“Let’s do it. Let’s be disgusting,” my little sister laughed, looking at me with her dimpled smile and a mischievous, slightly panicked glint in her eye.
I was, to say the least, shocked. We weren’t raised this way. We were taught to be good Catholic girls, modest and prude and filled with a healthy amount of shame. And yet somehow, here we were, about to get naked with a roomful of strangers.
WE WERE TAUGHT TO BE GOOD CATHOLIC GIRLS, MODEST AND PRUDE AND FILLED WITH A HEALTHY AMOUNT OF SHAME.
OK, I’m making it sound weirder than it was. We were at a traditional Korean spa in Los Angeles—Koreatown is filled with them—where lounging in the nude with other women is the norm. Having no idea that the spa was an open, communal space (and that clothing was not an option), I booked slots for my 18-year-old sister and I as soon as I knew she’d be visiting me in LA. I thought it’d be a relaxing, bonding experience for us.
But for DeFino women, “nudity” and “relaxing” might as well be opposites.
Growing up, we didn’t even say the word “bra” out loud, making it seem like a dirty secret. I remember how, at a normal tone of voice, my mother would say “Jess, do I need to take you shopping for a new...” and then, silently mouth: “...bra?” And breasts or boobs? They were never mentioned at all.
Neither was the word “period.” Menstruation was known simply as “cramps.” As in, “Do you need Midol for your...” (exaggeratedly mouthed) “cramps?”
And “vagina”? Forget about it. Didn’t exist.
Between my mother, myself, and my two younger sisters, there were four women in the house to my dad and brother’s two, and no words that could be used to describe our bodies were ever spoken at full volume.
My sister and I attended Catholic school from kindergarten through 12th grade, which didn’t exactly help in the body-shame department. Besides the usual church teachings that reinforce guilt around women’s sexuality—worshipping virgins, the whole Adam and Eve thing, etc.—Catholic school in particular was a shame battleground.
THE MESSAGE WAS CLEAR: YOUR SKIN, YOUR BODY, YOUR BEING IS SO SHAMEFUL THAT REVEALING IT IS AN OFFENSE WORTHY OF ISOLATION AND PUNISHMENT.
We wore uniforms every day, which were supposed to be equalizers. The boys had it pretty easy—a shirt and slacks and nice shoes.
The girls’ uniforms, though, were constantly scrutinized in daily checks to ensure complete modesty. If a skirt showed even a sliver of skin above the knee, or a blouse was unbuttoned one too many, or shirtsleeves were rolled to reveal more shoulder than appropriate, you were sent to the office. The message was clear: your skin, your body, your being is so shameful that revealing it is an offense worthy of isolation and punishment.
SO WHEN MY SISTER AND I LEARNED THAT WE’D HAVE TO BE NUDE—NO BATHING SUITS, NO TOWELS—IN ORDER TO BE ALLOWED INTO THE KOREAN SPA’S COMMUNAL SHOWERS, HOT TUBS, AND SAUNAS, THERE WAS NO DOUBT IN OUR MINDS THAT THIS WAS A COMPLETELY “DISGUSTING” THING TO DO.
Then there was Sex Ed, where my fellow students and I sat in a darkened classroom and watched videos of pro-abstinence, pro-life motivational speakers—one of whom suggested that we girls picture ourselves as clean, white pieces of cloth. If we engaged in sexual activity, it would make our cloth dirtier and dirtier—and no man would marry a dingy, grey cloth. It was our responsibility as women to keep our cloths pure white until our wedding day.
There was not a reciprocal lesson for the boys.
So when my sister and I learned that we’d have to be nude—no bathing suits, no towels—in order to be allowed into the Korean spa’s communal showers, hot tubs, and saunas, there was no doubt in our minds that this was a completely “disgusting” thing to do.
Here I was, a 24-year-old woman—six years out of the Catholic school system and nowhere near virginal or devout—and still, the idea of getting naked in front of my sister and random strangers pretty much gave me a panic attack.
As I opened my mouth to say, “Let’s just go home—this is too weird,” my sister, Valerie, stopped me.
“Let’s do it. Let’s be disgusting.”
And that’s how we ended up in the hands-down most intimate situation we’d ever been in together.
WE HAD TO SLIP OFF OUR SHOES BEFORE WE COULD ENTER THE DOOR AT THE END—THE DISROBING HAD BEGUN.
At the reception area, a 60s-ish Korean woman handed us each a robe and towel and led us down a narrow hardwood hallway lined with shelves of pink and lavender crystals. We had to slip off our shoes before we could enter the door at the end—the disrobing had begun.
We shyly padded inside in our bare feet, where the woman walked us through the spa experience in broken English. It was based on jjimjilbang bathhouses, which are a huge part of the Korean wellness and beauty culture.
First, we’d change in the locker room and put on our standard-issue pink-striped cotton robes. The next stop was the communal shower room, where each spa guest was required to shower before enjoying the rest of the amenities. From there, we could sit in the Himalayan Salt hot tub and prune in the Jade Steam sauna. All of these required 100% nudity.
Once we finished the nude portion, robes were allowed. We’d be fully covered in the Oxygen room, the Ice room, the Charcoal Mud Clay room, the Himalayan Crystal room, and the Infrared Magnet room.
A FLASH OF ASS CHEEK HERE, A STRAY PUBIC HAIR THERE
Our guide explained that each room had a special purpose—from clearing our energy to clearing our skin—and were designed to be experienced meditatively and in a specific order: a complete mind, body, and soul journey. She left my sister and I at our side-by-side lockers, surrounded by a handful of other women slipping out of their skivvies.
A flash of ass cheek here, a stray pubic hair there. We looked down to avoid looking at each other, shoving our clothes into the lacquered wood lockers as fast as we could. When our robes were fastened, we looked at each other and burst out laughing. It was now or never.
I pulled open the steam-clouded glass door that led to the shower room and was hit by a wall of heat. The air cleared to reveal maybe eight or nine naked women, showering and scrubbing away.
I didn’t want to stare, but I couldn’t help it. My eyes took inventory: there were two older women, a young Korean girl of about six with her mother, and a handful of 20-somethings of various shapes and sizes, from rail-thin to plus-size. My sister and I were the only ones that seemed hunched over and nervous.
We shimmied out of our robes and scurried over the textured tile floors to the row of showerheads, contorting our bodies into unnatural shapes in a futile attempt at coverage. I squeezed my arms together in front of my body to conceal my chest, leaving my hands free to guard my lower half. Why were we even doing this to ourselves?
SHE STOOD TALL. SHE WASN’T SUCKING IN HER STOMACH. SHE WAS FIT, BUT HAD CELLULITE AND UNEVEN BREASTS, AND SHE OWNED ALL OF IT. SHE WAS BEAUTIFUL.
Standing under the hot water, though, something changed. I faced the open room, letting the water wash over me, and watched a woman step out of the hot tub and saunter over to her towel to dry off. She stood tall. She wasn’t sucking in her stomach. She was fit, but had cellulite and uneven breasts, and she owned all of it. She was beautiful.
In fact, everyone had cellulite and uneven breasts. Some women sported unbelievably enormous bushes. One of the 20-somethings flaunted pierced nipples. One girl was covered in tattoos. Another had a birthmark that took over her stomach. None of them looked self-conscious.
I longed to be that comfortable in my own skin.
By the end of the shower, I had relaxed into a headspace somewhere between panic and self-confidence—enough to drop the body contortion act, at least. We made our way to the Himalayan Salt bath. There was another woman in there already, so getting in the tub was awkward—hoisting myself onto the tall entrance step basically meant revealing my entire vagina to her.
I SETTLED INTO THE SCALDING BATH, SQUEEZED MY EYES SHUT, AND TRIED TO STOP THINKING ABOUT THE FACT THAT MY NIPPLES WERE FLOATING JUST ABOVE THE WATER LINE, VISIBLE TO EVERYONE.
Noticing she didn’t notice or care, I thought, OK, maybe I can do this. I took the woman’s lead: she was immersed in the water with her eyes closed, breathing deeply, splashing her face with the steaming water every minute or so. For some reason, it made me remember what my mom called bathwater when I was a kid: heinie soup.
I settled into the scalding bath, squeezed my eyes shut, and tried to stop thinking about the fact that my nipples were floating just above the water line, visible to everyone. Without much luck, I might add.
When we couldn’t stand the heat of the water, we maneuvered out of the tub (another giant, vagina-flashing step) and into the Jade Steam sauna. Herbal-scented steam clouds were building and billowing from one corner, filling the room. I paused for a second as the door swung closed behind me. My eyes adjusted to see a smattering of women scattered along the benches, sweating.
AND THEN I LET IT GO. I LET MY BODY GO. I LET MY STOMACH FILL UP WITH AIR AND POOCH OUT. I REVELED IN MY ROLLS AND CLOSED MY EYES AND TRIED TO FIGURE OUT WHAT WAS GOING ON INSIDE MY MIND.
Everyone sitting on the jade benches of the sauna—everyone, from the skinny to the muscular—had rolls of fat and skin. Multiple rolls. Cascading rolls.
Val and I sat down next to them. I took a deep breath.
And then I let it go. I let my body go. I let my stomach fill up with air and pooch out. I reveled in my rolls and closed my eyes and tried to figure out what was going on inside my mind.
I couldn’t remember the last time I had seen a woman’s naked body—besides in a movie or magazine. I don’t think I ever had.
I COULDN’T REMEMBER THE LAST TIME I LOOKED AT MY NAKED SELF IN MY FULL-LENGTH MIRROR AND DIDN’T TRY TO EVALUATE EACH INDIVIDUAL PART LIKE A MAN MIGHT.
I couldn’t remember the last time I saw my body as something other than a sexual vessel. I couldn’t remember the last time I looked at my naked self in my full-length mirror and didn’t try to evaluate each individual part like a man might. I couldn’t remember the last time I got dressed and didn’t think about accentuating my breasts (when I wanted to invite sexual attention) or covering them up (when I wanted to avoid it). Every feeling I’d ever had about my body centered around how it compared to a photoshopped, hypersexualized version of perfection.
And yet, here I was, confronted with a potpourri of real women’s bodies and none of them measured up. All of them had “flaws.” And nothing about them was sexual. It was almost confusing to watch these women enjoy their nakedness in peace; didn’t they know there were ab-tastic supermodels and fully-waxed porn stars out there setting an impossibly high bar for beauty?!
IT DIDN’T SEEM FAIR THAT I’D SPENT THE PAST 20 HATING MINE. I DIDN’T WANT TO DO IT ANYMORE.
When the young girl walked into the sauna with her mother, I felt a jolt of jealousy. She was comfortable with herself, with her body, at just six years old. It didn’t seem fair that I’d spent the past 20 hating mine. I didn’t want to do it anymore.
I made up my mind then to commit to getting comfortable—even if it meant enduring some excruciatingly uncomfortable moments in the process.
Val and I left the sauna after just a few minutes (that steam is intense) and came to the end of the nudity zone: we were free to put on our robes and roam the rest of the spa. We didn’t say much, both lost in our own heads. We’d had our bonding experience and then some.
I go to the K-spa at least once a month now. When I have a fight with my boyfriend, I go to the K-spa. When I’m stressing about work, I go to the K-spa. When my skin is breaking out, I go to the K-spa. When I’m bloated and feeling shitty about myself, I reach for a sleeve of Oreos—and then I go to the K-spa.
I’VE LEARNED THAT $20 AND A FEW HOURS OF HEATED MEDITATION IN A SALT BATH OR A ROOM FULL OF CRYSTALS CAN HEAL PRETTY MUCH ANYTHING, AND I OWE THIS LESSON TO A GROUP OF BEAUTIFUL, VULNERABLE, NAKED STRANGERS.
I don’t feel compelled to scope out the other women like I did my first time. That’s not really what it’s about.
It’s about finding a space where I can fully relax; where there are no standards or expectations or insecurities, if only for a little while. I’ve learned that $20 and a few hours of heated meditation in a salt bath or a room full of crystals can heal pretty much anything, and I owe this lesson to a group of beautiful, vulnerable, naked strangers.
The Korean spa is my church. Nudity is the equalizer. (And, you know what, I have to say: the Jade Steam sauna is the secret to glowing skin.)