What I Learned From My First Trip To A Korean Spa

Photo: Jon Feingersh/Getty Images.
“Are you okay?” the practitioner asked me. That’s not the typical question you get after a spa massage. I nodded and felt myself redden as I squeaked, “Yes.” I broke the suction between my naked skin and the plastic-topped table, then hurried to the showers, towel-less, where I immediately got soap in my eye. Even though my skin felt amazing, I was glad to be out of there.

It was my first trip to a Korean spa (a "gift" to myself while vacationing in California), and I knew the basics. Korean spas feature communal rooms where people soak, bathe, and get scrubs together — but I didn't realize I had expectations of the experience until I felt my limbs stiffen at the thought of taking my bra off with others around. I’d been changing freely in locker rooms since high school gym class, but when I first de-robed and stepped into the spa’s hot tub — totally naked — I was thankful I was the only person in there. I felt the need to apologize for everything I did. I had arrived late. I couldn’t find the showers. I saw some women fully nude and some in bras and shorts — should I have gotten naked at all? (I found out later that the only people clothed were the attendants.) I waded in and felt my bare butt cheeks against the smooth tiles, and then tried to casually float my arms over my breasts, looking just as uncomfortable as I felt.

Then, they called my number.

Most of the time I get naked, I feel vulnerable. Some level of discomfort is inherent, and I know that isn’t always a bad thing. I work as a doula and health educator, so a lot of my tactics encourage vulnerability as a way to bring women closer to their own bodies. When we access that physical feeling, it can energize us and make us feel powerful. When a woman is laboring in her own home, she isn’t focused on how she looks — she’s focused on the amazing task her body is performing.

Despite having seen that in action, my feelings about being naked just wouldn’t square. The practitioner began scrubbing my armpits, and in my head I repeated my one goal: Do not laugh. Of all the places on my body that are tickle-prone, that one is the most sensitive. With a warm towel draped over my face, I imagined her glowering at my suppressed giggles, looking down at my body convulsing on the table. I scrunched my face into a hard grimace. When she asked me to turn over, I was as stiff as a statue. I was spending so much energy trying not to lose it that my body simply wouldn't do what I asked of it. She repeated herself with greater force.

My body has a story of its own. Over the years, I’ve tried to unlearn the things many of us were taught growing up: Your body should look thin, feminine, and will always be sexualized (but shouldn’t want sex!). But on the table, I heard the old story again. I thought about what the practitioner might think of me, and whether she was comparing me to other bodies she'd seen. As I watched my dead skin flake off like paint chips, I assessed my own desirability. Am I thin enough? Blemish-free enough? And I felt self-conscious of my difference as a hairy, dark-skinned Bengali girl who has been told over and over again that I don’t fit either North American or South Asian standards of beauty.

If you’ve ever watched a bruise go through stages of recovery, you know that healing hurts. Unlearning body-shame is a healing process. You have to make a choice to face discomfort with intention. When I claimed feminism for myself, it didn’t come with a set of instant cures. I dug up that body story I developed in my youth and pushed its boundaries. The body is sexual. It’s also messy and ever-changing. It’s a beautiful thing to know that my particular body can walk miles, write pages, and sense a tickle or a pinch. None of these things have to do with how it may look to others.

As I rushed toward the showers after the massage, I loosened my shoulders. Going to the spa wasn’t a life-changing experience, but it did make me more aware of the emotional work that I’d done — and what there’s still left to do. Getting out of your comfort zone isn’t usually relaxing, but I’m grateful that I could do it in this safe setting. How many times do you get to do something that makes you anxious — and walk home feeling truly better in your skin?

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