Go Ahead, Get Naked.

  

How a day spent naked at the Korean spa changed my view of my imperfect body.

December 2008, Queens, New York.

My first spa experience … KOREAN-style. The spa trip was a Christmas gift from my boss: a day at the Korean Spa with my five female co-workers. Little did I know when they handed me my locker key that the Korean Spa has a very unique rule: No clothing or swimsuits allowed. In order to take a dip in the Korean baths, you must get naked as the day you were born. Yes, my boss was a midwife who delivered babies. Since we all shared this line of work, my co-workers and I were more relaxed than usual with the concept of the nude female body. Still, it felt bizarre to walk around completely naked with women I’d only known professionally.

But it’s just like the locker room at the YMCA, right? I thought to myself. I felt ok with that, lightly draping a towel over myself as I walked from one giant, steaming hot pool to another. Then my number got called over a loudspeaker. It was time for my body scrub.

“OK!” a middle-aged Korean woman shouted at me in a heavy accent, wearing nothing but a black bra and panties. She gestured in front of her toward a lightly padded table upholstered in waterproof plastic.

Rows of similar tables and similar black-bra’d Korean ladies stretched in front of me like a line of half-naked, semi-professional middle-aged Korean dancers. I snuck a glimpse in my peripheral vision of their strange figures as they ferociously scrubbed and poured full buckets of water over — other women’s naked bodies.

This can’t be right. I thought to myself. Is this even legal?

I suspended my disbelief for a moment and thought to myself, “this was a gift … it would be rude to refuse.” Ha ha ha ha. When else in life is it rude NOT to get naked?

I climbed aboard the awkward table and laid face-down. My Korean masseuse / body scrub technician started scrubbing my hands and arms with a scratchy glove. She scrubbed my shoulders, my legs, my back and my butt. Part of me wanted to slap her hand away and run away as fast as I could, sliding across the wet tiles as I went. The other part of me whispered: I can’t believe I’ve never done this before. What have I been missing?

By the time she finished scrubbing, I had a strange revelation. My normally frantic thoughts became calm and concise. As this woman stripped away the entire surface layer of epithelial cells from my skin, it was as though she was also stripping away my misconceptions.

Naked bodies are purely sexual.

Naked bodies belong hidden.

My body is for someone else’s pleasure, but not for mine.

My body isn’t beautiful, because it’s not perfect.

  

Fast forward to last week.

Eight years have passed. Now I live Dallas, Texas. My body has gone through unimaginable changes. I am (much) older. My body is softer. I have scars and stretch marks that I didn’t before. Since my first trip to Korea-town, I’ve been pregnant, given birth, breastfed and weaned a baby. My naked body is different than it used to be.

For my friend Whitney’s birthday, I decided to give her a unique gift. Something she would never give to herself … several peaceful hours, without her husband or child, with nothing to do other than to sit still and relax. Just two of us moms. At the Korean spa and sauna.

Though my dear friend’s birthday was in June (yes, June) it took us several months to finally redeem our groupon vouchers. I could lie and say it was because of our schedules. But really it’s because it took me that long to convince Whitney to get naked.

“You’re going to the Korean Spa?” one of my crunchiest co-workers asked when I told her about our upcoming trip. “You know you have to be naked, right?”
“The Korean Spa?” said another. “I don’t know. I have a kind-of shady friend who said she went there. From the way she described it, it sounded like they do happy endings there.”

COME ON, ladies.

The gift of five hours of peace and quiet is a phenomenal kind of gift for any mother of young children. But what I really wanted to give Whitney was something else. I wanted her to understand the things what I had learned for myself on that snowy day in Queens, back when I had a whole different life. Back I was still scared of being naked.

    
WHAT I LEARNED FROM GETTING NAKED AT THE KOREAN SPA.

Naked bodies are purely sexual.

No they’re not. Naked bodies, female bodies, are multi-functional. They take baths and take naps. They nurture babies in their wombs and feed babies from their breasts. They get naked to get clean and get naked to get their skin scrubbed off. Sometimes they get naked just for the hell of it, because it feels good.

Naked bodies belong hidden.

Someone’s naked body belongs wherever she chooses for it to be. It belongs where she feels safe, and free, and most like herself.

My body is for someone else’s pleasure, but not for mine.

My body is not just for someone else’s pleasure. It is also for my pleasure – the pleasure of being alive. It is the vessel that carries my soul. It has walked through cities and through rivers and up mountains. It has loved and been wounded and healed again. It allows me to express that love — through my arms and my voice and my sexuality — if and when I choose. But it also feels, and perceives, and responds. It nourishes me and teaches me. 

My body isn’t beautiful, because it’s not perfect.

My body is beautiful, and holy. It is soft and warm. It radiates love. It was created just the way it should be, in its most imperfect, perfect form. It is wrinkled and scarred, but it’s mine. It tells the story of my life, and it will carry me into my future. It is the body my husband loves and the one that grew and nourished my baby. But after all that, it is still mine. It also belongs to me. It will be mine for the longest.

  

In the end, we had fun at the Korean Spa. We laid around in the saunas and ate kimchi and talked about our lives. We talked about how weird it must be to be Korean and how grateful we were for the turbo jets that pounded water into the tired knots in our backs. Finally, at the end of the day we got naked and took a dip into the hot herbal baths. It wasn’t really that big of a deal.

“You know what?” Whitney said, as she climbed out of my car.

“I’m glad I got naked.”

Featured painting: After the Baths, the Nymphs by Emile Bernard

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