For Americans, entering a Korean spa for the first time can be shocking. It was for me, at least. “Spas are just a part of people’s routines here,” said my friend Judith, who was hosting me and our friend Nicole for a few months. Even though every major mall had a spa, the experience still managed to sound luxurious. We were told about the lavender-water sheet masks, the cherry blossom body creams, the citrus body spritz — each with that ultra-dewy touch that’s signature of Korean skin care.
In Seoul, you win the self-care product lottery at birth, and that’s on top of the impeccably clean subways, the all-you-can-eat sides for free at every meal and the perfectly manicured parks for dogs (dogs that were almost exclusively small, white and fluffy). It was as if the spa and everything else was designed by a perfectionist, someone who liked to stick to what they know and do it well; unlike New York, which could only be built by someone non-judgemental, creative and neurotic. At traditional Korean restaurants — sitting cross-legged on the ground being served up to thirty little, refillable dishes of food — I would try to picture this model working in New York City: “I’m not giving you free food! This is a business!” the NYC restaurant owner would say. I grinned at the thought, charmed by the difference.
When Judith, Nicole and I arrived at the spa, we were greeted by a woman in a black robe who told Judith to tell us to take our shoes off. It feels so good to have your feet free, especially in places where you’re used to wearing shoes. Your feet thank you for the treat. The woman was calm and stern, motioning for us to follow her without saying much, preserving the peace of the place. It was warm, so I took off my sweater and let the skin on my arms and neck breathe. I could already feel the moisture in the air enter my pores, making my face dewy. It felt like I was being completely opened up. Everything was white and quiet, and we were about to walk into a room with pools of different temperatures.
“Oh, by the way, guys,” said Judith. “Spas in Korea are nude.”
I was startled. How could that be true? Just days before, when the three of us had gone to the beach, Nicole and I were the only ones in anything resembling a bathing suit. Everyone else was in rolled-up pants and t-shirts, and they were swimming! The impracticality of wet clothing had not been a convincing enough reason for them to wear even a little less of it. To protect everyone from seeing more of our bodies than was clearly wanted, Nicole and I had decided to keep our clothes on and save our bikinis for the spa.
We had been relatively overexposed everywhere we went in that country. Sometimes while saying good morning to Judith’s mom, I could trace her line of sight down towards my cropped shirt, to the sliver of my bare stomach. On the subway, it was the same. There were always women looking at my shorts, clearly taken aback by all of the skin on my legs. There was even a man who decided to film me, very non-discreetly, for the duration of a twenty-minute ride. That man now harbors a video of me standing on the subway holding on to a pole, listening to music, wearing shorts and a cropped tank top against the foreground of black flowy dress pants and loose white tops of other women on the train. But this man’s gaze felt less perverse than the male gaze back home, and more like the disapproving look of a school administrator seeing me dressed for a party. The stares never made me feel self-conscious, though; in some ways, it made me proud to know I was okay with being judged a little. Growing up in the U.S., it seemed I had simply been raised to be more comfortable with exposed skin, more encouraged to choose to expose what I wanted of myself, than Koreans were.
Nevertheless there I was, following the woman in the black robe to the room with the pools where people would supposedly be nude. I was alert, determined to figure out exactly what this place was. The ceilings were high, the lighting was bright, the floors were tiled, and all of the women were, in fact, naked. I had never seen so many fully exposed bodies before. There were women in their 40s walking silently with their vulvae hairy and exposed, their boobs bouncing to the rhythm of their steps; women blow-drying their daughters’ hair in front of a mirror, women bending over to slather their legs in moisturizer, friends whispering to each other. I felt like I was watching a live-action Renaissance painting, a scene from the Garden of Eden, an alternate ending of the Bible in which humans are not cursed with the shame that I thought most of us shared – and that I had assumed the women in Seoul felt even more intensely than I did. I was mistaken. It was clear that this was not a dramatic moment for them, nor was it a self-conscious one. There was no side glancing, no positioning for better coverage, no moving slower than usual, no tippy toes, no shy eyes or smiles. The black and white clothes I had seen on the subway were folded neatly on locker room chairs, allowing their owners the opportunity now to be free.
The woman showed us to our lockers, which meant it was my turn to take off my clothes. I brought my hands down to the waist of my jean shorts and felt myself about to giggle. It was a moment I was hypothetically comfortable with, but not expecting to be confronted by; like how we insist we would dive in front of a bullet to save someone’s life, but do not need to prove it. This spa could have been the perfect opportunity to prove my allegiance to the words I yelled at my mom four years earlier, when I was sure that her forcing me to wear bras was wrong because “everyone knows we have boobs, so why is everyone so disturbed!?” I had gotten the idea from a Youtuber I liked who didn’t wear bras. How free-spirited and care-free of her, I thought. I started to like not wearing bras to school because it made me feel in control. I’ve always thought it’s ridiculous to be uncomfortable with a body part, but I hadn’t yet realized just how disturbed my body actually is with itself.
I was making an honest effort to take off my clothes, but my hands were making it hard. They had so far reluctantly unbuttoned and unzipped my shorts. Now they were preparing to pull those shorts down. Picturing that downward motion, which would bring me closer to complete exposure, made my insides feel like they were being tickled. My adrenaline released itself in the form of a giggle. Then I started laughing, because I had never gotten that kind of rush from taking my pants off before.
Thank God I was not the only squeamish one in here. Peeking over to the other side of the room, I saw my friend Nicole peeking right back at me, giggling just like I was. We were about to see each other’s fully exposed bodies. At the core of the issue was that we were about to see each other’s private parts, on the verge of confirming that underlying suspicion, carried with us since birth, that everyone, even those we are not sexually attracted to, has a butt crack and genitalia. I wish I could have been more prepared. I hadn’t shaved in weeks, hadn’t been eating much, and hadn’t exercised at all. But I knew there was no going back, and now I’m sure that knowing the spa was nude in advance would not have made a difference; I would have fancied myself prepared. “We just have to do it already,” I said to Nicole. Once we had our bras off, we slowly took off our underwear. I was so aware of my body, of my being a human, of my being a sexual being, of my being an animal.
“Come on guys,” said Judith, cool as a cucumber. Nicole and I waddled over with our hands hovering over our vaginas and our arms covering parts of our chests. I can now say that the “picture everyone in the room naked” trick does not work when everyone but you seems completely fine with it. Thankfully, covering the cracks and the nipples made me feel irrationally less exposed.
On our journey over to the pool, where I was dying to submerge myself, not a single woman we passed looked at us. How had I been such a spectacle for them outside and such a bore in the spa? They were so disturbed by my legs on the subway, yet so comfortable with my crotch now. I wondered where the judgment had gone.
“How was your trip to Korea?” I was asked at the start of every conversation for half a year after returning home to New Jersey. “I loved it, the culture is so different, it’s so interesting,” I would reply. It was the only thing I knew for sure, unable to interpret the differences I observed. Were we more free? Were they? All I know is that I was never more ignored, and never more self-conscious, than I was when I was naked in that naked spa – to which Judith would say, It’s not a naked spa, it’s just a spa.
Michaela Markels is a sophomore in Hopper College. Contact her at email@example.com.