Shortly in the wake of my body-acceptance lighting revolution, an awesome friend who happens to have an awesome car took me to Spa Castle. For those who have not heard of it, much less had the good fortune to go (those not in NYC, or those in NYC with no car, i.e. most people), Spa Castle is a pool/sauna/baths/treatments/Korean food complex in Queens. It is four floors. It has a roof deck. The roof deck has pools on it, and these pools are lined with jets that target different muscles. Stiff neck? There’s a station for that. Tight hamstrings? Check. There is also a lazy river. And a hot tub. Just on the roof.
Inside, there are saunas of varying temperatures and interior decor. There’s a restaurant with delicious bulgogi. There’s a cocktail stand that makes very strong rum cocktails. There’s a fancy spa where you can get private mud wraps. And there are the gender-segregated areas where you can get a body scrub. Right out in the open, with other women getting the same scrub done on a table right next to you. While the entire place is obviously a wonderland, the women’s-only baths, surprisingly, turned out to be my favorite part.
In most of Spa Castle, you walk around with your bathing suit, covered up by what is essentially an unflattering gym uniform: a Spa Castle tee and over-sized cotton shorts. But in the women-only baths, there is no clothing. You leave your swimsuit in a locker and pop your uniform in a hamper. You walk into the dark, tiled, peaceful room, and you just climb into whatever hot tub you want. They go from warm to very hot. There are also showers, and there are sitting stations where you can take a stool and a brush and sit and scrub yourself until you’re gleaming. I’d heard about this kind of thing in other parts of the world. I didn’t know you could get in in Queens.
I must pause here to confess that despite my best efforts, I am slightly uncomfortable being naked around other people. You might not know this if, say, you went to college with me and we danced around naked in the moonlight (because what else do you do at a women’s college, really?). Or if you’re a close female friend and you’ve stayed at my house and I’ve changed in front of you with seemingly no problem. You wouldn’t know because I’ve been actively trying to shed my self-consciousness since I was about fifteen, and most of that involves me cheerfully acting like it’s no big deal to be naked in company, when the truth is that deep down a little part of me is still nervous and itchingly self-aware.
At Spa Castle, for the first time ever, this feeling melted away. In the company of other nude women, going placidly about their bathing, inward-looking and seemingly un-self-conscious, I became just another bather, allowed to do the same. With so many different body types, skin-tones, and ages around me, my nakedness (and body type, and skin-tone, and age) ceased to be remarkable.
A study came out last year wherein a group of women were shown images of other women, faces cropped, in neutral grey leotards, with a wide variety of body types. The study found that the women who looked at these images immediately become more welcoming of — guess what? — a wide variety of body types. Immediately. They also reacted more positively to a wide array of body types when those bodies were dressed glamorously. Coincidence? I think not! Our programming about fashion choices has a similar power over us as our programming about body type. It is no wonder to me, then, that when you strip away the clothing and increase the variety of bodies, you strip away the programming, too. The animal brain can take over and tell you the truth: this doesn’t matter so much.
Not everyone can get to Spa Castle (though if you can make it happen I clearly endorse it). But everyone can begin to shed their programming. The best diet is visual: cut out the images that make you feel shitty about yourself. Then increase your intake of variety. Like the women in the study, you’ll be surprised at how fast your perceptions change.
I’ve started looking at other women out in the real world and actively, visually appreciating them. It’s harder in daily life, because the fashion programming is still there. It takes some doing, letting go of the judgment. Start small. A good earring choice. A sexy fro. Then stop yourself before you get to “but…”. Because you will. You’ll be tempted to say, “I like that girl’s dress but ugh, why the stripper heels?” If you stop yourself on the dress, though, I promise you’ll feel better. Eventually you start finding more and more things to admire, including different body types. Suddenly the world becomes full of beautiful, interesting people! And the amazing thing is that when this happens, you become one of them.
Give it a try. A rum cocktail might help.
Thanks to chrisbulle for the image, which is not Spa Castle, but which is pretty.
Georgia Lowe works in Manhattan and lives in Brooklyn with her husband. She always pronounces "husband" with a southern accent because she hasn't gotten used to saying it yet. She is from Minnesota.
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