Does beauty come from within?

Beauty and well-being in Norwegian spas

Ingun Grimstad Klepp

01 Mar 2009

Abstract

Norwegians pay large amounts of money – and undergo extensive treatments – to obtain beauty. Apparently, external beauty is important and can be appropriated by personal effort. This article explores the relationship between internal and external beauty as it is reflected in Norwegian spas. Two concepts are central to the discussion: beauty and well-being (or comfort). This article is based on an analysis of magazines, internet advertisements and field notes from spa visits.

Introduction

A Norwegian proverb says, “Beauty comes from within”, meaning that there is a correspondence between who we ‘are’ and how we look, and that beauty is something else; more than a beautiful exterior. In fairytales and pop culture, the good and the kind are always beautiful. In both cases, there is a correspondence between the person’s external and internal qualities. This understanding of beauty implies that beauty cannot be bought, but when we look at the growing market of beauty products, treatments, diets and other regimes, it seems people are willing to pay large amounts of money – or undergo extensive regimens – in order to do so. Apparently many people do believe that external beauty is important and can be appropriated with money and personal effort. This article explores the relationship between the internal and the external as it is reflected in the type of businesses that we in Norway refer to as spas. Two types of material were collected: magazines and internet advertisements and field notes from spa[note 1]Thanks to Benedicte Hauge for the collection and preparation of the magazine material, and to Gunn Engelsrud, Gun Roos, Synne Groven, Tone Dahl-Michelsen and Benedicte Hauge for the collaboration on the collection and use of fieldwork material and for useful discussions.
 visits.

In European philosophy, the exterior is ‘the superficial’, associated with the false, whereas the internal is valued as something real or more genuine (Gammel 1994). The theoretical literature on the body makes an analytical distinction between having a body (medicine), doing (a) body (post-structuralism) and being (a) body (existentialism) (Ellingsrud 2006). Bryan Turner (2004) stated: “there is an obvious and prominent fact about human beings: they have bodies and they are bodies”. This is central in phenomenological understandings of the body (Merleau-Ponty 1962, 2004). Existing in the world is something human beings primarily do as perceiving, sensing, experiencing and ‘lived’ bodies. The relationship between the internal and external body can thus be regarded as existential, but how we understand this relationship and how much emphasis is placed on the body’s appearance varies.

In Norwegian public debate, spas are described almost exclusively as something positive, as the perfect gift, something one can and should treat oneself to. This is an area of consumption that has grown rapidly both in terms of the number of businesses in Norway and within the travel industry (Bjelland 2006). Even though there were a few spas in Norway in the 19th and 20th centuries, spas in general do not have a strong position in Norwegian cultural history. However, over the last years, several Norwegian spas and spa resorts have opened. The first spa in Oslo opened in 1999.

There are no criteria for the use of the term ‘spa’ (Bjelland 2006), and the businesses are to a great extent built around foreign cultural references. The marketing of spas refers both indirectly and directly to health when it urges people to take care of their bodies and says that spas offer health[note 2]An example: ”We can offer you almost everything within beauty, health and alternative treatments.” http://www.klinikkroppogsjel.no/
. This perception of spas also exists in people’s minds. One of Norway’s celebrities and former top model, Anette Stai, answered when asked about her best health tips: “Get enough sleep. Spend time with other women. Go to a SPA or pamper yourself.” (KK 2008 vol. 7, p. 60)[note 3]KK is the top-selling women’s magazine in Norway.
. As we will see later, going to a spa, or ‘pampering yourself’, is to a large degree about employing different techniques to improve your appearance. This seems to strengthen the interconnection between health and beauty, but what then about the external? How do spas manage to escape the criticism implicit in the idea that only beauty that comes from within is true beauty?           

Body concepts

Two concepts will be central in the discussion: well-being (or comfort) and beauty. The concepts are important not only because they describe a phenomenon, but also because they draw attention to something, and thus contribute to creating that to which they refer. Well-being and, to some extent, comfort, refer to the way the body is experienced from within, whereas beauty is primarily a term that describes the body’s appearance or exterior. Both are central to the marketing of spas. I will therefore start with a short presentation of these terms or concepts, including their histories and their current status.

Comfort and well-being

The meaning of the English term comfort changed in the 18th century and became the one that we know best: well-being, physical ease or being comfortable. Comfort today is a concept that emphasises the relationship between the body and the body’s immediate environment (Crowley 2000). Before this it signified something internal, a sense of strength, consolation or encouragement. Thus the word went from describing an inner condition to including factors that contributed to attaining this condition. The historian John Crowley has described this transformation, showing how different Anglo-American intellectual movements sought to describe and evaluate the relationship between the body and the environment, the self and material culture through the concept of comfort. They instilled the concept with a new, more physical meaning, and designed new material environments, encouraging the learning of new behaviour in accordance with the concept (Cowley 2000: 750). Crowley argues that this led to the naturalisation of the concept of comfort and associated phenomena. It legitimised new forms of consumption safely positioned between the necessary and the luxurious (Crowley 2000: 758). This resulted in new standards for what was considered ordinary and normal and what people felt they were entitled to. What earlier had been a luxury now became a necessity. What was described as comfortable became something self-explanatory, positive and important. Historian Katherine C. Grier has shown how comfort in the period 1850-1930wasalso associated with home and family, what we in Norwegian would describe with the term koselig (cosy) (Grier 1988, Rolness 1995). In this period there was an increased focus on how the physical environment, space and personal belongings influenced the development of the personality. Correct consumption not only ensured that others got the right impression, but it was important in the formation of the individual’s character (Grier 1988). Creating and maintaining a comfortable home atmosphere, and thus securing the family’s well-being, became a new and important task for women in this period, and still is. Today, comfort is widely used in the marketing of a number of goods and services (Klepp 2007).

In the same way the meaning of comfort has slid away from being a feeling in and of itself to that which shapes the feeling, well-being has come to be used more as a term for products and not just the effect they may have. In the largest Norwegian dictionary, there is no information about the word velværeprodukter [products of well-being], while the word solicited 3,930 hits on the website Google. Another similar example is the way the compound term well-being has been combined with ‘industry’ in Norwegian to produce a single word: “velværeindustri”. Well-being is no longer just the personal experience resulting from, among other things, comfortable surroundings and products give, but is used to describe the product itself. The difference between these two terms is thereby decreasing. Comfort, and even more so well-being, are central to the marketing of spas, both in the concrete sense through the use of the words, and indirectly, through the use of an aesthetic that is associated with these concepts.

Beauty

In the book Skønhedens filosofi [‘The Philosophy of Beauty’’], Inga Gammel shows how Western ideas of beauty have changed. In the Greek mythical universe, beauty was always a gift from the gods and associated with order and cosmos. A beautiful exterior was proof of the gods’ favour and a noble character. Beauty, especially human beauty, was also an important theme in Greek philosophy. In this context, beauty, in addition to being a characteristic, was also an obligation associated with refinement and breeding. This mentality was later discredited, and physical beauty became suspect, superficial or sinful. Real value was attributed only to the spiritual. The worship of beauty survived for a period in art philosophy, but in the 19th century it disappeared there, too. At the same time, new and important arenas for the worship of beauty began to emerge in etiquette literature and advertising images (Gammel 1994).

Whereas the world of fairytales, literature, advertising and magazines today worships beauty, equating external beauty with internal beauty, there is at the same time no discussion of these issues. Many people strive to attain beauty, and at the same time many would say that it is really not important after all (Gammel 1994). In research literature, discussions of the significance of beauty has been largely absent. Even anthropology, which otherwise encompasses a wide range of themes and approaches, lacks a theory of beauty as a distinct domain of social and psychological experience (Edmonds 2008).

The relationship between the biological and cultural aspects of beauty is subject to debate (Edmonds 2008), but being beautiful means, among other things, being as much in accordance with current beauty ideals as possible (Strathern 1979). In the modern Western discourse, the argument for certain activities, for example finding so-called ‘becoming’ clothes, hairstyles or make-up, is to bring out the best in you, to find your personality. Clothes and make-up in accordance with general aesthetic categories will draw attention away from the individual. (Strathern 1979, Klepp 2004, 2009). Thus it is a system that brings out conformity, rather than individuality. The concept of becomingness makes it possible to argue in favour of a particular aesthetics – for instance bourgeois practicality or the latest fashion – in  language that makes it sound as if it is founded on the individual and the personal (Klepp & Storm-Mathisen 2005).

Beauty is essentially a natural, congenital quality, and natural beauty is generally regarded as superior to beauty achieved through hard labour or resource-requiring procedures. This is certainly true in the Scandinavian countries where nature and naturalness have a particularly strong position (Witoszek 1998). The boundary between what everybody should and ought to do and what is unacceptable and therefore to be concealed is constantly changing and under debate. Until the beginning of the 20th century, make-up was a sign of indecency, but it gradually became common among a large number of women (Peiss 1998). Today the debate is not over whether women should use make-up, but over whether children or men should. The boundaries are different for women than for men with regard to a number of other beautification techniques, in the same way that they are different for children and adults.

The emphasis on natural beauty as being more valuable than beauty produced by a person’s own efforts is undemocratic because it makes it impossible for those with a poor starting point to do something about it themselves (Døving 2000). The unresolved relationship to the importance of beauty is evident e.g. in discussions about public financing of beauty operations in the Scandinavian welfare states. Beauty in itself is not considered a sufficient reason for such an untertaking, whereas mental illness and low self-esteem due to an unfortunate physical appearance would be.

Beauty is strongly associated with femininity. Many people see women’s ‘vanity’ as part of women’s nature, even if they are not otherwise prone to biological explanatory models. As Edmonds (2008) has shown, several feminist-inspired theories have tried to explain this perspective, describing it as beauty tyranny, and identifying the many different techniques used to modify the female body throughout Western history (Liggett & Liggett 1989, Maccannell & Maccannell 1987). The beauty system theory tries to explain the close link between women and beauty in our culture. Men are attractive by virtue of status and power, or simply by being men. Femininity, on the other hand, is associated with the efforts women make to become attractive. Unlike masculinity, femininity is not an innate quality, but an innate absence (of masculinity). This absence is compensated through participation in the female beauty system and the transformation of the woman into something feminine. This explains why women never are beautiful enough, and grow up believing that their appearance always can and should be improved. It also explains why masculine power is connected with a covered and abstract male form where both body and appearance are toned down (De Grazia & Furlough 1996).

Veblen and Banta (2007) argued that the origin of private property was men’s right of ownership of women, and that women’s consumption was a way of showing their men’s power and economic position. Recent consumer research has again taken up the relationship between women and commodities and women’s role as victim (Miller 1998). Consumption in itself, and consumption connected with producing beauty in particular, is still associated with women and a constant target of criticism. Through participation in consumption to produce female beauty, women become not only beautiful, but also vulnerable to society’s criticism (De Grazia & Furlough 1996).

Like ‘well-being’ and ‘comfort’, beauty is a central term in the marketing of spas. A Google search of beauty with different combinations of spa on Norwegian internet sites gave more results than comfort and well-being[note 4]The number of hits combined with the word spa was: Skjønnhet (beauty) 107,000, beauty 111,000, comfort 6,890 komfort 34,800, Velvære (well-being) 26,700.
. The Internet sites that contain these combinations are almost exclusively dedicated to the marketing of goods and services. The combination of spa and beauty is much used in names of products.

Methods 

This article is based on two types of material: magazines and internet on the one hand, and field notes from spa visits on the other. We collected a sample of 78 best-selling Norwegian magazines in the spring of 2008. Nine different magazines in five categories were selected: one tabloid magazine, two young women’s magazines, three women’s magazines, two men’s magazines, and one health magazine (Hauge 2008). The magazines were coded, and all features and advertisements on spas were included in the analysis. KK is the top-selling women’s magazine in Norway. DN, shorthand for Det Nye, is the top selling Norwegian magazine for young women. NU, short for Norsk ukeblad; is one of the largest family magazines in Norway.

The spa is a relatively new phenomenon in Norway and also for the researchers. Therefore, we included fieldwork as part of the project. Five female researchers with different backgrounds (health sciences/physiotherapy, social sciences, nutrition and ethnology) visited a variety of spas as regular customers. We selected this type of method because we wished to explore how it is to be a customer at a spa and have a personal bodily experience of being at a spa (Csordas 1993, Engelsrud 2000). We decided not to inform the spas that we were doing research because we wished to have experiences closer to regular customers’ and did not want to develop any special relationship with owners or workers. Thus, we have not interviewed owners, workers or customers.

The nine spas we selected varied from smaller beauty parlour type of spas to spa hotels and were visited between September 2007 and August 2008. Approximately 50 pages of field notes were written based on the experiences at the spas. These notes gave insights into the researchers’ experiences of how spas influence feelings of health and comfort. The descriptions of rooms, interiors and conversations with staff or other guests were also written down during and after the visits.

All the five field workers (including me) were women, like the vast majority of customers at the spa businesses that we visited. The predominance of women is also reflected in the statistics, which show that 34 % of all Norwegian women say that they have used spa services in 2008, compared to 16 % of all men (Roos 2009).

Since the fieldwork was covert, and our therapists and others have not been able to give informed consent, we strongly emphasise anonymisation in our treatment of the material. In this article we will therefore not distinguish between the five narrators, or the places we visited. The material is limited to the five of us and our experiences; we do not claim that others will experience spas in the same way, but rather that our experiences of spas are possible ways to experience them. It is also worth noticing that originally we were not negative. On the contrary, we looked forward to this ‘luxurious’ and somewhat unusual fieldwork. If the experiences described in our fieldwork notes are partly negative, this should be seen in light of our high expectations of the spas which, again, were the result of marketing and the public discourse on spas. 

Spa experiences

In the spa experience, the internal and external bodies, health, well-being and beauty are intertwined. One study of a Thalasso spa centre shows that the treatment extended to a holistic perception of health in line with that found in alternative medicine (Bjelland 2006). The sale of packages such as ‘Queen for a Day’ rather than clear product descriptions[note 5]Please note that there is no correspondence between the businesses we visited during our field work and the examples taken from the Internet: http://www.hankohotell.no/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=35&Itemid=37
 confirms this character of wholeness. Another example is the aesthetics, which mixes different elements. Japanese minimalism represents inner peace, Eastern influence, mysticism and religiosity, whereas the staff’s simple, usually white ‘pyjamas’ are associated with professionalism, hygiene, health and the ‘effect’ of the treatment.

The emphasis on wholeness also characterised the way the staff described the treatments. The following quotes are taken from our field notes. The examples are from short conversations with the staff just prior to the treatment.

The Hamam (steam bath) was next. Another cellar compartment even darker and more moist, with a small lantern. I got a pitcher of water, a glass and a towel and was told to enjoy. She came in to check on me once and asked if everything was alright. But half an hour is a long time. Gradually my legs started to itch on the inside as well as the outside, both in the literal and the metaphorical sense. I had drunk all the water and felt relieved when the door opened. She asked me how I felt. I answered that my legs itched. It was my blood circulation that had got started, she said, and added that it feels wonderful. I felt that I ought to think so, that I would break a rule if I said no.

Little is said during this encounter. Twice in these few, short sentences, the therapist explained how something should feel, namely ‘wonderful’, and that the client should ‘enjoy herself’. The words do not refer to the concrete individual parts (what, when, where and why), but to how the parts are expected to form part of a greater whole: the total experience of well-being. A general characteristic in our encounters with spas was that the purpose of treatments was not clearly defined. Or perhaps more accurately: the purpose was defined as the experience of well-being and luxury.

The same is true of the way magazines write about spas. They settle for statements like “the wonderful feeling should have lasted longer” (NU vol. 16, p. 38). Like the staff encounters, the magazines emphasise how the products are supposed to be experienced. “This is the life” (DN vol. 4, p.10)[note 6]http://www.colosseum-SPA.no/?article=38&mode=article&expandmenu=30&get_product=yes, http://www.SPA-klinikken.no/SPA.html
 “Oh, wonderful world – this must be ultimate bliss” (NU vol. 7, p 104). These are two examples of how magazines tell the reader how the spa experience is properly perceived. “A body treatment or a proper facial cleansing always gives you a wonderful luxurious feeling,” writes KK (2008 vol. 3, p. 92). Not only the treatments, but even the words should be experienced in the prescribed manner. NU begins a lengthy description of different massage techniques with the question “Taste the word ‘massage’ – it gives you a good feeling, doesn’t it?” There is just one way to experience a spa treatment; it should be enjoyed through a feeling of well-being. But what about beauty?

Beauty at the spa

If we take spas at face value, the beauty they promote is a beauty that is a part of a whole. Their concept is based on breaking down the distinction between soul and body, the internal and the external. Feeling good, indulging in a little luxury and a break from everyday life, strengthens one’s inner beauty. This peace and inner strength will in turn manifest itself as outer beauty. The images most often used to illustrate a spa, a woman with her eyes closed and a white mask, or no mask and cucumber slices over her eyes both demonstrate this. The women concentrate on themselves, secluded from the world outside, they have no facial expression or look in their eyes. Time stands still and their beauty is part of their seclusion, naked and honest. This is a beauty that comes from within through some kind of treatment that has an internal effect.

This is how spas want to present themselves, but this picture is too simple. Even though the businesses are reluctant to be specific and the magazine articles focus more on the ‘feeling of luxury’ than on what contributes to this feeling, we can identify some components. The following is derived from an article on how to build a ‘home spa’. It contains a checklist of necessary ingredients: soothing music, bath foam or bath bombs, scented candles, body and facial masks, brushing, peeling and hair masks. The list can be divided in two, where the first three are mood setters, and the last three are all connected with improving your looks. A significant assortment of consumer articles is also envisioned: a cupboard for towels and bathrobes, and a more than three meter-long bench with space for “pillows, candles and well-being products.” Underneath are spacious drawers, and finally two high cupboards that provide “space for everything you need in a bathroom” (KK 2008 vol. 7, p. 10).

The home spa can be seen as a blueprint of the commercial spa with a wide array of beauty products on display. The sale of products is an important part of the communication between the staff and the customer. This happens in the form of little hints during treatment and more formally when the customer receives a product plan as a part of the treatment. Products and product samples are also placed on the counter when the treatment is over, before the customer pays.

She waits in the reception. “I have found some products for you,” she says. “You ought to be more careful about using moisturiser on your dry skin. You should start now. Here is a scrub you can use and then a lotion afterwards. They are very economical in use.” I ask what they cost and learn that one is 850 NOK and the other is 750 NOK [about € 100].

In conversations with staff, the similarity between the spa and the beauty parlour is striking. One said the following about their clientele: “The ‘regulars’ come once a month, get a facial treatment and not usually massages. Young people come for particular things, like colouring eyebrows.” The holistic treatments are usually given as gifts. Here we see that the regular customers – those who pay themselves – choose more specific treatments with a clearly defined goal of improving their appearances. The packages, on the other hand, are more typically gifts and contain more well-being.

As already mentioned, spa marketing is dominated by ‘packages’, but if we look closer at these ‘packages’, we see that they contain not only massages, but also a lot of traditional beauty treatments such as hair removal, colouring of eyebrows and lashes, and skin cleansing. Some of the businesses also have more advanced equipment and treatments. A typical list, for instance[note 7]http://www.haukeland-SPA.no/krystall.shtml
, features: facial treatments, body treatments, figure forming, massage, hands & feet, spray tans, hair removal, make-up, Obagi (skin care), vein treatment, pigment treatment, Restylane (dermal filler), crystal abrasion, Botox (a neuro-muscular blocker) and tattoo removal. A review of price lists and product descriptions on the internet and in trade magazines shows that beauty treatments make up a significant part of the spa service.

During our fieldwork we wanted to know more about the connection between spa and beauty treatments and about how spa employees regard the relation between internal and external beauty. The answers to our questions were few and fragmentary. First, the treatments did not leave much room for conversation. One of the rare outspoken therapists answered thus:

I ask, “Is a massage good for your appearance?” She says that she personally doesn’t think so, but she has learned that a massage affects the way you look. “It is something we’re taught to say,” she says. She thinks that beauty comes from within, and that the faith in beauty treatments is exaggerated.

Thus the therapist refers to a perception of beauty that was discussed in the introduction; as an integrated part of one’s personality, and not as a result of techniques to achieve a certain look.

The fieldwork contains few notes from conversations with staff, but even fewer from conversations with other customers. We generally found ourselves alone, and if there were other people there, little was said, and that in a hushed voice. One of the exceptions was this brief exchange:

I say that I’ll be on my way home. “Are you done with your treatment?” says the other woman. “Can’t you see that I am?” I say jokingly. She hesitates a little and says somewhat cautiously, “It’s mostly about well-being, you know.”

This customer did not expect the treatment to give a visible effect. The spa’s emphasis on well-being is well internalised. But, as we will see in the following, the experience of well-being is not a matter of course at the spa.

Well-being at the spa

The field notes do not only mention well-being; both pleasant and unpleasant experiences are reported, during treatment and because of surrounding circumstances. It could of course be argued that we were a group of critical researchers who did not want to go to a spa in the first place, but it is not that simple. First, we are also part of our culture – and even we were influenced by the elevated status of this area of consumption. We looked forward to our first spa visits. In light of this, our descriptions contain surprising amounts of physical discomfort – both during and after the treatments. We experienced back and neck pain, nausea, drowsiness, lack of energy and skin irritation. Some of these effects lasted for several days. Here is one example from the start of the working day the day after a treatment:

My body feels heavy, and I don’t have the energy to go and sit in front of the computer. I have to lie down a little and sleep for almost three hours. I feel exhausted. Even after two cups of coffee I feel much less energetic than usual. Moreover, my neck hurts. Particularly the left side of my neck feels sore and tender. Not until the next day is the drowsiness and neck pain gone. Then everything feels like it used to – neither better nor worse.

We do not know of any studies on the side effects of spa treatments. But a study of side effects of cosmetic products in Norway shows surprisingly high figures (Berg 2004): 71 % of women and 53 % of all men have experienced such side effects. A common trait in our field notes is that we did not say anything when we were dissatisfied or experienced pain. It seems that it was partly because there was no opportunity for it, and partly because we did not want to hurt the staff, who, after all, did the best they could. Side effects were not an issue that we as customers were informed about, nor something that was mentioned in the magazine articles. However, there are some discussions of this in the Norwegian trade magazine Spabeauty Professional. The therapist that I quoted above also expressed her views on side effects. She believes that they are a bigger problem than most customers are aware of.

All people have their own beauty; it is something they have within themselves…Beauty products can’t do anything, except hurt the skin and make it thinner and older… All this is rubbish… people know too little about what they expose themselves to in this business. 

She distinguishes between skin care and spas, and directs her criticism against the business that she is not currently involved in. But both our own experiences and reviews of other material show that skin care is an important product for businesses that market themselves as spas. Skin care is part of the various packages and makes up a significant part of the operation both in businesses that sell services and in home spas.

Goal or means

In the way they present themselves through marketing, aesthetics, writing and language, spa businesses emphasise wholeness. At the same time, they sell a number of products and techniques to improve the way people look. The few conversations we had with staff show great variation in the degree to which they perceive themselves as purveyors of beauty or well-being. Whether or not the customers feel that they have become better looking, or whether they experience greater well-being or other positive inner feelings in connection with beauty treatments has not been studied. However, as more and more people visit spas, there is reason to think that many find what they seek.

The spa is a new industry in Norway, but part of the business is based on a familiar concept; it takes for granted that women’s (and men’s) appearances need to be improved, and that outer signs of aging should be counteracted. The concept in itself is not new, but the way it is coupled with inner peace and growth is new. By emphasising the internal rather than the external, the spa business escapes two strands of criticism. First, through their emphasis on wholeness and internal experiences (well-being) they escape the criticism that is directed at all beauty treatments: that beauty –when it is not an internal quality or natural, but something that is achieved through one’s own efforts – is artificial and is associated with the feminine. One would thus expect the customer base of spas to be wider than for similar treatments marketed as beauty treatments in beauty parlours. This is probably particularly true for potential male customers. Beauty treatments are easily perceived as self-centred and unnecessary. Spas, on the other hand, focus on inner peace and well-being as a reaction to ‘stress and strain’ and as a new interest in real (internal) values. Well-being thus becomes an argument for increasing an area of consumption, without eliciting any criticism of this increase.

Secondly, spa businesses escape criticism in a more concrete sense. When the customer leaves the premises and does not feel more beautiful, the criticism can easily be countered. As one customer said, “It is mostly about well-being, you know.” We should not expect any concrete effects of the treatment in the form of enhanced beauty. The treatment is something to ‘enjoy’, the goal is a feeling of ‘well-being’ and not a visible result. The customer who demands visible change misunderstands and is unable to ‘enjoy’ and experience well-being. The treatment is not there to achieve a particular result, but is itself the result.

The Western world has witnessed a growing market for beauty products and treatments, and an increasing connection between beauty, health and well-being products. Parts of this increase are the subjects of public debate and commentaries. Examples are slimming surgery, plastic surgery and dieting products. However, spas are rarely the subject of criticism or debate. This business is enjoying a powerful surge of popularity. New workplaces and new businesses emerge. Hotels have their own spas, newly built baths bathe in luxury, and a multitude of new products and old products in new wrapping market themselves with this short and saleable word. Despite persistent attempts to package the product in words and surroundings that emphasise ‘the internal’, the treatments that we experienced during our fieldwork seemed to us to skim the surface.

A reaction to stress and fragmentation and a search for an experience of peace and sincerity is both understandable and important. But for this very reason is it important that a critical light be cast on the way in which this need is met. Our experiences indicate that spas are not just content to meet this need, but also reinforce the notion that there is by definition something wrong with the way we look. This unspoken is not clarified, but wrapped in soft terry towels and talk about well-being.

Notes

Ingun Grimstad Klepp has a PhD in ethnology and is Head of Research at the National Institute for Consumer Research in Norway. Her current fields of research are clothing, housework, leisure time and body related consumption. See http://www.sifo.no/page/Staff//10443/48249-10600.html or contact: ingun.g.klepp@sifo.no

Thanks to Maarten Bode, and other participants at the Beauty & Health symposium, 12 December 2008, University of Amsterdam as well as Gunn Engelsrud at The Norwegian School of Sport Sciences and colleagues at SIFO for useful comments. Special thanks go to Benedicte Hauge for her support, to the editors of this journal for their final comments and to Cate Newsom for editing the final version.

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