Recently, I was relaxing in my hotel room with a biography of Queen Elizabeth I. Her biographer noted that when Elizabeth R wasn't feeling quite herself she would call for a good "bleeding." I wondered about this practice which now seems so destructive and dangerous, especially given the hygienic possibilities of 16th-century Britain. Even for the rich and famous. But Elizabeth R survived numerous bleedings and, I imagine, lots of other strange treatments that were designed to make her look and feel like her very best self — by the standards of her time. (Did she have a great immune system? Probably.)
As dotty and unclean as "bleedings" now seem to a 21st century New Yorker, I realized with a jolt that Elizabeth was pampering, not punishing, herself — and I was going to be late for my reflexology appointment. I had scheduled a two-hour orgy of relaxation and detoxification at a spa.
I imagine that the ladies at court asked each other, in the manner of ladies who-lunch, "Who does your bleeding?" — trading notes on price, ambiance and service, just as ladies today discuss their facials, massages and other personal treatments.
Some skeptics assume that the beauty and spa treatments of today are as ineffective or dangerous as those of the Renaissance period. In fact, there have been inroads. Germ theory helped — as did a host of other developments, including a fascination in the West with things Eastern. The kind of people who would once have gone in for bleeding now go in for things like reflexology and shiatsu. That urge to cleanse and detoxify the body has long been around but we've actually figured out how to do it because we better understand the body.
The pampered are prettier and healthier today than were their 16th century European counterparts. I wonder whether, another thousand or so years into the future, we will all look prettier and healthier in ways that we can't yet fathom. This kind of query might seem irresponsible, shallow, even immoral — given the real health crises facing human beings in 2001. But the way we look has everything to do with how we live and how we think.
And I'm glad that bleedings are no longer the rage.
TRACY QUAN, a writer and working girl living in New York, is the author of "Nancy Chan: Diary of a Manhattan Call Girl", a serial novel about the life and loves of Nancy Chan, a turn-of-the- millennium call girl. Excerpts from the novel — which began running in July, 2000 in the online magazine, Salon — have attracted a wide readership as well as the attention of the The New York Timesand other publications.