I first heard of nude spas when a friend visited Spa Castle in Queens. She said it was a place for women of all ages and sizes to bathe together, feel free in their own bodies, and accept nudity as a beautiful part of life. That sounded lovely to me, and as a person who has myriad issues with self-image, I thought a naked spa might be just the thing to help me accept my body for what it is. Or I could wind up crying and feeling like a gross failure. Oh, body issues, thank you for the roller-coaster ride you bring me every day!
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Public bathhouses, called jimjilbangs, are common in South Korea. Though the nude rooms are segregated by gender, these spas also contain full floors of saunas for everyone to enjoy together. In Korea, it’s common for families and friends to happily hang out naked at the jimjilbang, get scrubbed, and enjoy a variety of pools and steam rooms. This tradition has fortunately come to America, and where I live—in L.A.—there are many to choose from. The spa I selected is located in a blank, beige building off a busy street in Koreatown.
I was surprised that at 1:30 p.m. on a Monday there were so many people putting down $25 for a little naked relaxation time. While I knew about traditional Korean bathhouses and remembered my friend’s tale of the all-size spa she enjoyed on the East Coast, I quickly realized my experience was going to be a little different. I promptly noticed most of the customers were tan, young, and very attractive. Thanks, L.A.! Still, I was excited to overcome my fears and have fun.
In the coed areas, everyone wears the t-shirt and shorts the spa staff hand you upon arrival. Doing my research before coming to the spa, I heard these outfits described as “pajamas.” But if you consider a scratchy shirt and khaki shorts pajamas, I truly don’t understand how you sleep at night. Everyone looked like they were about to join Laura Dern in an exploration of Jurassic Park.
This is when my illusions of a shame-free experience ended. I think the khaki shorts are probably supposed to look comically baggy on everyone, but I couldn’t fit into the largest size they offered. I mean, technically, yes, they were on my body, but they were extremely tight. The robes we were supposed to wear between pools came in only one size. Guess who didn’t fit? Yep, me. While the garment wrapped around my body, it left my belly and vagina in plain view, defeating the point of a robe entirely. Needless to say, I wasn’t relaxed.
I took a quick shower (as required) and started my naked adventure, wrapping my robe around at least a few parts of my body.
I walked into the pool room, where there were two hot tubs and a cold tub. Somehow, I thought these might be larger and more luxurious, but they were just basic tubs, about the size you’d find at a nice Best Western. The hot tub turned my pale skin a fine lobster red, at which point I decided it was time to try the cold pool. I dove in and loved it; this was my favorite part of the whole day. The icy water made me feel alive, and for a moment, I didn’t care about my bouncing belly or the models sitting just feet away.
Something that really surprised me was how comfortable all of the women were around each other. Groups of friends came together and were totally cool just hanging out in the buff. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with people being comfortable naked, or seeing your girl friends sans clothes, but I’ve never seen any of my friends fully naked. For some reason, I think I’m happier to be naked around total strangers than my close and loving friends. Anyway, after marveling at how comfortable everyone was, it was time for a scrub.
Nude bodies sprawled across rows of plastic-covered tables. The scrubbers, or ajummas, wear black bras and underwear, and proceed to scrub the living hell out of you. And these ladies get it all. Pretty much everything except your b-hole and vulva get a full-on assault. I’ve definitely never violently scrubbed under my chin and neck, nor would I think my bikini line needed such a thorough cleaning. Yet, as I turned over, I noticed the table was full of little white balls. Was it soap? Did someone just erase a bunch of drawings and dump the rubber shavings all over me when I wasn’t paying attention? No, that was my dead skin. I giggled with strange glee at the idea that so much skin was falling off me. The rain of skin snowballs was strangely comforting, as I got the exfoliations of a lifetime. Clearly, I needed this.
As I got in the shower again, I’d gotten over my body weirdness a little bit. I wasn’t as worried about walking around exposed and saw not every woman there was a young model. The woman showering next to me was perfectly friendly and asked if my water pressure also felt like “an interrogation hose.” I agreed and realized no one in that spa gave my body a second thought. In the end, we were all just people with some free time in the middle of the day.
In retrospect, the fact that I thought I’d have some kind of body image revelation after a couple hours was pretty naive. Sure, I didn’t magically internalize the notion that my body is beautiful at any size, but I did leave feeling like I accomplished something. I pretty much exclusively wear baggy shirts and dresses to hide my stomach in my normal life, so strutting my jiggly body around for everyone to see was a big deal for me. I was naked. And nothing bad happened. That alone made me feel a little less scared and worried about what others think of me.
It’ll probably be a long time before I visit another nude spa, but if you’re looking for a way to conquer your fears and be amazed by the amount of dead skin your body can hold, a day at the jimjilbang should do the trick.
Amber Petty is a freelance writer in Los Angeles who writes for Bustle, Elite Daily, Thrillist, and a lot of other random sites. If you like easy crafts and Simpsons gifs, check out her blog Half-Assed Crafts.