Getting naked with strangers helped me combat body shaming culture

I went to the Korean spa and it changed how I see myself. I hope to pass these lessons on to my own kids

Published May 6, 2023 3:59PM (EDT)

Woman bathing in a hot spring (Getty Images/Jesus Sierra)
Woman bathing in a hot spring (Getty Images/Jesus Sierra)

It was easy getting dressed that morning, knowing that at my destination, I'd spend most of my time naked. From the parking lot, Olympic Spa — the prominent, women-only Korean spa in Los Angeles — looked surprisingly utilitarian. In sweats and a T-shirt, I walked into the building alone and early, ahead of the two friends I would be meeting. We had discussed ahead of time what to expect in a space where nudity was the norm — namely, who was going to shave and how much, and who was going to let the hair down there flow. "I'm going full beast," my one friend said, and I agreed to do the same. 

As I waited alone in a sauna, I wondered if the women who passed by the tiny glass window were judging my waist, my thighs, my boobs. I am a woman who can't stop sucking in her stomach when she looks in a mirror, wondering if she can do better. The fat folds that never left after the birth of my second son are a particular obsession. I am told I am stronger than ever. I can plank. I can do push-ups. But I still can't get over those midline rolls.

I'm not alone. Studies show women face overwhelming pressure to be thin — exacerbated by social media — which can lead to distorted body image and even disordered eating. As a daughter born into Indian culture, this pressure started when I was a young girl. My mother and her peers were groomed by society to be hypercritical of themselves and later, of their daughters. Early on I was talked to about weight — how I couldn't gain it the way my brother could, how my arms weren't meant to be muscular and thick, how noticeable it was when I gained or lost a pound or two.

It wasn't just the fact that I was being seen that shifted my comfort level with my body. It was the fact that I was seeing the bodies of my friends and of strangers in such unfiltered glory.

I did a mediocre job of hiding the bulk of my disordered eating, abstaining while I was at school and eating the bare minimum at home. In 8th grade, I threw out my lunch every day, unbeknownst to my parents who lovingly packed it with the low-calorie snacks I insisted upon at the grocery store. At home, I'd tell my mom she used too many tablespoons of oil in the okra and cauliflower she cooked in Indian spices. My period stopped, and a bunch of my hair fell out. My parents never took me to a doctor or a therapist.

Finally, at 40 years old, I found a potential antidote: a visit to the Korean spa.

At the Korean spa, there are basic rules of conduct: No makeup, no pretense, and no clothes. I was nervous. I epilated my legs, shaved my armpits and arrived, ready for anything but completely unsure.

After my friends arrived, our first stop was a hot tub. We were clumsy on approach, not knowing where to put our shoes or hang our towels, before we relaxed into the water. The other women in the tub were silent, not boisterous as we were, and we tried our best to match their meditative moods, wondering if we were doing the whole naked thing correctly. As the pool grew hotter, we got braver with our bodies, volunteering to jump out — and potentially be seen — to get cups of ice water.

At the spa, it wasn't just the fact that I was being seen that shifted my comfort level with my body. It was the fact that I was seeing the bodies of my friends and of strangers in such unfiltered glory, like I was visiting a cold plunge pool for my brain. Rewiring my assumption of what my friends' bodies looked like under their clothes, I came to understand that the comparisons I made in my head — elevating their skinniness while chastising my curves — were not just cruel, but unscientific. I could never be as skinny as my friend. Her frame is smaller and straighter than mine, genetics I can't achieve through a crash diet. Similarly, without makeup and hair products, I also could see the realities of people's wrinkles and pores, of how grooming makes smoke and mirrors of our DNA.

When I left the spa, I had super smooth skin and a full body glow. I also had a renewed understanding of what I could realistically expect my body to achieve.

At the spa, skinny and poreless were not the norm. In fact, there was no ideal body type, just a range of different shapes, races and sizes that proved how narrow the social media lens can be when considering every day human bodies. Sitting in the aromatherapy sauna at Olympic Spa, I realized how normal I suddenly looked: somewhere between one breast size and another, with some cellulite and scar tissue matched by some and not others. Baring it all felt like leveling the playing field. And for the first time in my life as an Indian-American woman, I felt blissfully anonymous. Nudity among strangers can boost self-esteem and improve body image. When there are no barriers left between us, it's much harder to find points of comparison to envy.

When I left the spa, I had super smooth skin and a full body glow. I also had a renewed understanding of what I could realistically expect my body to achieve. Later, I couldn't stop thinking about one mother-daughter pair I'd seen, wondering what it would've meant to me to be in that space when I'd first started hating my body.

Being seen shouldn't have felt so foreign. When we're kids, we're seen all the time—happily so. My four- and seven-year-old sons are proud of their bodies, their scrawny arms flexed into muscles, their joyful and adventurous spirits proud to show me how they can do tree pose. They ask me questions about my naked frame, which I do not hide from them when we collide in the mornings changing or getting ready to hop in the shower. My sons are still somewhat innocent to the idea of body image norms. They might not always be. Body dysmorphia has nearly tripled for men in the past 25 years, according to a study that showed 43% of men are unhappy with how they look with regard to weight, hair growth or skin tone.

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After my own struggles, I'm committed to showing my sons different versions of strength and beauty, encouraging them to acknowledge their body for what it can help them do, not how it looks. I share with them scars I have from childbirth, from injuries I acquired as a child. We talk about how imperfections don't make us imperfect, and how muscles aren't the only things that make us strong. How people have different types of bodies and body parts, and there's no reason for it other than the world is made up of variety—like ice cream flavors or colors of skin.

But talk is one thing; living, breathing examples are another. I can't take my sons to the spa — it's a woman-only space. But my experience showed me how important it is to see ourselves and others stripped down to nothing as a normal, everyday event, and I want them to be able to access their own safe spaces to do so in the future, too. In the meantime, I can at least allow them to be naked at home when they want, allowing them to appreciate what it is to have a body when it's not covered up and distorted by fabrics, filters and logos. 

By Avni Shah

Avni Shah is a writer and communications strategist. An Indian-American mother of two, her work focuses on themes of identity, culture and belonging. She is currently working on her third novel.


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