Well, Actually is a weekly column by Slate’s Shannon Palus. Each week, she’ll test health and wellness products to help readers figure out what they should try, what they should skip, and why.
My current apartment has most things a human could ask for: a washer-dryer, windows that get good light, kind and funny roommates. The one thing it does not have is a bathtub. It has a “rain shower,” which dispenses a large amount of water directly above my head. It is luxurious, but not the same. I shouldn’t complain, but I do; sitting in a vat of warm water and essential oils is a bedrock of my self-care, the thing around which face masks, glasses of wine, and private crying can all happily coalesce.
I used to live in an apartment with a large clawfoot bath that sloped just so at the back, which I used near daily. Then I lost the tub in a breakup. I consoled myself with long baths at my parents’ house, and the apartments of various friends with whom I took shelter. Then I found my new place, recently renovated with enough shiny fixtures that I didn’t truly realize my loss until I moved in.
For a while, I considered trying to smush a kiddie pool into the shower, but this seemed likely to result in some kind of overflow situation, and potentially violate my lease. So instead, I ordered the HoMedics Foot Salon Pro Footbath. It seemed like a size-appropriate way to emulate a tub while not actually owning a tub. I picked this specific foot bath because it had a heating element and massagers, was under $100, and is endorsed by a review site as “the best of the best.” It does not have a good rating on Amazon (just 3.5 stars), but then, most inexpensive foot baths do not have good ratings on Amazon.
When my “pro footbath” arrives, it is easy to see why. It technically has everything you might imagine wanting from a foot tub, and yet none of it works all that well. It has buttons that offer vibrations and bubbles, but when both of these features are running, it sounds like a spaceship preparing for lift off (just vibrations or just bubbles make a noise that is somehow more grating). The “massage” feature turns out to be four spiky wheely things, two beneath each foot, neither soothing enough to invoke much relaxation, nor robust enough to alleviate any pain from my recurring case of plantar fasciitis. I am confused as to what, exactly, the “pedicure center” in the middle of the bath is supposed to do; it’s intended to hold either a small pumice stone or a brush, but there’s no real benefit to keeping either rigidly in place. They’re more usable when not attached to anything; even then, the included brush and stone are rather small.
It is perhaps not surprising that the technical limits of a small plastic tub that has the feel of something one could purchase from SkyMall are so apparent. There’s a reason pedicures are typically either expensive or exploitative: Firm, soothing, and thorough exfoliation and massage require skilled labor. It’s not something that can be glibly tossed to a quasi-machine that costs roughly as much as two nice-ish pedicures. It just doesn’t have the firepower to compete with what I currently associate with foot care.
These points might all sound like deal breakers for the HoMedics Foot Salon Pro Footbath. They are not. I really, really like this foot bath. Within a week of it showing up at my door, I used it several times. My feet sit in it as I type this. The heat is soothing. The bubbling sensation feels good. After several prolonged uses, I can even position the arches of my feet in the right place for the spikes to dig in in a good way.
I don’t think it’s that strange that I love my mediocre foot bath. In ancient Rome, for example, a nice hot bath was a commonplace urban amenity; the twin technologies of aqueducts, which shuttled water into the city, and hypocausts, which corralled fire-derived heat to bathhouses, helped cement bathing as a full-on wellness practice. Baths were recommended as treatments for everything from jaundice to fevers to epilepsy, usually in concert with drugs or other lifestyle changes. It’s probably no surprise that even thousands of years later, after modern medicine has found better solves for many of these things, we still regard baths as healthy. Warm baths (specifically, ones with Epsom salts) are a home remedy recommended for the ever-mysterious ritual of “detoxing.” They’re also recommended for muscle pain and (by the Mayo Clinic, no less) for arthritis. But even in cases where baths aren’t doing anything per se, the pomp and circumstance of setting them up, the prescriptive feel of specially preparing for and indulging in the experience, could be enough to at least induce some placebo effect.
If nothing else, my HoMedics Foot Salon Pro Bath makes me feel better on an emotional level. The packaging is sort of cheap, but like a greasy, oversalted fast food burger, my foot bath still has all the necessary ingredients. The Romans—and scores of rom-coms—are right: There are healing properties in hot water. When I stand up, I find a bunch of stress has somehow been vibrated and soaked out of my brain. I am notably more serene, left with a light, airy feeling. It feels extra luxurious that I can do this while wearing clothes, sitting on my couch, and talking to my roommates. Even if I have a real tub again someday, I’ll probably keep this thing around.
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