Magic, medicine and the bathroom cabinet

This isn’t an original idea.  Many years ago I knew a medical anthropologist who investigated the contents of people’s bathroom cabinets to have a look at the kaleidoscopic range of medicines that these cupboards contained.  I won’t replicate her work which was focussed on kids and families, but this so intrigued me that I had to put pen to paper (metaphorically) to take up the challenge that the closed and mirrored doors of bathroom cabinets represent.

The mirrors on the doors are of course heavily symbolic: reflections of ourselves caught betwixt the real world and the world of possiblities that the bodily regimes inside encased in tubes, bottles, packets and single-dose usage containers represent, regimes whose ritual adherance promise both health and beauty to both the novice and the initiated.  And I haven’t even started on the semiotics of the branding and messaging that the advertisers have morphed with the products themselves in bright colours, with both familiar and exotic packaging to produce irresistable products full of promise with sensual scents, smooth applications and teasing ‘tastes’.  I cannot feed my body but I can feed my hair and my skin till they’re obese with product!

Bathroom cainets, bathroom vanities, bathroom storage, shaving cabinets – these are all euphemisms for the wanted and unwanted potions, tonics, creams, pills, ungents, deodorisers, scrubs, perfumes and old but serious left over medications that we all hang on to for fear of, for fear of, for fear of NEEDING these again. In hospitals there are routines, routines that involve checklists and signatures, routines that form part of QA checks that ensure that all the objects that live on a crash trolley (or similar) are necessary, up-to-date and fully available.  Nothing old and out of date here!  We probably need these for our homes as well, but as with much of what occurs at home, this mostly falls outside the purview of governmental regulation (so far).

But why do we hang on to the unnecessary stuff? Part of the answer to this is that we hate waste.  Better to hang onto that bottle of codeine syrup (???) even though we never used it for X, because you just never know when you might need to self-medicate with a powerful, constipating, highly potent and classified pain killing substance.  Who is really going to use this under normal (unprescribed) circumstances?  And that bottle of ear wax melting drops?  We needed those about eight years ago, didn’t we?  And you never know…

One of my favourites is the perennial bottle of wart killer.  That’s a dastardly substance at the best of times.  It takes such a commitment to really properly utilise it.  You need the bottle, an ear bud, some bandaids, Vaseline and about of month where walking around on your feet isn’t a high priority to properly treat warts.  And afterwards why not just chuck it?  Why keep half a bottle of skin burning, toxic liquid that ceases to give any joy once you’ve actually peeled the whole wart, root and all off the foot? I like to keep my secret, emergency meds in the bathroom cabinet.  It’s not the ‘official’ place where my family keep our regular, current pills, tabs and capsules (that’s in the kitchen, above the microwave in an old Christmas cookie tin that belonged to my grandmother in the ’70’s – it has the 3 wise men on it).  Oh no, after a secret binge on whatever has taken my fancy in the fridge/cupboard/lolly drawer at somewhere close to midnight, I sometimes have to head for the Mylanta antacid tabs (double strength), and where do I hide those?  On the top shelf of the bathroom cabinet of course!  No one looks there and I’m the only one in the family with this hideous, secret affliction/addiction.

I think that one of the reasons we hang on to old medicines is partly because of the witchcraft, the magic, the agent of change that these represent for us.  It’s modernity and magic rolled into one.  Even if we don’t need these right now, in the past they have represented a means to change ouselves, usually in the case of pills and potions from a state of ill health to one of health.  These medicines are potent forces, acting on nature in it’s demonic form where illness and injury are the results of its power.  Why return to a state of helpless powerlessness, when keeping the remnants of these substances gives us the immediate power to change the course of Nature?  This power, the power that medicines represent come from science, medicine and the results of research and experimentation over a huge number of years, and so who are we to just cavalierly chuck these down the sink or in the bin when we’ve (mostly) finished with them?  We want to hang on to a bit of that magic, that power, don’t we?

But bathroom cabinets don’t only hold medicine, they also hold the transformative substances that create wellbeing and beauty.  For wellbeing, think of bath salts, fragrant and soothing, filling your nostrils and easing your muscles.  How old is that bottle of hardened salts really? And what about the three cans of spray hair dye?  Even though they originated in a $2 shop and there are about four shades of the rainbow there and that party was, well YEARS AGO, they’re still peeking out of that second shelf aren’t they?  How likely is it that you’re going to use them again before, say Halloween next year???

Worse than that is the room deodoriser, the bottle of lavender spray that was a gift (what, did she think I was 70?), the half used tube of facial scrub and the unopened tubes of peeling facial mask.  Half used?  OK, we did get some use of out them, transformative and all that, but completely new and unused?  This holds another kind of potential, one that is not yet actualised.  In relation to beauty items: moisturisers, make-up, intensive treatments and similar we can only hope to marvel and admire the potential fullly self-actualised beautiful person that we may become through incorporation of these items into our selves.  What if we used it all?  What if we created new regimes of health and beauty that meant our ears were clean, that we smelled of lavender and the pointy wart on the end of our nose no longer signified us as a witch?  Well, in our newly enlived, healthful and beautiful state we could always head for the kitchen cupboards and start on their contents…

3 thoughts on “Magic, medicine and the bathroom cabinet

  1. Pat says:

    I really like your explanation that we might hang on to things because of the witchcraft or magic that they represent for us! Our desire for transformation has existed since antiquity. How unfortunate that, for many, this powerful desire has been distilled and diminished into the form of such products. Most lack life force; we don’t actually need them. They’ve been made for profit, really, not transformation, then stored in our medicine cabinets and languish there.

    Nice post, good visuals! Thanks!


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