I’m completely naked, surrounded by a hundred stark-nekkid ladies who are total strangers to me. I see giant boobs, surgically removed or altered boobs, saggy boobs, and teeny tiny ones. Old boobs, young boobs, perfectly perky boobs. The same is true for bellies and butts. Some here are thin as rails while others have curves on their curves. There are a plethora of tattoos in private places, shaved lady parts in various landscapes and skin in all permutations from tight to ten degrees past flabby. Being around all of this nakedness would normally take me into a self-conscious obsessive tailspin about my physical imperfections. But I’ve never been more comfortable and at peace with my body in my life, and certainly never since becoming a mom and meeting my post-baby body. That’s the power of the Korean Spa.
Going to the Korean Spa is like traveling and having a deep cultural experience in the span of three hours. Koreans aren’t the only culture who use public baths. The Japanese have onsens, the Turkish go to hammam, Russians to banya and even the Jews have a mikvah. Apparently, being super clean is important around the globe. Yet, it took my visiting a Korean jjimjilbang to teach me about loving and caring for the body I have, not pining for the one I want.
You know those women who carry their fetuses beautifully, who wear the clothes from Destination Maternity like models or who can actually wear their real clothes all the way until delivery? That wasn’t me.
I grew up deeply uncomfortable with my body. Nothing terrible happened to me. There is no obvious disfigurement. I just don’t love my body, and I’ve never liked being naked (even when I’m alone). I changed in the bathroom at sleepaway camp. I almost died of mortification when my grandmother invited the buxom lady from the bra department in to my dressing room to measure me at age 12. And I almost had a physical altercation with my mom at 16 because she was demanding that I remove my underwear before I went in for appendix surgery. I sleep fully dressed — sweat pants, T-shirt and socks (in case of fire I’m ready to spring into action).
As if I weren’t already self-conscious, imagine how I feel now after I gained 40 pounds with each child (after the first kid I only lost 30). You know those women who carry their fetuses beautifully, who wear the clothes from Destination Maternity like models or who can actually wear their real clothes all the way until delivery? That wasn’t me. I happily ate for two, and my body responded accordingly.
After I stretched my little body’s limit from the belly to the boobs, I’m was left deflated, wiggly and more abashed of my shape than ever. My body didn’t bounce back, despite exercise and several bouts with Weight Watchers.
And yet, the idea of the Korean spa intrigued me. I love a good massage and life’s stressors demand that every now and then I take some time for self-care. But I kept hearing about the nakedness. You have to walk around, bathe, and steam all in the buff. Feeling full of FOMO, I invited a fellow novice friend to take the plunge (literally) into the baths. After a few insecure moments coming to terms with being naked next to my good friend, I’ve never looked back.
I’ve been with friends, my mother and my sister, my husband and even my uber-body-conscious mother in law (She loved it.). It’s become kind of a joke when anyone comes to visit. Invariably, at some point, I ask, “Do you have any interest in visiting the naked spa?” I’m like a missionary sent to praise the benefits of being completely naked among other womenfolk for the sake of relaxation, insanely soft skin and healthy renewal.
You would think it would be incredibly awkward to step down in a pool with your vagina at eye level with a complete stranger, but somehow it becomes normal in seconds.
Here’s how it all goes down at the spa. Once you check in, you are assigned a locker with a key on a wristband. That key has a number which is how you are called for services and how you pay for anything (food or drink) once in the spa. Since you are in your birthday suit, there’s no place to hold your money. The key is like your credit card.
At your locker you disrobe all the way. There are no towels or robes to be found. This is the crucial moment when you come face-to-face with all that you have been fearing: that without hiding behind something, you will be exposed for all of your physical flaws. But what happens is the exact opposite. You realize everyone has flaws and, even more important, no one cares.
Once I strip, I usually visit the little girls’ room (yup, I’m totally naked now) before heading into the giant baths of varying temperatures ranging from burning to ice cold. You would think it would be incredibly awkward to step down in a pool with your vagina at eye level with a complete stranger, but somehow it becomes normal in seconds. In fact, sitting in that tub watching women of all ages, shapes, sizes and ethnicities is quite instructive (kind of like how it was in my college human figure drawing class when the model was uncircumcised). It’s fascinating.
If you’re not cured of body consciousness at the baths, then the typical Korean scrub is a must. When it’s your turn, a nice lady who speaks no English calls out your locker number. She’s naked too, save for the characteristic lacy black bra and underwear. That’s her work uniform. She leads you to a soft covered wet table. You lay down face-up naked (yes, your lady parts are front and center). Over the course of the next 30 minutes, the nice lady in lacy undergarments scrubs every inch of your skin almost raw. You start to feel little bits of something on the table but you don’t know what it is. Then, horrified, you realize those little bits are your dead skin. However, as soon as the scrubbing is finished and you are nicely greased down your skin feels silky, smoother than your baby’s bottom.
To take full advantage of the spa, after the scrub I put on the uniform I was given when I checked in. It’s like pink hospital scrubs but cut off into shorts. Once dressed, you can meet the menfolk in the various sauna rooms. Usually there is a fire room, a Himalayan salt room, a typical cedar sauna and a clay option. My spa even has an ice room. Each room touts different health benefits such as removing body toxins, increased skin elasticity (not sure why anyone needs this), an enhanced immune system, or general catharsis and nerve-calming.
After seeing a pubescent girl walking around naked without a concern, I wonder if she will grow up to be body confident. It’s equally stunning to watch mothers scrubbing their children or children scrubbing their elderly mothers.
All of that nakedness and scrubbing and lounging really works up an appetite. For my last stop in the spa, I pig out on bibim-naengmyeon (cold chewy spicy noodles) or bimbimbop (rice hot pot with beef and vegetables). Feeling full, warm, happy and supremely contented, I head back to my locker to put on clean clothes before heading home.
At the Korean spa, you find families who come with three or even four generations. It’s beautiful to watch. After seeing a pubescent girl walking around naked without a concern, I wonder if she will grow up to be body confident. It’s equally stunning to watch mothers scrubbing their children or children scrubbing their elderly mothers. Seeing the circle of life at the spa helps me remember the mom bod I have is really a blessing. On a recent visit, I met a woman who was given a day at the spa as her company holiday present. She was there with 30 other co-workers (that might be pushing it). Another time, I struck up a conversation with a tatted-up woman and her delightful little girl while soaking in the tub. Magic happens in that spa. If being naked is the entry price, it’s worth the agony. Before you know it, the agony is replaced with longing for when you can go back again.
During my last visit, I went alone to celebrate my birthday. Throughout the stay, I watched two old ladies solidly in their eighties preening each other. They scrubbed and fed each other. Laughed together, too. I’m hoping to keep the spa part of my life until I’m at least that age. I’ll be looking for someone to scrub my back. So now I ask you, “Do you have any interest in visiting the naked spa?”
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