My Naked, Untitillating Body: Sloughing Off Self-Consciousness in a Korean Sauna

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"Nudity quickly becomes unremarkable when generally practiced."

   --- Martha Nussbaum

Spa treatments are not the first thing I associate with Korea, but when Jung, my Seoul guide and new friend, suggested we go to the “sauna,” I didn’t hesitate to say yes. She told me it was something that was traditional in their culture, and explained that, for $20, someone would loofah my entire body for an hour. Perhaps the suspiciously low price should’ve been my first red flag; a service like that would likely cost hundreds of dollars in the U.S.  But spa services vary significantly in price outside of the U.S., so I congratulated myself on finding such an affordable luxury and anxiously agreed to join her.

We entered a building in the heart of an urban residential area, well off the tourist path. Small boutiques, a gym, and other everyday necessities lined the dimly lit halls. We wound our way down to the basement level and into the area marked “sauna.” Just outside was a woman renting towels.  Jung informed me that we would need two towels each. I paid the woman behind the counter and received two small, peach-colored hand towels, which, together, made up about half of a standard bath towel.  I hoped this was only round one of the towel distribution program.

Moving beyond a second set of doors, I mentally and physically slipped away from the outer bustle and into an alternate world, framed by a mix of fluorescent bulbs and an eerie green glow. The unnatural lighting was a metaphorical contrast to the parade of nature that abounded, as naked bodies milled about inside. Not just in the actual sauna, but seemingly in every corner. Perhaps the nudity felt more pronounced due to the lack of anything to cover the body between the sauna and the locker room, or because there wasn’t a central “naked area” – rather, the entire space was clothes-free.  Regardless, it felt more naked than expected.

The tone was anything but sexual, however. There wasn’t the sort of homoerotic vibe that is notorious amongst the male bathhouses (I longed for the magical ability to catch a glimpse of the male side of this sauna). Not only was it asexual, but also completely lacking in self-consciousness. With the exception of me, that is. I seemed to be the only one conscious of her own nudity.  I wondered if Jung would find it odd to see me stripped down, since we’d only just met, but she approached it as more of a bonding experience. At first I felt like I should cover myself up with my towels, as much for them as for me – which is what I would normally do in such a setting – but given that the hand towels served as more of a loin cloth than a robe,  I gave up and followed the masses.

I (almost) forgot I was naked after around 10 minutes, and my eyes adjusted to the abundance of bare flesh in my presence. Women are prone to checking each other out and offering comment when clothed: “I love those shoes”; “That’s a great top” – we offer these comments with a relative mix of admiration, envy, and of course a splash of the male gaze – not to mention the simple ritual of observing and acknowledging. But what happens when the shoes come off and we’re all topless? That propensity to compliment/covet/acknowledge persists – but social norms largely prohibit it while naked. “I love your breasts” would seem inappropriate and sexualized, even if it’s merely an acknowledgement of beauty, not dissimilar from a fashion shout-out.  Perhaps there is a culture where such verbal acknowledgements of bodily assets is acceptable in the mainstream, but that was not the case in Korea – and it certainly isn’t the case in the U.S.

After showering and soaking with Jung in several of the hot tubs, each of which is set at a different temperature, I was told that the woman was ready for me. Three rubber-covered massage tables were positioned just off from the hot tub area, with no physical divider. Each table was manned by a different, middle-aged woman in her underwear: One wore a red polka dot bra and matching briefs, another a black lace bra with black briefs, and the third went topless, wearing only mesh briefs – with a highly visible white maxi pad glowing from behind, through the mesh. As “sexy” as these lingerie ensembles may seem, let me assure you: there was no overt attempt at sexiness radiating from these women. Their bodies had the usual curves and lumps one would expect from a woman of a certain age and their choice in garments seemed to be items they found attractive, rather than ones they thought would titillate an observer.

We are trained that nudity should either be titillating or grotesque – but what if it’s neither? What if it’s merely a body, not an object on display? Is that possible if we’re in the company of others? Can we transcend our centuries-long acculturation and observe a body as “just a body”? Or is it always a symbolic object, understood as either a sexual tool or value-laden object that must land somewhere on the beauty/grotesque continuum?

As I settled onto the pink rubber massage table, I was further reminded that my body in this space was an object to be worked on, not ogled.  She attempted to use her loofah washcloth, but I insisted that she use a new one that Jung had just purchased.  While sitting in the tubs, my mind had started to contemplate the seemingly infinite selection of microbes and diseases that could be (must be) floating about in that space. No one wore shower shoes, the pools didn’t smell like chlorine (nor were they salt water), and I’d just watched another woman get her butt and VERY “inner thighs” exfoliated with the loofah cloth she now wanted to use on me. I’m all for adventures, but I had to draw the line somewhere.  Suddenly a bikini wax seemed innocent.

She gestured for me to get on the table and pulled my hair back with a rubber band – not gentle like when you go for a facial and they lightly position a headband to keep your hair out of your face. No, this was more raw. Her entire demeanor made me feel like I was an animal in the wild being aggressively bathed and groomed by its mother. It wasn’t about relaxation or beauty. It was clinical, with an emphasis on efficiency.

After around 20 minutes of vigorous rubbing and scrubbing, I noticed that I was laying in a pile of my own dead skin. To wash it away, she’d periodically fill a large bucket with water and throw it at me, as if putting out a fire. I burst into laughter.

As she finished, she gave me a firm pat on my butt – the universal  “you’re done now, off you go” sign. I tried to imagine what the spa menu description for this service might look like in the U.S.: “Intensive Therapeutic Skin Detoxification and Body-Polishing Scrub: Enjoy a full body rubdown and unleash your inner glow.  One of our Exfoliation Experts will vigorously hand polish every inch of your body, smoothing rough patches and washing away tired, dead skin. You’ll leave awakened, recharged, and renewed.  1 hour, $275

Yeah, I’ll stick with my $20 scrub-down.