Communal bathing might help you better connect to your body, just ask this Melbourne bathhouse

Images via Sense of Self

Words by Isabella Wight

Come as you are.

As a woman, my experiences dabbling in the health and wellness industry have involved a large number of laxative products disguised as teas, overpriced activewear and multiple instructions to get my body ‘summer ready.’ I bought into it, as many of us do, but not without consequence. 

With low self-esteem, oily skin and a Woolies-provided paycheck, I bought all the e-books, diet brews and wellness powders the internet would throw at me. As I type, another day goes by on which I don’t open my Bikini-Ready Diet Plan that I purchased for a hefty $99 from an influencer in 2016.

Take a self-care day on us and head over to our Life section for more interesting reads.

Aptly coining the faux-health craze “hocus-pocus health”, Mary Minas and Freya Berwick are the no-BS wellness gurus I have needed these past few years. After each experiencing bathhouse ‘epiphanies’ on their travels, Mary and Freya noticed a significant gap in the way Australians were experiencing everyday wellness. Bringing together their creative backgrounds and love for bathing, the pair opened the Collingwood space Sense of Self in 2020.

A massage studio, bathhouse and modern wellness space, Sense of Self is a self-care dream – and everyone is welcome. Wanting some healthy hedonism in my life, I reached out to founder Mary Minas to discuss her journey in re-defining wellness. 

If you feel the need to make up for your faux-health and -wellness sins, you might as well do it in a space that genuinely cares about your wellbeing. And the soft textiles, earthy tones and high vaulted ceilings couldn’t hurt, right?

Sense of Self is the culmination of years spent researching, developing, and refining your re-definition of wellness. Can you tell us a little about how Sense of Self came to be? 

M: I was lucky enough to be exposed to communal bathing at a very formative age, when I was about 21. A good friend of mine is French-Tunisian and she lives in an area of Paris with a large migrant community from North Africa. I was lucky enough for her to take me to the mosque and hammam while I was there, allowing me insight into rituals that she had gone through as a young woman with her mum.

In my mind, that was the seed for Sense of Self. I was a filmmaker at the time and I travelled around the world looking at bathhouses; I thought I was going to make a documentary about bathing through the ages. As my journey continued, I realised how much we’re missing bathhouses in Australia. I also met Freya, my co-founder, who had experienced similar epiphanies in terms of exceptional hospitality and service design. 

She had just come back from redeveloping this beautiful boutique hotel in Norway on the side of a fjord… She met this amazing couple who trusted her with their property, and she totally transformed it. Happening to be on the side of a fjord, she would do a lot of contrast bathing, going between a hot sauna and a cold mountain stream. Freya developed a love for bathing through Nordic tradition, so we came together to make Sense of Self. 

What an incredible journey! Can you talk about how communal bathing can positively impact our relationships with our bodies? 

F: The first time we went to the hammam, I don’t think I was prepared for the impact it was going to have on me and the way I felt about my body. Up until then, I felt like I was playing negative thoughts on loop. I think that’s because of the media that surrounds us and the bodies that we’re seeing consistently, which are pretty unidimensional. 

In reality, there’s an incredible diversity of bodies and a wide spectrum of health. What I saw in that room was women of all shapes, sizes, ages and backgrounds… and for once,  I realised how my body fit into that. It felt liberating – like I was suddenly a little bit more okay about my place and body in the world.  

That’s what we wanted for Sense of Self… a space where people felt like they could belong.

What does “healthy hedonism” mean to you?

M: In a way, it means balance and infusing joy into your health and wellbeing. Our happiness is as important, if not more, than our physical wellbeing. For us, healthy hedonism is about not subscribing to one style of health – it’s having a bath, but maybe having a glass of bubbles with it.  

The bathhouse space is so beautiful! Where did you draw your inspiration from for the Sense of Self aesthetic? 

M: Freya and I both have creative backgrounds – she was a photographer and I was a filmmaker – so from a young age, we were both driven by aesthetics and visuals. Our inspiration is a mix of art, nature and architecture we love. 

Some of the influences would be the architect Luis Barragán, or Guy Bourdin who did these really remarkable campaigns in the ’80s. [Carlo] Scarpa would be a big influence on the brutalist architecture elements of the space, something we have deemed “Meditteranean brutalism”. We wanted a softness that envelopes you and a warmth that surrounds you, but on a scale that is awe-inspiring. 

I know that bathhouses have roots in ancient tradition and ritual and you yourself are Greek Cypriot, how do you translate these ancient practices into 2021?

M: I think the biggest thing we’ve translated from ancient bathing into our modern bathhouse is it being a social epicentre for people. In modern life, we’re missing more of those passive hangout spaces, those spaces that were so vital to people’s lives when we had more leisure time. We wanted to challenge the notion that work should be taking over so much time in our lives. We encourage people to take their time. 

Also hospitality, I’d say. It’s something that’s been taken from my culture and Freya’s background, this idea of true hospitality and generosity. It’s contained in the word xenia, which is a form of ‘love’ in Greek. Love has many different words in Greek, one of them being xenia which speaks to xenos, meaning the outsider or stranger. That’s what we want people to feel, that they’re not outsiders. That they belong. 

In the name of treating yourself, you can book a bathing session at Sense of Self here

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