Last weekend I spent a few hours at a Korean spa near Seattle with Shannon, one of my best friends from childhood, who was visiting for the weekend. Women (no men allowed!) pay an entrance fee to lounge in pools of water of varying temperatures, and to hang out in small rooms which contain certain minerals or substances said to have healing properties. Also available are treatments such as pedicures and massages, but the star of the show in my opinion, is the “Korean body scrub”.
After entering the spa and checking in at the front desk, one is handed a key to a small locker, a towel and a cloth bathrobe and cap. Upon removing all of one’s clothing in the locker room, one enters a large atrium with four pools of water in the center, ringed with treatment tables. In a nod to privacy, woven mats are hung between the pools and the treatment area. This shields some of the action, but instead of creating real privacy, it simply draws the curious eye to glimpses of the rows of naked women being scrubbed on tables lined up behind the mats.
Shannon and I are no strangers to being naked in one another’s company. Our destinies collided in 1969 at Orchard Street Nursery School on the campus of Oregon State University where our fathers were professors. She and I both have younger sisters, Laurie and Julia respectively, who are also good friends. Maybe because it was the seventies, maybe because we were heathens, I don’t know, but the four of us spent a lot of time together in our birthday suits.
We created a game called “bare-naked pushers” which we played in Shannon and Laurie’s backyard. This involved Shannon and me climbing nude to the top of their swing-set and pushing our younger sisters in the small chariot swing below. I remember the feeling of grandeur that washed over me as I proudly stood buck-naked atop the swing-set and peered triumphantly over the fence at the unfortunate fully-clothed children who lived on the other side. I looked upon them with compassion and pity, as their religious parents were needlessly depriving them of the kinds of childhood fun and freedom we were having. Undoubtedly they had been forbidden from playing with us.
What also immediately springs to mind upon recollection of bare-naked pushers, is the sensation of the rusted bolts and other metal parts of the striped swing-set scraping against my skin. This was back in the days before the adult world had become ridiculously obsessed with children’s safety. I think most of us raised at this time can probably remember witnessing at least one horrific playground injury as a result of slides and monkey bars bolted into bare cement. I put this into the same category as “well honey, people just didn’t know that cigarettes were bad for you back then…”.
Shannon and I and our little sisters did other things naked too, including skinny-dipping in the above-ground pool her parents set up in the summertime, and just wantonly streaking around the yard. I remember covering our bare bodies with mud we mixed up with dirt from the garden and water from the garden hose, and running around the block with wild abandon. Again this was witnessed by the poor Jehovah’s Witness children who seemed conflicted by their natural curiosity and desire to play with us, and undoubtedly by their parents warnings against it.
It was the early seventies, and we were still reeling with the new freedom the hippies had bestowed upon us. Living in Corvallis we were only a short distance from Eugene, the epicenter of free love and radical experimentation of every variety. Even though our parents weren’t REAL hippies, they listened to Joan Baez and the Beatles, and had hippie-influenced hair and clothing and believed in women’s lib. It was a glorious time to be a kid.
As an adult, I am not particularly known for my modesty, and so entering a secret world where women of all ages and sizes commune together in the nude is fairly easy for me. Growing up, I spent a lot of time in the pool at the local YMCA . The locker room presented me with an alternate view of the feminine body than was offered in my Seventeen magazines. I don’t think airbrushing existed at that time, and I know there was no such thing as Photoshop. At that time, the media was not as pervasive as it is today, so my first views of the post-pubescent female form came from my mother’s body, and from the YMCA locker room, which hosted women across a wide spectrum of possible ages, shapes and sizes. I grew up knowing the truth….that women are covered with an interesting variety of curves, lumps and blemishes, and that there are not very many women in real life who look like super-models. I am not so sure that my children REALLY know this. I wonder if they have seen enough real bodies, outside of mine (which God knows, I haven’t shielded them from), to offset the bizarre and unhealthy version of “reality” the ever-present media wants to sell them.
Upon recommendation by a good friend, I decided to get the Korean body scrub and Shannon was excited to try it as well. Shannon and I have spent very little time together naked as adults, so it was a graphic reality-check to be that way together now after all these years. She is a mother of two, and I am a mother of three. We both practice yoga, and are fairly comfortable in our own skins, so that was not an issue. It was more the sense of time passing, our bodies a road map of the events of our lives that separate us from our shared innocent childhood nakedness. We both bear the scars of childbearing and it’s aftermath. In fact when I climbed on the table for my scrub, Hannah, the lovely Korean woman who was my scrubber whispered to me “Are you a mother?”. I wonder if it was my clenched jaw, knotted shoulder muscles, weary eyes, or perhaps the stretch marks on my belly that gave it away. She confided conspiratorially that she too was a mother of three, and commenced the scrub.
Shannon lay next to me and we were scrubbed simultaneously. We looked over at one another as the scrub began, and the look on her face was identical to mine. It was of the pathetic “please-touch-me-and-don’t-ever-stop” variety. The scrub lasted about 45 minutes. That’s a guess, because I completely lost track of time. It starts with the scrubee laying on her belly while the scrubber scrubs every inch of bare skin available twice over with special scrubbing mitts which are like toned-down Brillo pads. It then proceeds to being scrubbed while lying on one’s side, then on the other side and finally on one’s back. Warm water is hurled from a bowl over the scrubee between rounds of scrubbing, and one cringes to imagine how many skin cells are rinsed down the drain annually. By the end of the session Hannah poured some kind of oil all over me, and vigorously rubbed it over every inch of my body.
Normally when I’ve been given a professional massage, it involves a lot of artful draping, which often seems like a formality. Here there was no attempt at modesty, and the only parts of my body that were not scrubbed were the obvious. Let’s just say that my breasts were polished, but my nipples were thankfully spared the expert hands of Hannah. After the oily rubdown, she threw more water on me, and asked if I would like my face scrubbed, I was hesitant, but I felt that she was a true professional, and agreed. She was very gentle with my face, and did not hurl water on it, though I was expecting it, but rather gently swaddled it with warm warm towels. Then she asked me to sit up to finish, and she took my face in her hands and peered at me from a few inches away, and gently patted it dry. It was a very motherly, caring gesture and to be honest, it brought tears to my eyes.
The experience of being in a room full of naked women is humbling. Women’s bodies go through so much in a lifetime, and there was such variety to be seen. Nudity is a great equalizer. When I am surrounded by women larger and smaller, fatter and thinner, with more and less cellulite, more and less wrinkles, more and less scars, I feel I can take my rightful place in the world of bodies. I am no “better” or “worse” than anyone else, and the sight of a woman who is imperfectly perfect in every way, brings comfort and dignity to my own struggles with my physcial form. It takes me back profoundly to my proud bare-naked pusher self. The one who didn’t care what anyone thought of my body, and for whom my naked body was sacrament and a source of pride and freedom and goodness.