Something Fishy Afoot

If you walk through the Clarendon Centre, a mall in central Oxford, you’ll notice something odd. Near the entrance people are sitting on padded benches, their lower legs immersed in tanks full of bubbling water and dozens of tiny fish.

“Bubble Feet,” a sign explains, helpfully listing the rates, which start at ten pounds for 10 minutes.  30 minutes is only twenty pounds; the “Champagne Paradise” option.

Couple of things.  First, this is a great example of one of my favourite trends, which is giving shitty products absurdly lofty descriptions.  Last year I walked past a dingy Chinese takeaway in Worthing called, if I remember correctly, “Champagne Palace.” And nearby there was a billboard describing a skin cream as “the ultimate in luxury.”  I think literary types call this High Burlesque – grandiloquent language that emphasises by contrast the banality or vulgarity of the subject. At any rate, I would venture that there is not a single person in the world for whom the words “champagne paradise” connote paying twenty quid to sit in the mall for half an hour with your feet in a lukewarm tub of fish.

Anyways, after walking past this spectacle a few times over the last month or so, curiosity got the better of me and I asked the attendant what kind of fish were in the tanks.  She explained that they were Garra rufa, also known as ‘doctor fish’ because they eat dead skin, allowing the healthy skin beneath to flourish and grow.  Looking closer, I could see that the fish in the tanks were indeed swarming around the patrons’ submerged feet, devouring their purulent flesh with every appearance of relish.  The patrons themselves were mostly on their iPhones, probably texting their friends: “guess wear my feet r lol.”

There are lots of things you could spend twenty pounds on. A good bottle of wine, or several slightly less good ones. Two cinema tickets. If your feet are really that badly off, you could pay an impecunious friend to have at them with a lump of pumice. So clearly Champagne Paradise is a waste of money, but is it otherwise harmful?

The principle seems fundamentally sound, being similar to that of using maggots to clean a gangrenous wound (although the analogy is not one that the Bubble Feet people have taken advantage of.) However, Garra rufa therapy is banned in much of North America out of the concern that the fish might transmit athlete’s foot, ringworm and other skin diseases between users. Seems plausible. If I’m not mistaken, this is approximately how the Black Death spread through Europe. But even ignoring the obvious risk of a global pandemic, aren’t these people worried about looking like psoriatic spendthrifts?

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