an aerial view, each moving us closer to the body below: The first crops at the chin and mid-thigh, the second crops at the chin and pelvis, then at the chin and navel. In the fourth photograph, the lens moves to the side of the tub, with a near-full body shot cropped above the ankle.
This fourth perspective of Sontag is most interesting to me. Her eyes are closed, her head lay on a folded towel against the back of the bowl, her iconic streak of silver stops at the jawline. A bar of soap is visible along the edge, a hairbrush dangles from a fixture near the faucet. Water stops at her right nipple, which is exposed. It takes a moment to realize there is no nipple on the left. The photos were taken after her radical mastectomy, and in place of a left breast is her left palm pushing against flat skin. The right arm is across her stomach like she is securing her torso in place, or self-soothing with a hug. And perhaps because I know she is in remission when this is taken—it won’t be several years until she develops uterine cancer, which she will survive, and several more after that until she develops an untreatable variant of leukemia—I see this photograph as Sontag in a state of rest.
As New York City, and much of the world, remains on pause, I find myself spending significant portions of the day in the bath. I can fill the tub up once, twice, sometimes three times and soak for hours. I think in the tub. I read in the tub. I take calls and send emails in the tub. I snap pictures of my toes and text them to friends from the tub. This amount of water usage would normally feel like waste, but given my current situation, it feels justified. An indulgence deemed essential by ten-step skincare routines and internet guides promoting bath balms and whipped shea butters as preeminent nourishment.
Through decades of glossy editorials, cosmetic brands and the media have sutured together the act of bathing and what it means to care for ourselves. I should know. When not in the bath, I spend much of my time moderating focus groups for companies in the business of beauty. Hygiene—the cleansing of the skin, the hair, the body—marketed as aspiration. Cleaning the self as caring for the self, because affording the time and space for skin-, hair-, any kind of -care is our god given path to that delicate kind of feminine actualization. Rose-scented soaps that promise skin so healthy it glows. Products advertised as intoxicating elixirs that restore our flesh back to our younger, incorruptible seeds.
I am not alone in my increased time in the bathroom. Friends detail their new hobby of going through skincare samples in their cabinets for entertainment. Pictures of wine glasses in suds-covered hands backlit by candles are shared on social media with the hashtag #quarantineselfcare. Asking for likes, validation via bubbles. The bath, like wine, is meant to be savored. Stillness in warm water as an antidote to anxiety. Or at least is one of the few permissible escapes.
When I look back at the photograph of Sontag, I see taut lips and somber lids. I see veins pulling extra blood to the surface of her hand and through to the fingers that cup her chest, a heart pulsing beneath the thumb tip in reply. I see something beyond the commercialized concept of care.
Maybe that’s also what draws me to the pictures of her exposed in the bath. They seem unexpected, throbbing. Was it Sontag’s idea to pose for her partner? Was there planning that went into the documenting? I consider the role of Leibovitz behind the camera witnessing Sontag and all of her angles.
Female bathers show up as a theme in eighteenth and nineteenth-century art, often rendered nude and by way of the male gaze. In Edgar Degas’ pastel The Tub (1886), we see the bare back of a woman, crouched, holding her hair, preparing to bathe, while the viewer is in the position of the undetected spectator. In The Bath (1925), Pierre Bonnard paints his wife, Marthe, as a much younger version of herself in the tub. The Bath is cropped at both ends, her neck hidden and body sunken, her figure a secret. Privacy, in even the most vulnerable moments, is a privilege. To be female and to bathe is to always be prepared for onlookers.
In the photos of my toes in the tub, the viewer can’t tell whether my cheeks are damp or my chest heaves. In the picture of Sontag, the angle of Leibovitz’s lens creates an illusion of the hand covering where the left breast would be. The viewer must focus to detect what is and isn’t there. When watched, who maintains possession of the view of the body and all that is or isn’t concealed?
Growing up, Sontag found bathing a challenge. In her journal, Reborn 1947—1963, she describes a younger version of self as “the one that doesn’t like to bathe.” Hygiene comes up frequently, with multiple entries vowing to bathe more. Along with biting her nails, sleeping too much, and being “continually hungry,” she writes, bathing is considered work. Maintenance of a body, a responsibility she seemed to loathe in her early years, would go on to become a well-documented obsession.
In 1971, at 38-years-old, Sontag wrote, “I’m only interested in people engaged in a project of self-transformation.” Throughout her life, she annotated the temporal effects on a body, examining the self as pliable, in motion—and that artistic process is the noticing of change.
Baths also are for noticing. Sontag’s housekeeper, Sookhee Chinkhan, noticed bruises on her back when drawing her bath, a sign of the third cancer becoming known.
Time spent noticing is also part of the appeal of bathing for me. Cataloguing moles, admiring the marks—scars from a wart below the right knee, a mole that spoiled in the sun and had to be excised, several chicken pox-shaped indentations from a lack of restraint to itch as a child. Three, half-inch dashes from a surgery to remove endometriosis tissue, one above each ovary, one at the apex of my ascending colon. Noticing of what a body has endured can be validating and tiring.
Noticing takes work. The very thing that initially made bathing a burden for Sontag is what keeps me returning to the tub. I enjoy the noticing. Similar to sending cropped photos of drippy toes, I also enjoy giving away items from the focus group backstock in my closet. I offer skin moisturizers and expensive serums as gifts to friends, I say they’ll love the way they look. Tell them to send me a before and after, so they can feel that gratification of someone seeing their alteration.
My second encounter with the series of Sontag bath photographs is in Annie Leibovitz’s memoir, A Photographer’s Life: 1990-2005. There are many photos of Sontag in this book, including a series showing Sontag in a bed at Mount Sinai Hospital taken in July of 1998, four years following when the bathtub pictures were taken. Several similarities stand out between the two series. Both are processed in black and white. Both contain four pictures of Sontag from a different angle.
Of the four in the series at the hospital, one photo shows her from the side of the bed, in a similar position as the one from the side of the tub: cropped above the ankles, knees slightly bent, touching, her head reclined against a pillow. Instead of water, a wrinkled sheet intertwined between the thighs, a patterned gown scrunched at the hip, obscuring her upper half. Her hair is longer at the hospital, brushing the tops of shoulders. An out-of-focus ivory orchid is in the corner of the room instead of a bar of soap. Her face is turned more toward the camera, eyes open and looking where I imagine Leibovitz’s feet are. Her arms in the same pose as in the tub series.
Now, when I look back at the photograph of her in the bath, I also see the photo of her in the hospital bed. In that position of her arms that I initially understood as a quiet hug, a woman in a state of rest, I now see a pose of resilience. A gesture to her partner, or maybe to us. A symbol used over time to help notice when the self is on the precipice of rearranging, the mind in a mode of protection of the body as it prepares again, to be marked by something we cannot yet see.
After Sontag died, Leibovitz searched for photographs of her to be given to those who attended Sontag’s memorial service. Many also found a place in Leibovitz’s memoir, in which she writes that she edited with Sontag in mind, as if she were standing behind her, saying what she would like to see in it. Leibovitz forced herself to take pictures of her partner’s last days, including a contact sheet that appears like a film strip of Sontag the day after she died, December 29, 2004. Her hair is short and snowy, the corners of her mouth slightly curled. She is wearing clothes selected by Leibovitz: a dress made of pleated material from Milan, scarves the two had purchased in Venice, a black velvet Yeohlee coat she wore to the theater. A rosary is tucked under her left palm.
The photographs of Susan in Leibovitz’s A Photographer’s Life elicited polarizing reactions among close friends and critics. Benjamin Moser in his recent, Pulitzer-winning biography, Sontag, reports that many of those who distrusted Annie found her images of Susan’s suffering obscene, while others found the book moving. “The debates the pictures ignited,” Moser writes, “—debates about the ethics of photography, about how to regard the pain of others—were an homage to Sontag’s thought.”
When watched, who maintains possession of the view of the body and all that is or isn’t concealed?
Leibovitz describes these photos as completing the work she and Sontag had begun together when she was sick in 1998: I didn’t analyze it then. I just knew I had to do it. Sontag’s project of self-transformation on-going, her most intimate witness carrying out what is left. A duty of a witness, to, despite conditions, continue the work of noticing.
The ultimate depiction of bathing as self-care may be a photograph of Susan Sontag in the tub taken by Annie Leibovitz in 1992. Not the consumerist way we negotiate with capitalism and our pursuit of self-preservation. Not care as indulgence, or a solo journey. But to care for the self as a collaborative effort that requires assistance. That no matter how long you sit with a body in solitude, sometimes it requires a witness to truly see ourselves.
I’m in the bath when the doorbell rings. It’s Lisa, and she’s here to tell me precipitation is in the forecast. She wants to know if I’ve eaten today and fills a kettle to heat.
I show her the eucalyptus now brittle and cracked; the ginger root, its dermis now soft and wrinkled. I wonder what it means to be in a physical stasis. I worry about meeting the expectation to evolve.
She removes the troublesome areas on the exterior of the rhizome with a spoon, and tosses aside a few bruises and spots of mold. Fresh yellow pokes through as she peels back the outer layer. A perennial like ginger doesn’t always wear its health on its skin.
As knobby pieces are grated into a fragrant pulp, I tell Lisa about a new obsession with women who bathe. That I am fixated on paintings, documenting my toes, and these photographs of Sontag. But what she hears me saying is that I am having difficulty locating my role within the current moment. Leibovitz’s work does not move my sister-in-law. Perhaps it’s Leibovitz’s preoccupation with celebrity culture or that Lisa doesn’t identify as a commercial artist herself. Or perhaps it’s that Leibovitz’s lens has a preference for fair skin, the kind of witnessing that fortifies white corporate gazing and reinforces systems counterintuitive to necessary change.
What does move her? Taking pictures of flowers. Watching her succulent plants reorganize themselves bud by bud. Female companionship. Knowing that in a few minutes, church bells nearby will mark another hour passed, that the kettle will eventually whistle, our tea will finish steeping, and our lips will pucker as we find a balance between the acid and sugar.
KATIY HEATH is an essayist from Saint Joseph, Missouri. Her obsessions include women who bathe, women who work, and women who witness. She currently is writing a memoir about her experience moderating focus groups for skincare companies. Read more from her at CHEAP POP, Pigeon Pages, and XRAY Lit.