It was two in the afternoon on a Wednesday and my friend Emily and I were standing in between a row of brown lockers. Both of us had new babies at home and childcare that day, so with feelings of equal parts guilt and glee we found a Groupon and set off for Spa Castle, the Korean spa complex (or K-Spa) in Flushing.
The massive, four-level structure has been around since 2007 and contains a Korean eatery, outdoor pools, wet and dry saunas, reflexology rooms, and nap rooms (yes, really!). The best floor, in my opinion, is the first floor—or, as I like to call it, the naked floor. The naked floor is separated into sections for men and women and contains multiple mineral pools set at varying temperatures with jets positioned to target and massage different areas of the body. You must be naked to use these pools. (And yes, you are required to shower first!)
Getting naked in front of strangers is a daunting proposition whether or not you’ve just had a baby. While stripping down and hanging out in a sauna or pool or bath house is commonplace in many cultures (Korea, Turkey, and Germany immediately come to mind) American prudishness manifests in spas and pools as a very covered up (and oftentimes in the dark) experience. “Unlike American style spas that correlate unwinding with an expensive solo massage in a dark room, the Korean spa experience is an all-day affair in the presence of others,” Charlotte Cho, co-founder and chief curator of Korean beauty site SokoGlam, tells me. “Whether it be your parents or kids, and even your grandparents, everyone takes part in the warm embrace of a Korean sauna that will relax your mind, body and soul.” In fact, if you are modest or shy at a K-Spa, Cho says you’ll stand out. “There is no shame associated with being completely nude or baring it all,” Cho says. “On the flip side, you’re more likely to be judged for being shy about going nude. Most people go to the Korean sauna at such a young age, nudity in a sauna is the norm.”
It took me years to appreciate my body. I was very skinny when I was a teen and remember thinking that I’d never get boobs or be able to wear bike shorts that were tight around my thighs, as was the style in the early ’90s (and, sigh, again now). My thighs just floated inside them. I never did get boobs but I did grow into my body and really began to embrace it by my mid 20s. It was a body that let me eat just about whatever I wanted without gaining weight, a body with a perky tush, and, it turned out, lots of clothes look good on a flat chest.
So there we were, Emily and I, ready to disrobe. There was a slight pause—an unstated acknowledgement that we were about to bare our postpartum bodies to each other. I’d given my body over to my new baby: It was hers whenever she wanted it. I had boobs for the first time in my life (little ones! But enough that I had to wear a bra) and a stomach pooch for the first time too. And thighs that could fill out a pair of bike shorts (if I chose to revisit the look). I liked my new body, but it didn’t entirely feel like my own anymore. Emily and I pulled our shirts off and burst out laughing at each other’s hideous nursing bras. The tension broken, we set out for the naked pools.
WHEN YOU’RE AROUND LOTS OF NAKED BODIES IT’S CLEAR THAT BODIES ARE JUST BODIES.
The naked pools at Spa Castle at 2pm on a Wednesday were very chill: not too crowded, occupied mostly by older women who seemed to have a familiarity with the spa and a routine to their plunging in various pools. I love going anywhere at off-peak hours when it’s not crowded but the appeal here in the naked pools at Spa Castle was less about the ample space to move around in and more about the body acceptance it fostered. Because when you’re around lots of naked bodies it’s clear that bodies are just bodies: they’re not as aspirational-ly toned and Photoshopped as they appear on Instagram. Rather, they’re round and flat and hard and soft and bony and dimpled and scarred. They’re beautiful and tell stories of the incredible things that they’ve done and lived through, including given birth over and over again.
I felt at ease. More than that, it felt liberating to exist in this new-ish body, to bear it in a semi-public way (in front of a dozen strangers), and feel completely safe and comfortable.