This week, while I was visiting my family in Los Angeles, some of the female family members took a trip to a Korean spa. One of my relatives had done it before, and spoke glowingly of the experience. She warned us to prepare for a bit of culture shock (we’re Jewish-American, not Korean), but it was hard to prepare for the actual experience.
I’ve written in the past about nudity in Estonian saunas, and how I acted like an atypical American by being totally okay in that context. The Korean spa experience was similar and different in certain ways.
For one thing, the Korean spa we went to was gender-segregated. The women’s and men’s sections were on completely different floors. That meant that nudity in the women’s spa was acceptable, and in fact was really common. The spa provided lockers for your things, plus towels and a robe, but most people were not too fastidious about covering up the entire time.
Another difference was that the sensations were more intense – if you signed up for a service, that is. I went in for a scrub, which meant 20ish minutes of laying on a table while a black-bra-and-panty-clad attendant scrubbed me from neck to toe. I had to lay on my stomach, on my back, and on each side. It was difficult shifting positions, because the table I was laying on (rather like a massage table) was wet and slippery from the attendant frequently splashing water on it (and me).
There may also have been some kind of soap or skin care product at work, but all I know is that whenever I sat up, there were tooth-sized, flesh-toned balls that I would slip on. The scrubbing was so vigorous that I can only assume they were bits of my skin that had been scrubbed off and had rolled together into masses of dead flesh.
In contrast, the most intense sensation I’ve had in a sauna (a Lithuanian sauna, to be precise) was being gently whacked with bundled-up birch branches. It’s supposed to be stimulating to the skin and nervous system, but it’s not hard enough to make you squirm. In the spa, the scrubbing was so intense at times that I considered asking the attendant to be a little gentler, but I decided to stick it out, and I’m glad I did: the experience was invigorating, and now, a few days later, my skin remains the softest I can remember it being in my adult life.
After the scrubbing, we popped in the shower to rinse off any more dead skin (we’d also showered before our treatment), and then we bounced between a couple of different hot tubs, a couple of different saunas, and a steam room. I used buckets full of cold water to rinse off my body between bouts in the sauna. The steam room was really intense; it was so full of thick, herb-scented steam that it was hard to see the face of the person sitting two feet away from you!
One of the best parts of the experience, however, was simply hanging out with women of all ages, shapes, and sizes who were all comfortable enough with their bodies to walk around the spa nude. I conversed with a slender, older woman about storytelling in different cultures while in the hot tub. A heavily tattooed woman chatted with me and my relatives in the steam room. Nobody was terribly self-conscious, which is an attitude I think people should cultivate in relation to their bodies in other contexts too.
I don’t know if there are Korean spas in every city, but if you can make it to one, I recommend the experience. It feels like you’re doing something good for your body and your body acceptance all at the same time!