At the Korean Spa, $40 Gets Me a Body Scrub and Self-Acceptance
A few times a year I lie down naked atop a rubber-sheet-covered bed and let a middle-aged Korean lady in a matching black bra and panty set slough layers of dead skin off me. Other women, lying on similar beds next to me, are doing the same. I try not to tear up at the sensation of having what feels like sandpaper rubbed—in angry circular motions—on areas of my body customarily exposed exclusively for significant others, in exceptionally flattering lighting or, ideally, none at all.
Throughout the 30-minute treatment, my ajumma—the loving Korean term for an older lady—will motion for me to turn over, bend and lift my leg, or swing my arm over my head so she can “really get into the crevasses.” I feel like I’m a dirty frying pan, and she’s steel wool. At some point she’ll dump buckets of warm water over me to wash away little gray clumps of skin, while I grip the sides of the bed so I don’t slip off.
Korean bathhouses are a tradition dating back to the fifteenth century, and modern-day facilities can range from the awe-inspiring to the austere. But Four Seasons’ spas they are not, nor do they intend to be. Spas vary with their amenities, but usually after checking in, you’re given a brightly hued T-shirt and shorts combo—an outfit my friend jokingly refers to as the “cult uniform”—to wear in the co-ed area where you can enjoy specialty sauna rooms (think herbal, clay, and Himalayan salt caves), TVs, and maybe a cafeteria or restaurant. You also get a robe, towel, and sandals.
Floors are separated by gender, each one featuring an array of saunas and hot tubs filled with water of different temperatures and populated by naked patrons in various stages of relaxation. The menu of services can include a range of treatments, all promising to purify and detoxify.
To my surprise, seeing the rest of my fellow K-spa nudists was something I reveled in.
At the end of my treatment, the ajumma wraps my hair up in a small towel, shoves an empty wet envelope (for a tip) into my hand, and moves me along my denuded way. I feel reborn, two to three layers of dead, dull skin lighter, and with a new view of my body.
I didn’t grow up going to Korean spas and and have always been pretty prudish when it comes to nudity. My journey started about 10 years ago, after an inaugural full-body scrub down at a jjimjilbang (or bathhouse) in Seoul. For all the East Asian cultural stereotypes of being demure and conservative, the super-naked world of K-spas is a bit like stepping into an alternate universe that’s both freeing and jarring: freeing because you’re naked; jarring because, well, you’re naked.
From the beginning I was keenly aware that this wasn’t necessarily going to be a judgment-free zone: The Korean-American friend who served as ambassador to my first spa experience recalled hearing women gossiping in Korean about her tan, not realizing she could understand them. I thought I’d be stepping into a room full of tiger grandmas, getting their chill on, chortling about why my stomach is so flabby and how I should stay out of the sun. At home in the U.S., my freckles are considered youthful; in many East Asian cultures, spot-free skin is queen, which I’ve heard my loving but blunt Chinese mom point out throughout my whole life.
But to my surprise seeing the rest of my fellow K-spa nudists was something I reveled in: Mothers chiding their toddlers for squirming, while scrubbing their bare butts with exfoliating mitts. Wrinkled grandmothers, whose bellies hung much lower than my own, chitchatting as they balanced gingerly on stools to rinse off presauna at the sinks. It was fabulous, like being inside a time machine, previewing my own life vicariously through the generations around me.
When I returned home to Los Angeles, I sought to replicate the experience by visiting a spa in Koreatown, the city’s most densely populated district. With a $25 entrance fee (which some waive or discount if you book a service) and a roughly $40 scrub, the total cost of going to a K-spa is less than that of a traditional one, which according to a recent report by the International Spa Association is $91 on average.
It’s a small price to pay and an experience I cherish. I’m no stranger to being self-conscious or insecure about how I look, a product of a tough mom whose love manifested itself as mandates for self-improvement channeled through criticism, and for a long time my own acceptance of that beauty ideal—the showstopping red-carpet kind of perfection. A guy I dated in college once told me, with no hint of irony, that no matter what, “Guys would always go for the hot blond,” making the racialized standards of beauty I had long internalized real—that “beautiful” always meant blond and white and thin and flawless and not me.
Trips to the K-spa remind me that our bodies are malleable, living, changing, and above all, temporary.
And it didn’t stop after college. At my first audition for a VJ at a Bay Area music channel, the casting director walked up to me after I delivered my lines and asked if I went to the gym. Yes, I said. “Good,” he replied. “Keep going.” Thanks to ex-boyfriends and my tough mom, I had perfected my game face and gave him my best “Thuck you” smile and moved on.
My insecurities have evolved and lessened as I’ve gotten older. After years of covering red carpets as an on-air correspondent, I’m relieved to see—up close—that “showstopping beauty” isn’t exclusive to the Scarletts and Gwyneths of the world. I’ve grown to accept the pooch that sometimes peeks through the borrowed cocktail dresses I wear on those carpets. I don’t wear suffocating shapewear, because my body with every curve is a reminder that I live a happy life, carbs included. Still, I resent that I can’t completely get rid of it. I only half-heartedly treat age spots (souvenirs from long mornings writing and surfing at the beach) that have started to creep up alongside my freckles.
Trips to the K-spa remind me that our bodies are malleable, living, changing, and above all, temporary. In between getting prune-y in the hot tub and cold-water plunge, I exchange a few words with my fellow spagoers. What I’ve learned and what I’ve seen are that our bodies tell our stories: middle-aged moms with sleek bobs and elaborate tattoos artfully wrapping from their upper backs to their lower bellies. Scars from C-sections and single and double mastectomies. Small breasts, enhanced breasts, re-constructed breasts, no breasts; shaved pubic hair, no hair, sparse gray hair. Six-packs, taut tummies, and saggy ones all swimming together. Bodies on their different journeys, living different timelines, converge in gallons of water on any given day.
And those wrinkling grandmas who were so intimidating on my first trip to the K-spa have now become my naked compatriots; seeing them is like seeing into my future—if I’m fortunate to live in this body for as long. The nonchalance and self-assuredness with which they move, and sometimes shove me aside to get a prime spot in front of a hot tub jet, is something to be revered. To me, that is true beauty: to grow old and comfortable in skin that will, no doubt, break down and betray you but also tells your story, honestly and wholeheartedly.
When the ajumma sands me down on that rubber-sheeted bed, I think about the skin I leave behind and the fresh cells that emerge, deliciously raw and tingly. It’s skin that will thicken over time and eventually start to sag and wrinkle from all the life it participates in. For a few hours each month, I am reminded to be accepting of it all.
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