I don’t hate my body. Well, I don’t hate all of it. I’ve made peace with my butt. Like most people, I can identify and prioritize the places where I’d have surgery to fix my flaws if money were no object and needles and surgery didn’t terrify me.
A couple of weeks ago, when both my parents and my sister were home, we went to Spa Castle in Carrollton. Spa Castle is one of two Korean-style bath houses in the Dallas area. I’ve never been to a Turkish bath, but I think the principle is the same. Think of the locker room at your gym, and then multiply it by a lot, and take away the gym, and you have a Korean bath house.
I’ll confess not knowing the origins, but I think it’s because for a long time, before Korea became wealthy in the 1980s, running water was a luxury that only the rich could afford. Today, even with modern bathrooms in their homes, Koreans will still visit the bath house.
Why do people use the bath house when they have their own showers and tubs? It’s because bath houses also offer several kinds of sauna and steam and cold rooms. Koreans believe that saunas and steam and cold rooms are good for your health. When my mom and sister and I visited Korea in 2012, we stayed with my aunt and went to the bath house in her building. There were at least three sauna rooms, a media room, a cold room, a steam room, and a snack bar. In addition, for an extra fee, you could have someone scrub all the dead skin off your body, which was the primary appeal for us.
When we went to the bath house in Korea in 2012, it was my first time going in over 20 years. I had forgotten the process, which is that you pay the entrance fee, you shower, and then you sit in one of the many tubs of very hot water, which softens up the dirt and dead skin and so maximizes the exfoliation. The showers don’t have partitions or curtains, so you have to wash yourself in front of God and all the other women there. This does not bother my mother or sister in the least; I don’t love it. I’m not a Never-Nude, but when I asked my best friend to pick three words from a list to describe me for the matchmaker, she picked “modest,” and she didn’t mean it in the sense that she thinks I am at all humble. She meant that in the almost 25 years we’ve been friends, she’s only seen my boobs twice. I’ve seen hers many, many, many times.
Anyway, Mom got us tickets to go to Spa Castle. Spa Castle has several recreational swimming pools, which brings a lot of non-Koreans in the door. Mom and Dad were interested in the eight or so sauna rooms, which we explored, and then we went our separate ways to get scrubbed.
If you subscribe to the theory that the best way to get over a fear or hangup is to face it dead on, and you find yourself afflicted with the kind of modesty I have, a Korean bath house is the place to go. We put our shoes in their designated lockers and turned the corner into the larger locker area, at which point our eyes were hit with the sight of naked women everywhere. It took me about fifteen minutes to get over my discomfort, and then after that, I felt free, not just in that moment, but in my life.
Most of the nearly naked women I see are in some sort of media: photographs, television shows, movies, etc. I can’t resist falling into the trap of comparison and then losing. My breasts should be bigger, my stomach should be flatter, my neck should be longer, my arms and legs should be slimmer and longer. Every image I see sands away a little of my self-esteem despite knowing on an intellectual level that I don’t have to be them, that I am fabulous the way that I am. I know that many of these women survive on 1200 calories or fewer a day, that they work out for hours every day, and that they have the magic of plastic surgery and/or Photoshop idealizing their assets. I can transform each piece of knowledge into a blunt weapon to use on myself: I eat too much, I don’t work out enough, I should make more money, I should be braver about needles and surgery, I don’t have the smarts to use Photoshop.
In the locker room and bathing area at the bath house, reality dissolved those blunt weapons. Ages ranged from a few months to 80 years. Some necks were long, some were short. Breast shapes and sizes varied. Some bellies were flat and taut, but there were more bellies that had enjoyed some of the best of what life has to offer. Arms and legs came in all lengths and widths and depths. No two bodies were alike. None of them looked like the pictures that batter us every day. And every single one was beautiful. All of these bodies housed the minds and souls and spirits of real women. All of these bodies allowed the real women to whom they belonged to live and enjoy their lives. I wasn’t the only one who had that revelation, either. I saw shoulders that started slumped in self-protection work themselves back into acceptance and comfort and pride.
If you have a bad body image day, when you feel less than you actually are, when you are tempted to call yourself names or beat yourself up for not looking perfect, and if you are ever in the Dallas area, please spend the $35 to visit a Korean-style bath house. Mom and I are going to try King Spa next. I used to focus on the body scrub; now I look forward to the mind and spirit scrub, too.