My body, my conscience

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My body, my conscience

What on earth was I doing in a beauty spa?

I was reared to be a proper, middle-class daughter. Back in college, when I first told my mother that I was thinking about changing my major from art history to women's studies, she grew perplexed and told my father: "All this time, honey, I thought I had raised my daughter to be purely bourgeois. I bought her nice shoes and fed her well. I even sent her to an established Catholic school. I don't understand why she is suddenly acting like some kind of communist."

My father, thoughtful gentleman that he is, sat me down that evening, very concerned, and said, "Daughter, you will have a very difficult time finding a man if you get involved in those things." It was a strange comment, especially considering my father had never said anything like it before, even when I flunked my English midterm or put on makeup for the first time at age 14.

Like many people who pretend to be intellectual elites, I, too, became politicized in college. Perhaps this was about the point I developed my amateurish feminist identity. It was also around this time that I began to express an aesthetic distaste toward things traditionally considered too feminine, such as cocktails, lipstick or remembering people's birthdays.

Beauty spas also fell into this category. There was something horribly cliche-ridden about the way cosmetic companies stylized their bath products. Plus, I simply couldn't stand banana shampoo or apricot soap. Before I became a teen I refused to use any other soap than Ivory. And until very recently, when my mother finally put me through an irresistibly blissful sand bath in Miyazaki during a trip to Japan, I thought spas were only for old ladies with arthritis.

So when I recently decided to try something different in my life, and checked out a fancy beauty spa package offered by a local body-care center, some of those past sentiments lingered in my brain somewhere, poking at my conscience. Once again, I was afraid to confront my hidden femininity. After a little internal debate, however, I said to myself, "It will be O.K. as long as I skip the pedicure."

The spa I chose for my baptism was Body Works. This franchise boutique is coed, which is not rare for spas in Seoul. Located inside an upscale department store in Myeongdong, the spa consisted of at least a third of an entire floor. Originally this was a place where teenagers wanting to become supermodels came to get their "bodywork" done before an annual contest. But since the place began to officially sponsor the beauty pageant two years ago, it is now called the Korean Supermodel Beauty Center.

When I arrived a few minutes late for my appointment, it was already past noon, and many of the staff had gone for lunch. The spa's manager, Min Chae-i, greeted me with a warm welcome and a hot cup of green tea, and showed me around. The place was huge and marble covered most of the floor. In one room, two young Japanese women, wearing cotton face masks, were snoring on massage beds. Shin Eun-ju, a friendly masseuse about my age who pampered me the whole afternoon, said this was a common sight at the spa. There were no men in the room during the early afternoon I went, but Ms. Shin said a fair number of male clients show up in the evenings, just as skin-conscious as any woman.

The program I signed on for was the "Day Spa" - a six-hour program that costs 490,000 won ($370) for a complete package of body scrub, shower, hydrobath, body massage, facial massage, foot care and a dinner. After exchanging a few words about the program with Ms. Min, I was handed a bathing gown, a towel and synthetic waterproof underwear, and led to a changing room. From there, I was taken to a quiet massage room that contained five single beds, one of which I sat on and found a bit hard. When I took off my gown and lay on my back, Ms. Shin quickly placed a folded towel on top of me.

While Ms. Shin and an assistant busily scrubbed and peeled with their fingers the flaky skin on my back, I said, just to break the silence, "So, it must be quite a challenge to massage a body so different from a supermodel, huh?"

The question was meant to be a joke, but the two women certainly didn't think so.

For a good 10 seconds, there was complete silence in the room, which made me realize that these women were having trouble adjusting to a free-formed body like mine. Finally, the assistant said, "What are you talking about? Your body is so pretty."

"I know," I said. It was true. I never thought my body was less appealing than any Korean supermodel. Even as a chubby teenage girl, I didn't need Oprah Winfrey to assure me that beauty comes in all sizes.

After the long body scrub, which by the end burned my skin from the salt in the scrubbing cream, I took a quick shower. Then Ms. Shin took me to the next room, full of beautiful Jacuzzi tubs, each partitioned with a plastic curtain. The tub was big enough for me to paddle my feet with my legs fully stretched. After setting the timer for 20 minutes, Ms. Shin added two drops of lavender and a grapefruit aroma oil along with some sea salt and a special seaweed powder that is supposed to loosen the muscles. Then she closed the curtain, wished me well and left me alone for a while.

The bath was a pure joy, and luxuriating in it full-length was something I hadn't been able to experience for a long time. Before I returned to Korea two years ago, I lived in Canada for 12 years. The tub I had in my last apartment, in Montreal, was so old that every time I took a bath, white chunks of paint flakes would come off and stick to my skin. When I used to get out of that tub, my Japanese roommate would tease me, saying that I look like a human dalmatian. But I was too embarrassed to ask my landlord for better heating in a reasonably priced apartment in downtown Montreal. I was poor and needed a bathtub if I was to survive in the minus-35 degree centigrade weather. The bathtub in my Seoul apartment is so narrow that I can hardly fit into it.

The bliss of the bath ended with the start of the gyeongrak body massage, a painful ordeal that went on for nearly an hour. It involved a heavy thumping and manipulation of muscles throughout my body. The young woman lying next to me, however, cooed with pleasure at the same pummeling. The woman said this was her fifth visit this week and that she found the treatment very effective for her postpartum depression. She offered to join me in the sauna after the massage was over. I said that wasn't going to be possible because I was already fully drained only halfway through the massage. After the woman moved on to the next phase, Ms. Shin whispered to me, "Some really determined women come here."

The facial massage didn't come as much surprise. Some of my beauty-conscious girlfriends had already warned me that I had vulnerable skin. The skin consultant at Body Works talked to me as if my pores would be torn to shreds by the next day if I didn't start to use proper cosmetic products like those she suggested. The facial massage went on for a good 90 minutes. I asked the masseuse to write down the list of things she applied to my face and she did:

skin cleanser

whitening cream

trouble-free cream

pore-protecting cream

eye-lifting cream

anti-aging cream

oxidizing cream

facial reduction cream

vitamin cream


The lowlight of the facial session came when Ms. Shin held my face over a bowl of water full of floating particles scrubbed from my skin. They were, I suddenly realized, blackheads. Yuck!

By the time I moved on to the foot massage, it was getting dark and I was nearly hungry enough to eat a blackhead. I was about to scream when the foot masseur, Cho Sung-hwan, offered me another large cup of green tea to extract more water from my body. "No thanks," I said. Mr. Cho was a wholesome-looking gentleman who said he had first gotten his hands on foot therapy 13 years ago. He had broken one of his legs while practicing walking on a fashion runway in Paris, where he was training to be a model. When Mr. Cho visited a Chinese foot masseuse in Paris to be treated, he decided to change his career.

For the first 10 minutes of our session, Mr. Cho soaked my feet in a mini-Jacuzzi tub. I expected to hear some meditative tune while my feet were being washed and squeezed, but instead, Mr. Cho took me to a quiet room where he put on an old ballad by Gang Suji, a former teen idol who, according to a tabloid had married a young dentist, I recently read. Mr. Cho confessed he had enjoyed listening to her music when he was in the army. I felt the song quite distracting, but I decided not to ruin his moment.

The massage was soothing, but there was something irresistibly uncomfortable about having someone touching my feet. For a while, I had difficult a time loosening up. At one point, Mr. Cho yelled at me, "If you don't relax your foot, it will just hurt and it won't do a thing for you!"

As he massaged my left foot, Mr. Cho told me I had an unhealthy liver. He was probably right; I have been experiencing frequent eye problems recently which I know are sometimes related to a bad liver. He pressed hard with the tip of his knuckles on the most painful part of my left foot. His fingers were so strong that at times I thought he was using tools. He ended the session by stretching my legs. For the pedicure, which I resisted until the last moment but finally gave in to, I expected a female beautician. But it was Mr. Cho who brought me a burgundy nail polish to go with my dark skin. "That's the color all girls went crazy for last summer," Ms. Chae, the manager, said as she passed by the foot massage room, where my toenails were being dried with yellow sponges.

At about 7 p.m., I was done. By the time I finished changing, all the beds in the massage room were fully occupied. Ms. Chae told me that it was the time of the day when the spa is busiest with young female clients just getting off work. Once in a while, the women drag along their partners and have the massage done in the shop's private "couples room." When I was just about to step out, three staff members, including Ms. Shin, ran to the door and bowed deeply.

As I grow older, more and more I feel there are things in life that just cannot be explained in a cause-and-effect manner. Human desire, I believe, falls into this category. It always contradicts rational thinking and leaves me feeling split between the two irreconcilable notions. Intellectually, I still have some difficulty identifying with people who spend one-third of their income on body indulgences such as beauty spas. At the same time, I now try not to feel any sense of moral superiority over those who choose to do so.

If someone were to ask me if I would go back to a spa, I would probably smile and say, "If I had the money and the time, anything's possible."

by Park Soo-mee

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