by Cheryl Murfin, Venice Writer's Block, 2016
The first time I walked into a Korean spa I was 32 years old, one year postpartum after my third pregnancy in four years and still nursing my son. Other than ripping off my clothes during the births of my children and not caring if an entire stadium full of people were watching, I had never stood freely naked in a room full of women (or men).
Women are the harshest critics of women.
From the moment my buxom sister pointed at my 12-year-old chest and howled, “You are a pirate’s dream — a sunken chest! Ha ha ha,” I had felt only shame and contempt for my body. I weaseled my way out of gym class for all twelve years of public school. I starved through my teen years and early adulthood and berated myself for that cleft chest my sister jeered at. And, even as an adult, if I changed clothes at the gym, I did it in a toilet stall. You’d think, given my own self-loathing, I’d never compare or judge or be afraid of other women’s bodies. And you’d be wrong. Self-loathing is a breeding ground for contempt and critique of others.
And then in pregnancy, I experienced the divine sweetness of the flowering body. I reveled in my swollen belly and was amazed to look down and see set of double Ds in my bra. I ate without worry for the first time in my life. After being nearly starved to death, this body had come back to me. It had grown and fed children.
But when a friend invited this liberated new self of mine to the Korean spa, my first response was to say no. Spas were for models and people with money. I could see the dark cloud of self-loathing gathering in the distance, threatening to return.
“Just come with me,” my friend said. “It’s different.” Since it cost only $20 for the entire day, I eventually agreed.
Walking into the baths that day was life changing. In some ways equal to the profound embrace of my body that pregnancy brought. There were four pools in the room, each at a different temperature. And each pool was filled with naked women.
As I stood next to the door with my towel wrapped tightly around me, I watched as women of all shapes and sizes walked freely, gracefully to and fro. Sitting on the edge of one pool was a woman of 70 or 80, her breasts long and thin, her belly expanded, the folds of her skin handing like sheets of fabric. She chatted easily with a woman a few years younger floating youthfully in a steam bath.
Across from them were two women in their 20s, taught, thin, pert, relaxed. There were women with chests small enough to seem prepubescent and large enough to feed an army of babies. And rising from the cold bath a few feet in front of me, a woman with a cleft chest ascended up the pool stairs and smiled easily at me. I tried not to stare at the telltale slight protruding breastbone, but it mesmerized me.
Not a single woman in the room covered her chest with a shy hand. There were no towels covering pubic mounds, which also appeared in all shapes and shavings from bald to bountiful.
I stood there for several minutes transfixed before I realized something was missing.
There was no judgment in the air, no beauty contest, no comparisons. I realized there was no need for acceptance here because there was no rejection.
I dropped my towel and slipped into the first warm pool, my nursing breasts rising to the top of the water like balloons.
If only I had found this room at age 12.
On my daughter’s 12th birthday, we went to the Korean spa. At 21, she loves her body, its curves and narrows. And this is one of her very favorite places to go.
And, for nearly 20 years, the Korean spa has been where I go to remind myself that there is no such thing as a perfect body; there is only the unique body, which each of us has. We are equal in this. Each visit has been a reminder to rethink beauty; to see well-marketed images of the female body for what they are: too often airbrushed; to more deeply appreciate this chuck of flesh I was gifted with at birth and to celebrate its vibrancy and health.
Ten days before my 50th birthday, I lost sight of all that for a while as my improving self image took a detour through breast cancer and my surgeon cut into the pirate’s dream.
But rather than carrying off “the sunken treasure” of my sister’s insult, she took half my breast and left two long thick scars and a cavity that, upon healing, looks like a cinched up hippy purse.
It had taken me nearly four decades to embrace those cleft divided breasts. Looking in the mirror after surgery, all I could see was ugly, useless skin. I felt sexless. I felt abandoned by the spirit of divine femininity. Until, following a particularly ardent moment of wallowing, my mind commandeered my negative thinking and piped in: go to the Korean spa. When I entered the room it was nearly empty but not quite. There was an older woman in the hottest pool. She nodded as I entered.
And then other women started to appear. Women of all shapes and sizes. I couldn’t help but notice, whether big or small, they all had two breasts. What I didn’t notice as my eyes surveyed the room was the hand, shyly, nonchalantly that covering my mutilated breast. In fact I’ve done that since they day of the surgery. Hide.
As I stood in the warm pool waiting for two of my friends to arrive, I felt someone move behind. I turned to slide out of the way. It was the woman from the hot pool. I am no real judge of age, but my guess is she was perhaps 80. In so many ways she reminded me of that very first woman I saw on the edge of a pool that first visit two decades earlier. She smiled at me and nodded at my hand covering my breast. She said something in Korean. I didn’t understand.
Which must be why she took my hand from breast and placed it at my side. I smiled, uncomfortable but not wanting to offend in case this was some sort of Korean ritual like wearing rubber shoes in the spa bathroom. When I errantly walked into a stall in my bear feet, the tiny voice one stall over mentioned it was Korean etiquette to wear slippers into the bathroom. So now, as I stood in front of the elderly woman, I nodded.
“Don’t hide,” she said without saying.
Then she beckoned me to follow her out of the pool. When my hand shot up reflexively to cover my scar again, she moved it down a second time. She brought me to the mugwort fountain at the center of the room and scooped bowls full of mugwort water over my chest before shuffling out of pool room, shoulders slumped with age, breasts loosely swaying with her gait. Soon after she left, my number was called for a scrub.
A woman named Mina scrubbed me from top to bottom, each time circling that scar so gently I could feel the sinews sewing together below her fingertips. She took extra care, bathed me in milk and honey and as she finished she whispered in my ear.
“My name Mina. You come back here, you come back to me. Mina.”
With that, she pulled the lingerie top the scrubbers wear slightly to the side to reveal her own scar, different from mine, curving up into her armpit. The lesson came back to me: there is no such thing as a perfect body; there is only the unique body, which each of us has.
In this we are equal.
In this we are as beautiful as we are alive.