Why Stripping Down at the Korean Spa Is Actually Life Changing
Let me start off by saying I'm a nevernude. If you're not familiar with this lifestyle choice championed by Tobias Funke on Arrested Development, it means that you'll go out of your way to avoid completely taking your clothes off (in his case, this involves wearing denim cutoffs at all times). In gym class I mastered the fine art of putting on/taking off my bra without having to remove my top and even opted to attend swim classes with a t-shirt over my bathing suit. In college, while the members of my co-ed crew of besties were carefree about hopping into a hot tub without a stitch on their twentysomething bodies, I kept my bikini on, thankyouverymuch.
My body issues started a long time ago; I remember being told my weight (just 48 pounds) in front of my entire third grade class with a tone that said I wasn't like everyone else; it was the first time I realized that I wasn't. I was always very thin (not the desired body type when you're a teenager growing up in a state that favors curvy, cornfed bodies), and at various points in my life was bullied, confronted by strangers about eating disorders I didn't have, and even told I was "disgusting" for exposing my hip bones in hip-hugging jeans (it was the early 2000s okay?) by a grown woman. I'm not sure I consciously thought I needed to cover my body because it was ugly, but rather always knew that for whatever reason it made people uncomfortable.
After moving to Los Angeles nearly ten years ago, I began to hear the praises for the Korean spas in the city — the ones at which, yes, you have to be totally naked. My first impulse was to feel incredibly envious of anyone who had the gall to proudly parade around a group of strangers in their birthday suit. Though I mentally added it to my bucket list, the concept completely terrified me. A few years later, one of my bosses gifted me with a free pass to one of Koreatown's most beloved coed spas. It was Christmas, I was recently single and my heartbreak had shown up as sudden and dramatic weight loss (of the weight that I'd pretty much waited 30 years to gain in the first place), so you could say that my relationship with my body was certainly at a low point. Any ass or breasts I had were gone, my collarbone projected even more than before, and I could hardly run into anyone without them offering a concerned "how are you"?
Despite this, when two other friends — who were also Christmas orphans that year — suggested the idea of spending the holiday at said spa, it seemed like the right time to try and beat my fear. And besides, you could probably get away with staying relatively covered, right? Um, wrong. After we changed into the the t-shirt and shorts provided by the front desk, we were promptly directed into the showers (Korean spa rule #1: shower before ANYTHING, and also after steaming/sweating before getting into a communal pool!). There was a cubby hole for our clothes, a hook for our towels, and then the showers about 100 yards away — or so it seemed. I was forced to face what I had spent a good portion of my life trying to avoid, in just seconds, without even having a moment to hesitate.
As the name implies, the Korean spa is, quite often, filled with Korean ladies: those in their seventies, those with their own small children in tow, those who are overweight, some with sagging breasts, some with surgically enhanced breasts — and every breast in between. There is every type of body at these "naked spas." And at that moment, there was also mine, and no one was phased by this. My friends and I steamed without towels wrapping our bodies (like Elaine on Seinfeld!), we sunk into hot and freezing cold tubs, napped on heated floors, and ate bulgogi in our shorts and t-shirts. We also compared and complimented each other's bodies, and somehow I never felt judged, analyzed, or wishing I had any body other than my own. I have so much to thank those two women for (you know who you are) but I'm also so grateful to that group of strangers, who went on about their rigorous scrubbing and soaking and who validated my normalcy simply by going on with their usual business.
Going to spas that require nudity with friends might not be something I'll be doing on the regular, but I'm so glad I did it. Even more important than the baby soft skin that results from potentially the most invasive scrub known to man, is that — if for only a few hours — you can let yourself be totally comfortable in your own skin. In only your own skin. And that's some seriously life changing magic.