Family / Fun / Life with Jesus

My Korean Spa Experience: The Beauty of Nudity

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I meet with a couple of friends every week to do a Bible study. Often our conversations veer in definitively non-religious directions like how to make a representation of fallopian tubes using your body or what amniotic fluid smells like or what one can do when their personal prayer language sounds like Beaker from Sesame Street or why this particular book about fairies is worth reading. One evening, we were sitting in my kitchen nook and Alice, who is Taiwanese-American, started talking about Korean spas. Kara (the other gringa) and I leaned in and listened intently, stopping to ask questions or get more details. Kara was horrified. I was excited.

I’d never heard about Korean spas so this was new to me. There are two main parts to Korean spas:

  1. The Sauna Rooms- The spa that I went to had probably 10 sauna rooms, all with varying temparatures (from mild to so hot that there’s a staff member who sits outside and opens and closes the door (and probably also looks for dead people)). They have a cold room, an infrared room, a crystal room, and an aroma room. This section takes up most of the space. It’s co-ed and everyone is wearing little orange pajama things. 
  2. The Bathhouse- This part is where Americans scream and run out of the room. Each gender has a locker room. Attached to that locker room is a magical place called a “bathhouse” where there are showers, hot tubs, jets, cold pools, steam rooms, and scrubbing massages. Everyone in the room (with the exception of the staff) is wearing their birthday suit. It’s a requirement. No bathing suits allowed. You have to be naked.

We had to sit on Kara to keep her from running away in horror, but I was totally game. Alice graciously volunteered to pay my way to one after our half-marathon.  So, it was set. We ran our half-marathon on a Saturday and I was going to my first Korean spa the next day.

On Sunday, I was feeling a little like, “Why did I agree to do this?” before I went but I wanted to spend time with ladies from my church so I drove over to King Spa. On the way there, Alice texted me and told me that she had to work but her mom and Soo would be there. She also said that, despite the spa being located in an industrial area, I should drive through the gate that was flanked by giraffes. So classy. I got there a few minutes early and waited inside the marbled lobby. Auntie Joyce (Alice’s mom) and Soo came right on time and we entered. EEK!

Let me say that I’m glad those ladies were with me because I would have been a mess. There’s a locker for your shoes and then a separate locker for your other belongings. We did the bathhouse first, but I want to go ahead and tell you about the rest of it. Post bath-house, you don these shapeless orange pajama things that are so comfortable, mostly because you don’t have to wear a bra and that is what you wear out to the co-ed portions, where you do the saunas. I tried all the rooms, even the death fire one. They were quite relaxing. In Korea, spas are cheap, so friends go there to hang out. You do a little spa, eat a little food (they have a little cafe), do a little homework, read a book, watch TV, take a nap. It’s a place where people go to spend time together and relax. We did all that! My sweet friends got me a massage, which was amazing, and I ended up being there about 5 hours. I could totally envision going there to just read and take a little bit of time to relax and just “be”. (ADVICE: If the bathhouse really freaks you out, consider just doing the saunas. You’re still relaxed, getting some of the health benefits of being in hot rooms, and you get a healthy dose of feminism because you don’t have to wear a bra, your hair looks awful, you’re wearing orange, and if you wore make-up, you would sweat it all off.)

Anyway, back to the beginning and the main reason I’m writing this post: The Bath House

I was having some serious anxiety about being naked, but I wanted the whole package, so I followed Auntie Joyce into the bathhouse wearing my orange pajamas, a classic outsider move. No one wears clothes into the bath house. But anyway.

Rightfully so, they’re very serious about sanitation. You have to shower, with soap, before you can get into the hot tubs. There’s a mean looking lady that is in charge of making sure this happens. If you’re menstruating  have open sores, or aren’t willing to bathe, you aren’t allowed in. As we walked over to the showers, I was like, “Okay, I’m going to do this. I’m going to get naked with 45 other women in this room.”

So, I did. I thought that everyone might turn and stare or a spotlight with angelic music might have started playing, but it didn’t. I just became the 46th naked woman in a steamy room.

No time for reflection, though. Auntie Joyce pushed a small plastic stool at me and told me to sit on it to wash off. My germaphobic tendencies flared up and I had to fight visualizing how many naked bottoms had sat on this stool before, but I was looking at this as an anthropological foray into Korean culture, so I sat on a plastic stool that other people’s butts had been on.

Once we were clean, we climbed into the hot tub. I had so many preconceived ideas about what this experience would be like. I thought it would be embarrassing and awkward. I thought I would be freaking out. None of that happened. I’d never really gotten a chance to Auntie Joyce, but we talked for a good 45 minutes…naked…in a hot tub. There was something, I don’t know, magical about the whole thing. Being naked makes you vulnerable and here were a whole bunch of women not taking advantage of that vulnerability by being caddy or judgemental.

Afterwards, Soo took a picture of me (fully-clothed) and posted it to facebook to document for my husband that I was still alive and hadn’t been booed out of the bathhouse. Jokingly, I translated, “I ate kimchi dumplings and sat in boiling water with naked women. Now I am a real Korean” into Korean and posted it as a comment to the picture. Apparently, it doesn’t mean exactly what I thought it meant but none of my Korean friends have been able to articulate what it the Korean really means.

Korean spa

It’s taken me a few months to process how I felt about the whole experience because it was quite eye-opening and freeing. In that bath house, being naked isn’t about being sexy or ashamed. The female form isn’t something to lust after or cover up. It just is.  A boob is just a boob. A butt is just a butt. There are no social standards. There’s no pressure to look a certain way. There aren’t any bathing suits to hide scars or quiet the shaking flab.   It’s about being comfortable in your own skin.

Our culture has skewed how women’s bodies are viewed and, for the most part, we play along. We pay for weight-loss surgeries, for bo-tox, for breast augmentations (Well, not me, exactly, but lots of women do). We buy into the belief that our bodies must look a certain way to be beautiful.

I’ve since realized that my mother gave me a gift as I was growing up. Lately, I’ve seen a rash of blogs about moms who are trying not to hide in pictures because they are unhappy with how they look. Honestly, because of my upbringing, I have a hard time relating to this impulse.

Like most, normal moms, childbirth was not kind to my mother’s hips. She will freely admit to you that she does not have Cindy Crawford’s body, but when my sister and I were growing up, I never, not once, heard my mom complain about the way she looked. She would do a little dieting here and there but I do not remember her ever saying that she weighed to much or that she hated her arms or that her face looked too fat (ps- those are just examples or things women complain about, not things that are specific to her).

Some of my best conversations with my mom happened when she was in the bath tub. Especially in the winter, she would have the space heater on and we would go sit and talk to her. I realize now that she might have wanted some alone time, but I’m willing to bet that she enjoyed those conversations just as much as we did.  Female nudity was a common occurrence around the Feemster household because my mom took the lead. She wasn’t scared or ashamed to be naked in front of us, so we weren’t either.  Whether she truly felt this way or not, she taught my sister and I that nakedness and all its imperfections can be a non-issue.

My bathhouse experience drove this home for me. I’m going to have a daughter soon- one who will need my assistance in navigating body image issues. I don’t want her to grow up thinking that you have to look a certain way before you can love yourself.  I don’t want her to grow up hearing me whine about my “flab” or my wide hips. I want to be the kind of mom who is content with imperfections, who doesn’t react with fear and shame when imperfections happen. If I ever have a son, I want him to learn that being a woman is so much more than outward appearance, that my heart and my brain matter more than my looks.

I want my kids to learn, like I did, that you are who God made you to be and that’s good enough.

4 thoughts on “My Korean Spa Experience: The Beauty of Nudity

  1. Wonderful story…the Korean culture is quite misunderstood by the majority of American traditionalists because they have not made an effort ti enjoy the lifestyle of beautiful people. Thank you so much for your article…i spent 10 years of my life in the Far East, Southeast Asia, and the Orient and i loved the Korean people most.

    • Thank you! I have several Korean friends and I’m still learning about the culture, but I especially love how fellowship and community seems to be a central aspect.

  2. Beautifully written post!
    It must be so encouraging to see a place where women can be nude in a non-sexual and non-judgemental environment and be comfortable in their own skin.

    I’m far older than you. I went to junior high and high school in the 1950’s. Back then we were required to shower after each and every gym class. The showers were all out in the open in the girls locker room. There was nothing embarrassing about it however. Most of us were moral girls who dressed conservatively, especially around males. We didn’t talk about sex, most of us didn’t have sex at that age or outside of marriage. We were respectful of one another and our teachers.

    Despite our conservative nature, showering and changing in the presence of our fellow female classmates or the female gym instructor was not viewed as being dirty or immoral.
    We were all female, we all had the same parts, it was just a mater of good hygiene and self respect to shower after a gym class. There was nothing sexual about our nudity.

    I swim a couple of days a week at a near by YMCA. The YMCA has the same type of showers out in the open in the women’s locker room. I’ve noticed that almost all of the ladies who are 40 years of age and up will shower in the nude after a swim. Most of the females under age 40 seem to always shower in their swimsuits. Some of them will even go as far as to change in and out of their swimsuits in a toilet stall rather than change out in the open with the rest of the ladies.

    I will sometimes take my teenage granddaughter with me to swim. Thankfully my granddaughter has no embarrassment about showering and changing out in the open. I have noticed that there are some other teen girls who will wear thong bikinis in the pool, which is very much against the rules. They will flaunt their bare behinds in front of men and boys without shame. Yet, inside the women’s locker room they are the ones who shower in their bikinis and change in and out of their swimsuits in a toilet stall.
    That baffled me as to why they would flaunt their bodies in front of men and boys, and yet in a women’s locker room where nudity is normal and to be expected, they hide from everyone.

    My granddaughter has told me that these teen girls who change in a toilet stall are the ones that can’t separate sex and nudity in their minds. They think that if they’re are nude in front of other females that that is in some way being a lesbian.

    My granddaughter has said that it is the same way at her high school, that the more wholesome girls are the ones who will take showers after gym class and remove their swimsuits to shower after swim practice. It is the morally ambiguous girls who refuse to shower after gym classes or who keep their swimsuits on in the shower after swim practice.

    The female body is a work of art! It is sad to see that many young females these days have to view it in such a tawdry way.

  3. Pingback: Practicing Penance at Pride Parade | welderbeth

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