the power of skin

there's a right; a sort of duty ingrained in women.
it's not that we should modestly hide our skin but instead, 
that we should possess a love and appreciation so great 
that we fiercely expose it.  

now i'm not talking about collective public nudity in the form of a colony, or a carnal confidence that promotes risque attire.  i'm talking about a sense of self-worth so powerful that it drives out the shame of the word "nude" and makes room for the word woman.


back in December of 2010 i experienced the Korean Sauna, 찜질방, (pronounced "jim jill bAHng) for the first time.  for those of you who do not know what this is:  it's a public health center complete with showers, saunas, hot tubs, food and communal relaxing areas.  you can hang out for hours, watch tv, take a nap, play chess or get a massage.  it's super refreshing, and you leave feeling like a new person.  

but even this semi-detailed breakdown is a bit deceiving...  because we Westerners read this and probably picture Lifetime Fitness, a hotel spa or the local pool locker room.  

so let me give you another image.

picture a hundred naked women ages 2-82, bathing.  picture them sitting on little stools in front of stone vanities with bowls of water, voraciously scrubbing their skin.  there are young mothers massaging their daughters' faces before sending them off to splash and giggle with their friends in the warm tubs while they then turn to help their own mother scrub her back.  and there are old women soaking together, chatting about life and family (and probably gossiping about other women in the spa) as casually as if they were gathering over midday tea. 

it's women in community, in their skin, 
caring for and wholly loving on their temples. 

now, we American girls read this and likely gasp.  our deepest sense of discomfort in a health spa is probably from our corner gym when that one bold woman strutted to the counter to get a Qtip... in her underwear! 


culturally speaking, the 찜질방 belongs to Korea, but public bathing is nothing new.  Greece, Rome, Finland, Japan and Turkey are all countries that embrace the ritual of deeply cleansing and rejuvenating trips to the public bathhouse.  these countries are more collectivistic, more community-oriented, but this doesn't mean that individualistic countries cannot adopt such valuable rituals.

and i think it's something our country could benefit from... immensely.


in America, women associate beauty with what is on the cover of a magazine.  we strive for a figure that our frame may not support, and we try diets and makeup that are often endorsed by celebrities not because they actually use them but because they are paid to promote them.  we try to fit a mold that should never have existed in the first place.  because whether you believe humans grew from primordial soup or were created by God, one thing is agreeable; we are all completely different.  yet we continue with the bleaching, waxing, bronzing, smudging, cleavage-ing, duck-facing, booty-popping and ultimately, self-murdering.  

think about it.. 
how many parts of a Ferrari do you need to strip, chisel, bend and paint 
before you stand back and say "wow.. this car looks like crap."  ??

the same goes for our bodies, girls.  


the sauna experience not only brought this to my attention in the most jarring manner, but it prompted many precious moments of deep thought as i sat myself down at one of those vanities and scrubbed away years of insecurity, self-depreciation, lowliness and pain.  i've never been the poster child for natural beauty, and i've never held the medal for most gracious or tender at heart.  i never knew it was ok to be less than a C cup, pale, with freckles and knobby knees. 

i just never knew that i could love my awkward concoction of limbs and life.

i spent many moments watching suds of sin and confusion run down the drains near the wall during my first visits to the 찜질방.  i specify my proximity to the wall because i always choose a spot as far out of sight as possible.  (though it is not very private and you are still very visible..) i like to be out of the main area, facing my little corner of the world and just far enough from the mass so as not to standout as a white girl.  thankfully my dark hair helps me blend in at first glance.  but i'm still quite vulnerable as my tattoo is in full view, and no respectable young Korean girl would don a tattoo.  during the early visits, i was very nervous to expose my tattoo but after this amazing post by Margaret Cho, i am getting better with it.

this was all coming to head by the power of culture.  in America my tattoo is, more often than not, complimented and discussed openly.  in Korea or in the presence of my Korean in-laws, i squirm at the thought of having to ever show it or discuss it.  i'm ashamed of it around a culture that looks down upon such physical alteration.  (a culture that also has a huge market for plastic surgery.. but that's a whole other blog post..)  more important than exposing my ink, my first visits exposed me to the difference between myself and other women, my individual mindset against a collective mindset, and my lack of ritual in the presence of a thick tradition.  


walking in the first time was tough.  i had no idea what to do, knew just enough Korean to ask for the bathroom and say thank you.  i could do this at a restaurant but this time i had to do it in my most vulnerable state.  

and i did.  

i remember closing the door to my locker, grabbing my little bag of soap and shampoo and walking five steps towards the door to the bath.  making it that far took a weight off; i was officially naked in public.  but as i opened the glass door to the bath i felt the rush of eyes on me.  young eyes, old eyes.. some glanced and some just plain stared.  i was the only white girl and i actually felt like i was imposing.  

i gave myself a quick peptalk..   "it's just skin.. everyone has it"

then i nodded and kept my head down while i walked toward a stack of stools and bowls.  i robotically grabbed one of everything and turned to find a place to shower.  it was packed and i was feeling eyes on me still, waiting for me to make a mistake.  somehow i dropped my shoulders a bit and took myself, rather confidently, over to the first open vanity i saw.  i just sat down like i had been there a million times, and in that moment it seemed like the volume (and my heartrate) resumed.

i then bathed for nearly one hour.  traveling from my seat, to the hot tub, to the sauna, to the cold tub, back to my seat to scrub, and then back to the tub once more.  i combed my hair, tweezed my eyebrows, massaged my scalp, adored my toes, gently applied oil to my C-section scar and discretely followed the woman next to me as she rinsed her bowls and seat before returning them to the stack.  i didn't learn from my mother, grandmothers or imos... i was learning now.

all around me were women of different shapes and sizes.  though i was different from these women in terms of culture, i was exactly like them as we were all 100% feminine.  i once lived in the same innocent body as the squealing toddlers that bobbed around in the pool.  i recognized evidence of childbearing on many women.  and i took in the reality that i would one day be wearing the same wrinkles and excess as the elders in the room.

it brought me so much peace and clarity.  
instead of feeling inferior, ugly or unfashionable i felt at home, real and strong.


women know their bodies are powerful but they go about expressing that power all the wrong way.  when you hold a power, you either hold it all or you are living an illusion.  simply pushing your breasts into submission does not give one any real beauty or power in the long run.  you need to face daylight and professionalism again, in most cases.  i mean, does a truckload of monopoly money continue to fool you once you get close enough to spot the counterfeit?   beauty is the result of loving your physical body for the long run.. not primping yourself for a bar night.

the 찜질방 is where you find women embracing their bodies with the long run in mind.  though i felt i was in the wrong place, i soon realized i was exactly where i was supposed to be; surrounded by women who were stripped of society's view of what they should look like and embracing exactly what they do look like.    

and with it, i found freedom in the power of skin  


the power of skin is embraced in the bathhouse, but fuels our clothed interactions.  it allows us to know who we are at our very core, and love ourselves, wholly

the power of skin removes airbrushing, highlighting and photoshop, and brings a real woman to the surface.  it also allows us to not be fooled by outward appearances.

the power of skin deepens your affection for the entire culture of women, not just Korean or American or otherwise.

most recently, i discovered that the power of skin allows you to flawlessly execute "excuse me, please" in your best honorific Korean when the distance between you and your bathing bag is occupied by five ajummas, in a line, scrubbing one another's backs elephant-train style.  

if you ever get the chance to visit a Korean Sauna, or any public bath, i strongly encourage you to take it.  it will be awkward, but it will leave you with fresh perspective on what it is to be a uniquely beautiful and perfect woman, and will grow your love for your own self

for we are all entitled to own the power of skin

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