Fish-foliation and Phobias

My sisters took me to see Jaws when I was in grade school. They were in high school, very cool and oh-so-maturely informed me that the shark in the movie was “mechanical”, “like a puppet” and looked “so fake it’s hysterical”….I was hysterical alright – hysterical screaming! It was as real as any shark I’d ever seen on Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom. (Excuse me, but did I just age ‘out’ myself twice in the same paragraph?)

The Jaws movie terrified me, ruining me for all future aquatic experiences. I would never again feel safe in any body of water after seeing that movie. No lake, pool or bathtub would ever be the same. There was always the chance that someone, somewhere would press some magic button (like on the TV show Lost) that would raise an invisible Sea World-esque retaining wall and let loose that great white gilled nightmare to chomp me to bits! There I would be in my pool with my friends playing Marco Polo without a care in the world, when suddenly – da nuh….da nuh……..da nuh da nuh da nuh da nuh DA NUH DA NAH!!

photo credit: anthony

The result: an intense fear of sharks: Galeophobia. There is some comfort in knowing I am not alone – the Dali Lama is spooked by sharks too.

It could be worse. I could suffer from some sort of irrational phobia such as:

Fear of bathing, washing, or cleaning: Ablutophobia

Fear of bad breath: Halitophobia

Fear of an erect penis: Medorthophobia

Fear of vegetables: Lachanophobia

Fear of the pope: Papaphobia

Fear of cartoons: Kyrofelonoshophobia

The Hanna-Barbera creation Jabberjaw was my 11 year-old attempt at self-imposed desensitization therapy to free me from my shark phobia. Jabberjaw was a lovable drummer/ crime-fighter/ Three Stooges Curly-esque-voiced cartoon shark with a heart of gold – think Scoobie-Doo with fins. Watching the show actually did nothing for my fear of sharks, but my Curly impression is spot-on!

The thing is – I can handle watching sharks swim on TV (kinda) or in an aquarium (mostly); it’s the part where they eat people that I find unsettling. It’s not just sharks either, but orca and piranha too. So yeah, pretty much any fish with teeth fa-reek-me-out! So why, you might ask, would I ever consider getting a fish pedicure? Answer: Desensitization therapy part deux….

My phobia-combo is mostly fear of sharks, mixed with a little fear of sharp pointed objects: Aichmophobia and a dash of a fear of fish: Ichthyophobia. For this – I blame Steven Spielberg!

Using fish to nosh off dead skin is called Ichthyotherapy, used to treat skin conditions and assist in wound healing. The specific species of fish, Garra Rufa, aka aptly named Doctor Fish or Surgeon Fish, originated in Turkey, Syria, Iraq, Iran and Jordan. They are most abundant in the Kengal River in Turkey – where the practice of Ichthyotherapy has been practiced for hundreds of years. Apparently word spread via the Middle Eastern folks who swim with the fishes for their psoriasis and dermatitis – cuz suddenly these nibbling fish are being shipped here, there and everywhere, with fish spas popping up throughout the world over the past decade. NOTE: Swedish fish should not be confused with Turkish Fish. Swedish fish: they are the snack. Turkish fish: you are the snack. 

A few years ago on a trip to Bangkok, I walked by a place offering fish pedicures. As a spa treatment aficionado: I was intrigued. As a galeophobe: I was speechless….What the frack? Willingly let fish eat your feet? How? Wait,…what? Admittedly, the tiny shiny silvery fish were kinda-sorta cute, making it less intimidating and more exotic.

Such an opportunity, to embrace a fish-footed process would certainly be a way to finally work through my life long fish-ues. But as curious as I was on that trip to Thailand, there was no whoo-ay I would test the pescey-waters in Bangkok! FYI the same city where one can also conveniently purchase previously used underwear from a vending machine. On the other hand – oh the stories I could tell…..”and that, my dear niece, is how Auntie Syd lost her toe in Bangkok!”

Since then I’ve watched the worldwide emerging trend of fishy pedis with my reality regs on The RHONY, Keeping Up with the Kardashians, and most recently on The Bachelor: Juan “ess ok” Pablo Edition. Each time I’d think to myself, “How fun, how interesting, how third world!” I wanted to try it, but I knew I’d have to resist my urge to google “pedicure fish mouth close-up teeth”, as well as my usual tendency to over-google any given topic. If I uncovered anything remotely creepy, I’d totally wuss out.

Fear of microbes: Microbiophobia

Although the Board of Health banned fish spas in 2008 in many US states, due to a law that requires sterilization of ‘instruments’ between uses – no fish-foot infections have ever been reported to the CDC. However, tons of gross nail salon acquired infections are reported yearly, from dirty instruments, filthy footbaths and poor procedural skills. Meaning: It is more likely to get an infection from some human giving you a pedicure, than it is from some fish doing the same thing…. without the polish.

My fish-foliation chance finally arrived just a few weeks ago during a visit to Singapore. Yay! I figured a country as clean, orderly and cautious as Singapore would be the safest place in the world to sacrifice my feet to the doctor fish. I reasoned, if sepsis ensued, someone would be caned.

Fish-foliation Day

Kenko is an award winning wellness spa franchise based in Singapore, with spas throughout the country, as well as in Malaysia, Indonesia and India. The concierge at the hotel assured me Kenko was reputable and provided directions.

Upon entering Kenko, three pools with gurgling filters and unassuming fish were located just inside the entrance. A lovely Malay lady met me at the door and offered up a menu of services for my consideration. I giggled at the stethoscope clip art that adorned the menu alongside the list of fish spa benefits…those whacky doctor fish and their stethoscopes.

Benefits from Fish Spa ala Kenko:

Natural exfoliation of dead skin

Smoother and healthy glowing skin

Promotes blood circulation

Micro massage sensation from the ‘little masseurs’

Releases stress and tension


Ticklish sensation causing perpetual laughter!

I opted for the Three-in-One Package: Twenty minutes of traditional Reflexology, forty minutes of Shoulder-Neck-Head Massage and thirty minutes of Fish Spa. Sign me up! I’m doing this!

After one blissful hour in a zen-like treatment room, with a guy resembling an Asian Harry Potter – at last I was led to the edge of a fish tank. Harry Potter washed my feet and used surgical tape to cover the small cut on my ankle I got from shaving my legs that morning; perhaps blood would make the fish hostile? Yikes! Then Harry instructed me to have a seat poolside and submerge my tootsies when ready. Bring on the perpetual laughter!

After many minutes of staring-down the fish, I held my left heel over the surface of the water, half expecting a few fish to leap out of the tank to taste my deliciousness. The fish were small, maybe 3 cm long, but not nearly as small as the tiny shiny pedicure fish I’d seen on TV. And they weren’t silvery,… they were grayish black. Is this right? Maybe I should’ve done more homework on this? Why isn’t the species of fish clearly posted on the wall? After all, I should know who is eating my flesh. Is there more than one type of pedicure fish? Are any species of foot fish related to baby sharks?

Slowly, I lowered just my heel under the water. One small fish approached my foot,…closer,…closer and… da nuh….da nuh……..da nuh da nuh da nuh da nuh DA NUH DA NAH!!  YIPE!! I squealed like a tween girl at a Justin Bieber concert. It tickled – but not in a good way. Why didn’t I find out more about the dental anatomy of these fish? Ugh! Ignorance is bliss until you’re sitting on the edge of a fish tank staring at a bunch of hungry minnows, and contemplating possible transmission of fish hepatitis.

The same sweet Malay lady who welcomed me now approached me with a knowing look and smiled, “It’s okay, they just baby.” I smiled back. Babies my ass! They so totally look like those freaky penis fish!

My cel phone rang in my pocket. It was my fiancé, Steven. I explained my humiliating stress-filled cowardice at dipping my stupid foot in the water. “Syd, it’s just one foot. You have another!” he proclaimed with laughter. I challenged him to join me and try it himself, which only made him laugh harder. Some sympathy please!

Determined to see it through, I took a deep breath and bravely put both feet in the water. Eight to ten fish gently nuzzled my feet and legs. Resisting the urge to scream, I watched them wag their tails like happy puppies. The vibration of their bodies against my skin brought to mind images of microscopic insects attempting to burrow under human skin like you see on the Discovery Channel. I blocked out those very well founded concerns and waited a few minutes. Self-imposed desensitization therapy part deux is harder than it looks. When the eff does the perpetual laughter start?

Syd's foot with suspicious looking pedicure fish

Syd’s foot with suspicious looking pedicure fish

Sweet Malay Lady was watching – she invited me to swing my feet around to pool #2 behind me. “You do good. These next are bigger. More aggressive.” You gotta be kiddin’!

The chick sitting on the edge of pool #2 appeared to be nothing but wiggly fish from the knees down. This would be the truest test of my bravery. Time to take the power back from flesh eating fish, all jaws big and small! One heel Sydney, just one heel, then you can leave knowing you did it. I lowered my heel into the water of pool #2. Immediately, da nuh….da nuh……..da nuh da nuh da nuh da nuh DA NUH DA NAH!!  Twenty enormous fish ravenously tried to devour my achilles.

I looked up at Sweet Malay Lady and, already knowing the answer, I asked what was in pool #3. “Much bigger and strong,” she said matter-of-factly…..3, 2, 1 and I’m done!

It was not terrible, (limbs present and accounted for) but the sensation was worse then I could have prepared myself for. Safe or not – I found the whole thing absolutely disgusting.

Making a B-line for the shower when I got back to the hotel, Steven called out, “don’t even come near me ’til you’ve washed everything that was touched by wildlife.” The water couldn’t be hot enough…nothing about my feet felt exfoliated, which was just fine by me. Reality: I paid money to be ‘host’ to swimming parasites….

Fear of untruths: Mythophobia: a reason to do your homework

My phobia therapy was a bust. Heebie jeebies in the rearview mirror, I did that research I should have done long ago, and discovered I knew nothing.

1) Garra Rufa DO NOT HAVE TEETH. (Whew!) Get this, they can suck/nibble off dead skin due a miracle enzyme in their saliva called Dithranol. The exact same Dithranol that just so happens to be the active ingredient in most derm creams prescribed for psoriasis. Wow!

2) The Kangal River in Turkey is not only famous for Doctor Fish, but also for that Kengal River water, which is rich with Selenium!  Better known as Wulzen factor, or “anti-stiffness factor”, because it protects against arthritis (read about where else you can find Selenium by reading “The  Paris Croissant Chronicles“).

Thus in addition to improved dermatological disorders, visitors who flock to the The Kangal Psoriasis Treatment and Fishy Therapy Center Resort (a real place) also claim improved rheumatic, neurological and orthopedic conditions – even resolved kidney stones from drinking the river water.

3) Will the real doctor fish please stand up? Those other ‘silvery fish’ seen everywhere are actually unspeakably creepy impostors!

Garra Rufa

Garra Rufa – genuine doctor fish

Chin Chin

Chin Chin – beware of these impostors

Fish Spa 411 – If you dare; good fish spas should have:

–  Genuine doctor fish; Garra Rufa have a black mark on the gills and tail – when in doubt, ask the spa manager.

–  Water filters running in tanks at all times and UV lights to kill bacteria in the water.

–  Visitors wash their feet prior to dunking.

–  Tape for patrons to cover open wounds or cuts to prevent contaminating the tank with unmentionable pathogens.

Doctor Fish may very well be the unsung heroes of dermatology, but it would take the haze of drinking five Singapore Slings for me to even consider doing a fish spa again. The idea of ‘host vs. parasite’ is clearly not my thang. Besides, I’ve decided to give up trying to fix my shark phobia for now. Instead I’m focusing on the big picture,…my new phobia – Phagophobia: Fear of being eaten.