I Founded A Virtual Community Bathhouse Amid A Pandemic & Revolution
With COVID-19 forcing us all to retreat to the safety of our homes, and the surge of righteous protests in defense of Black lives moving as rapidly as the spread of the virus, I reflected on the question: "In what ways do I heal the world?"
My answer came to me last spring. As a healer who is also hurting and healing, I tapped into the longings for touch, bodies, and intimacy as a way to explore the gifts of community building as essential for spiritual grounding in a pandemic and revolution. Since April, every Wednesday night at 9 p.m. Eastern, I have the unique opportunity and honor to share love and hygiene in an intimate space with beautiful humans from across the country: a virtual community bathhouse.
Water is an essential element that creates, nourishes, restores, and transforms every single life-filled energy and vibration it touches.
The space is held by Black, Indigenous, people of color and queer folx. People enter via Zoom into a space where there is music and get grounded in their individual energies in their baths. We arrive naked together in our respective bathtubs, revealing as much of our faces and bodies as is comfortable.
After doing Indigenous land acknowledgments, we each share what we're bringing to the bath today: a range of joy, frustrations, fears, and possibilities. We go on to meditate, reflect on a reading, or otherwise explore the depth of our feelings and experiences while being nourished in the bath. We commit to allowing the things we want to release go down the drain, and the things we want to keep, we allow them to marinade with us in the bath.
Water is an essential element that creates, nourishes, restores, and transforms every single life-filled energy and vibration it touches. It's natural for us to be in relationship with the ways that its medicine, magnified through time and space, can hold our hearts, steady our minds, and create ceremony beyond wireless fidelity.
I became a naturist in 2012 when I was looking for tools to mend my heart from an abusive relationship and to embrace a more loving relationship with my body after having a mental health break and an emergency myomectomy (a procedure to remove non-benign fibroid tumors from the uterus) within one month of each other. I became a student of my body through naturism, which in the simplest terms describes a practice of immersing in nature in a state of nudity. For me, it became a practice of surrender, release, self-awareness, and boundaries that helped me to build instinct, learn balance in extremes through cold and snow in my naked body, and practice living in my mind while consciously observing the world. It was the first time that I danced with the willingness of my body being a holy playground of possibilities for my soul to experience the gift of life.
"Where does white body supremacy live in my mind, body, and spirit?"
Resmaa Menakem, therapist and author of the book My Grandmother's Hands: Racialized Trauma and the Pathway to Mending Our Hearts and Bodies, poses this necessary question that we should all be asking ourselves. Through his book, he provides a portal for us all to examine, acknowledge, and heal ourselves from the individual habits and societal cultures of racism.
Acknowledging the ways my external body is in relationship with my identities—Black, lesbian, womxn, Midwesterner, and more—I realize how important it is for bodies like mine, and others equally threatened, to feel free. White body supremacy lives in my cellular memory and ancestral traumas. It occupies places in my body that I cannot readily see or touch.
The essence of our bathhouse is in the lineage of Nina Simone, who said, "I'll tell you what freedom is to me: no fear. I mean, really, no fear!"
Our virtual community bathhouse space is essential and necessary to our survival. Simply feeling safe in my body with a community of people who are doing the same demonstrates to me that, if we make space for the holiness of our bodies, the body is also its own medicine and has deep access to its own individual healing.
Beyond hygiene, bathing is essential for our physical and mental well-being. A hot bath can improve circulation and breathing1, support cardiovascular health2, and activate the same endorphins that you would access from the warmth of the sun on your skin. Some small studies have found regular bathing—particularly soaking in a hot bath for at least 30 minutes—can even alleviate some symptoms of depression. We also know that it has the power to create relief and release whether you are bathing in hot or cold water3.
Yet bathing is a privilege. Just look to the Indigenous people of this land who stand as water protectors and earth defenders fighting for equitable access to the bounty of the earth. The legacy of safe, clean, intimate spaces to have a community bath began long before the well-known and stigmatized bathhouse culture curated by and for gay men—with the same needs for a safe, clean, and intimate space—took shape in our imaginations. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, public bathhouses were common across the country, including in Cleveland, where I live, frequented by working-class, tenement, and immigrant families who could bathe for free at these facilities and spare themselves the expense of the cost of water.
During this era of rampant discrimination and segregation under the auspices of "Separate But Equal," Black people "were allowed" to work at these public bathhouses and told to bathe at segregated bathhouses for Blacks only. This history of public bathhouses provided an opportunity for Black entrepreneurship through ownership of Black-only bathhouses in Hot Springs, Arkansas, post-Reconstruction in the Jim Crow South, starting in the early 1900s up until the 1964 Civil Rights Act made segregation of public accommodations illegal and unconstitutional.
My family lineage with bathing as a sacred ritual started by bathing with my sister-cousin and all our goofy conversations and games we'd play, like imagining we were swimming in a pool somewhere warm and luxurious. I learned about the peace of prioritizing my care that came from witnessing my grandmother, who was a barber, use her evening bath to soothe her body and mind. If I was lucky, she would ask me to come wash her back after a long day of being on her feet. As I was coming of age in my body, my earthly departed mother taught me about cleansing my body, grooming myself, and the ways that bathing can ease painful menstruation. The foundation for joy, play, prayer, restoration, and establishing an essential relationship with my body was set by the Black women who loved me first and most.
My knowledge of bathing as an adult, adapted from the gifts of my family foundation, opened my world to communal bathing spaces. I first learned about the "bathhouses" frequented by gay men as my close friends attended regularly. Through them, I learned that these bathhouses, in terms of setup, are similar to all-gender Asian and European bathhouses. The bathhouse for gay men also extended opportunities for sexual pleasure, whereas the Korean bathhouses have multigenerational families that come together for communal cleansing.
The bathhouses of the U.S. come from our rich immigrant culture, among which are Korean, Eastern European, and Nordic cultures, each featuring treatments that are specific to their bathing traditions. There are some similarities with the process concerning the cost, check-in, locker, conduct in the spas, and the hot, warm, and cool bade pools; however, the spa treatments vary based on where you go. And, like the saunas that cater to gay men, many of these saunas allow you to stay for 24 hours and offer rooms or pallets for you to sleep.
Communities have long gathered near water as a ritual to pray, protest, and find peace.
With COVID as our global disciplinarian, the physical communal spaces of the saunas and spas are impossible to access. As a society that already struggles with slowing down and prioritizing a commitment to pleasure, these life-giving and restoring activities must take a new shape.
Likewise, many of the people who frequent our virtual bathhouses found each other by having shared space together as activists and organizers in the reproductive justice movement. With social distancing in place and travel restricted, the ways that we design strategies and movement for liberation shifted overnight. However, these community bathhouses allow for being in practice of the world we seek while healing from the traumas of the world where we live today. We hold this space sacred for us to connect, not only in the roles as activists and organizers building a strategy to solve a social problem but in the fullness of our humanity.
In Pleasure Activism: The Politics of Feeling Good, adrienne maree brown asks a critical question: "How would we organize and move our communities if we shifted to focus on what we long for and love rather than what we are negatively reacting to?" In a community bathhouse, we create a space to live into what it feels like to practice self-love in the compassionate witness of others who are also seeking a deeper love of themselves.
Our bath-time space is a choose-your-own-adventure space while being in the company of others choosing their own. Some people like to bring tea and water as a refreshment, and others bring a glass of Tennessee apple pie moonshine. Some come and bathe as a couple, others come to the space sober, and some exercise the choice to bring cannabis or CBD to their experience. The bathhouse is a space where we trust everyone to know what they need. In an environment where safety has a question mark behind it and not a period, queer and transgender people of color need these spaces to have a soft place to land in a world that makes hard places to fall too readily available.
Communities have long gathered near water as a ritual to pray, protest, and find peace. These gatherings invoke a spirit of being cleansed physically and energetically with the belief that, by feeding our souls through hope, we can embrace a new consciousness of care, soothing ourselves and tending to our abused spirits.
In her performance "The Bag Lady Manifesta," multidisciplinary artist and creative Taja Lindley asks a critical question about the spirit of bodies of culture: "Do you know what happens to the spirit of a people who refuse to die?"
My answer is our spirits are fortified through community care, cleansing our bodies, and washing it down the drain in the sacred waters that eases our pain with softness and resilience.
Jasmine Burnett is a writer, national organizer, herbalist, and leadership coach who supports individuals and organizations in racial and reproductive social justice movements on strategic planning, fundraising, and grassroots organizing. She has a B.A. in History from Purdue University, and she has previously worked and organized through New Voices Women of Color for Reproductive Justice, SisterSong, and the National Network of Abortion Funds, among others. Now, she is a trainer with the Rockwood Leadership Institute.
Her writing focuses on Black women’s leadership, cannabis equity, and Black midwestern lived experiences and has been published in The Huffington Post, The Root, Rewire, and elsewhere. Her work is also featured two newly released anthologies, Sweeter Voices Still: An LGBTQ Anthology From Middle America (Belt Press) and The Echoing Ida Collection (The Feminist Press).
In her leadership coaching, she uses an integrated wellness approach through her study of herbalism, African Spirituality, and mindfulness practices to create intimate truth-telling and space-making. She is currently a virtual clinical herbalism student at the Well of Indigenous Wisdom Clinical Herbalism School in Mayaguez, Puerto Rico. She explores the support of plant medicine in her leadership coaching practice as a companion to full spectrum wellness.