My Body Unknown: Why I Can't Write a Love Letter to My Body
I cannot remember being comfortable in my body since I was ten years old. Ten. By fifth grade something had downloaded into my developing self-image that I did not have a good enough body. While other girls celebrated the onset of their womanly curves, I loathed mine. I felt utterly at odds with the changes happening that I had no control over.
I hated wearing a bra. I could barely look at my bosom as I wrestled with the new contraption that my mother said was time for me to wear. I didn't know how to properly rig the straps and so they slipped down my shoulders, out from under my sleeved arms showcasing to the entire adolescent world that I did not know how to dress my body.
"Pull up your bra straps," snapped one of the mean girls from my school. Everyone within earshot paused to stare at me. Embarrassment flooded my gut. I hated this bra. I hated the budding breasts that required me to wear a bra. I hated the mean girl and I hated me.
Fast forward 28-years later. Me and my body. Still at odds. I can't even hardly look at myself in a mirror. I dread trying on clothes and would rather get a root canal than go shopping for a swimsuit. But a Saturday morning brunch with two beautiful Latina women I know inspired a quest in me. "You should go, Pam. You'll love it. It's very relaxing and liberating," they urged. They were speaking of the visits they had enjoyed at a Korean bathhouse for women. "It's a very safe place," they said, the two of them with their glowing brown sugar skin and well-proportioned curvaciousness. I surprised myself with uncharacteristic agreeableness. Anything to do with my body usually resulted with a No.
I hoped it would be a positive experience, an opportunity to begin a new era in my relationship (or rather lack of) with my body. It seemed a date with God's destiny for me to finally develop speaking terms with my body. A Korean bathhouse for women. Only a few miles from my neighborhood, on the other side of the river in one of the suburbs. I read reviews on Yelp including one from a self-described large woman who said the bathhouse experience increased her body acceptance. My friends encouraged me further as I explained, "Maybe I'll go home and get a swimsuit to wear." You could, they said, but it will be more beneficial if you don't. Think about it, they said as we finished up our arepas, delicious pancake-like corn cakes my Venezuelan friend had prepared.
This sudden willingness to make peace with my body caught me unaware. Without too much mental protest, I drove across the river, passing through several zip codes to find the bathhouse that might transform my troubled relationship between me and my body.
A kind faced middle-aged Korean woman welcomed me. The place seemed empty. Good. I had noted only two cars in the parking lot. I told her it was my first time, and yes, I would like to book a scrub-down for afterwards. My friends had raved about it, how good they felt, rejuvenated and glowy. I didn't care so much about that as I did for the quest I found myself on: to make nice with the flesh that housed my soul. Perhaps a good cleansing was all I needed.
The Korean bathhouse woman handed me a robe and a towel and directed me to the shower room. I wasn't sure what to expect. I cautiously opened the door, my imagination flooding back to the shower room of my middle school and mean girls. I hated P.E.
Only one woman was in the shower room. One petite, slender fit Korean woman without a hint of modesty about her. She barely glanced at me.
The shower room was a large square-shaped room with several alcoves. Around the perimeter of the room against the tiled walls were shower heads, spread about five feet apart. In the middle of the room was a large tiled square tub with small handled buckets seated on its edge. Steam curled from the water and I wondered, Do women bathe communally in that? This worried me for I was already feeling incredibly vulnerable as I surveyed which shower head to claim and how to take off my robe and be naked with a complete stranger a mere few feet away from me. But then the Korean bather did something curious. She had a body wash bottle with her and a loofah. At the side of the tub she scrubbed her legs until they were red and then dipped one of the buckets into the bathwater and began pouring and rinsing the soap off of her legs. Then she returned to her shower. I was soon to discover that the bath water was very hot, so hot that it left the skin red. The shower was cooler, and when I later mimicked her routine, I discovered how good it felt to scrub and scald then rinse with cooler water.
Now it was my Moment of Truth: I disrobed and turned the shower on. Anxiety gripped my inner girl like an assailant in a dark alley. I wasn't expecting immediate empowerment as soon as I uncovered my curves and fleshly frame, but it would have been a welcome relief, for I could not focus on the sensuous experience of the water cascading down my body with all the fretting that erupted inside my body and mind the second I took off my robe. I was naked and I felt naked. Inside and out.
But I pressed on, determined to at least finish this quest of confronting my body issue as if I was in a marathon. I might come in last place, but fuck it, I am going the distance.
The Korean woman paced around the room, from shower to tub and back again. I seemed invisible to her. She showered, scrubbed more body parts—including down there—and again performed the ritual of rinsing off from the steamy square tub. I made my shower quick then robed up again to explore the adjacent sauna. It had a door. Doors are good. Doors provide privacy. Doors hide the curvy bodies of overweight, insecure women like me.
The sauna smelled good, like an old-growth forest after a warm summer rain. There were two tiers of wooded planks to sit upon. I took off my robe and climbed upon the higher tier, leaning my frame against the warm wall. The heat felt good. My muscles liked it. My body liked it. Yet discomfort prevailed. It was like being on a blind date. I did not talk to my body. It did not talk to me. We were just there, the two of us, alone in the sauna.
I tried to act relaxed. Fake it 'til you make it has gotten me through all kinds of awkward situations. I sat with my legs stretched out. I fidgeted. I turned and swung my legs over the side. I crossed them, uncrossed them, turned and stretched them out again. I kept an eye on the door. The window on it was veiled with steam, yet I could make out the bathing woman's form, moving to and fro from shower to tub. I comforted myself by promising that should anyone else show up to this sauna that I would execute Plan E – Escape. No one showed up, though, and so there I sat, fidgeting with my body who refused to talk to me and me to it. We were clearly a mismatched pair. Who thought up this dumb date anyway?
After a while it seemed right to exit the sauna. The Korean bather was gone and now I had the entire shower room to myself. This helped me relax a little bit. I scrubbed and scalded as I had watched her do, and though there was a certain amount of pleasure in treating my skin this way, I did not fully enjoy it. It was painful to my psyche. And yet the real test was yet to come –a full body scrub down by the Korean bath house operator.
With all the courage I could summon, I let her know that I was done with bathing and yes, we can do the scrub down. I had my robe back on as she led me to a small alcove in the shower room. A curious space, it simply had a a long table, like a massage table, centered in a completely tiled room. The ceiling was tiled. A hose ran from the wall with a bucket next to it. They sure like buckets around here, I thought.
"Ok, you take off your robe and lay on your stomach on the table," she announced. She, by the way, was not naked. She wore shorts and a tank top. She looked like she was going to the beach. I summoned courage to come as I took off my robe. It was a huge step for me to disrobe with another bather in the room, but she was far from my personal bubble and we did not talk to each other. Yet now here I was lying on a table like a slab of meat with a total stranger hovering about me. On the outside I appeared calm—fake it til you make it—but on the inside there was an epic battle raging for control. My body, which had not spoken to me in so many, many years since I was in middle school, now suddenly found her voice and began shouting at me, "Stop! I do not want to do this. Get me out of here and get me out of here now!"
"It's ok," I said to my body self. "She has done this many times before. You are safe. You are going to be fine and we are going to learn to like and trust one another in this. We can do this."
The Korean woman geared up with loofah scrubbers on her hands. She pour generous amounts of body scrub on me and began scrubbing me down. It was not that pleasant as I felt that my skin was being sanded. I knew this level of exfoliation would be good for my skin, and though that was a nice benefit to consider, I kept my focus on my real goal : to change my relationship with my body from a negative one to a positive one.
She scrubbed everywhere. I mean, Everywhere! The whole time we chatted, the kind of banter I do with my hairdresser. I tried to ignore that she was scrubbing not only around my boobs, but scrubbing My Boobs as my body raged inwardly in protest, "No one washes these girls except me. End this now."
"Hang in there, just a little while longer and it will be over. You can do this," I coached myself.
"Ok, almost done, " she said as she reached for the hose to fill up the bucket again. Each time she finished scrubbing an area, she would take a bucket of water and gently pour it over me, washing the dead skin and dirt away. I was being baptized as literally a new body was being excavated from under the old. My body had quieted down as she rinsed me off one last time.
After I had dressed and reentered the real world of my minivan and suburban roadways, I drove home with a tremendous sense of accomplishment.
I did it. I had conquered my body fears and allowed myself to be physically vulnerable. A surge of contentment flowed through my body. Quiet she was, yet peaceful. I did feel rejuvenated and liberated.
Yet it did not last.
Within a few days I began to relive the experience as if it had been a trauma. Anxiety surged, not peace. How could you do that to me, whispered my body from some faraway corner of my psyche. How could you give up control? I knew I couldn't trust you.
Once again, my body and I were at an impasse where we remain to this day.
Even right now as I pen this, there is a sense of disloyalty, a burn of shame that I am betraying a secret, the secret of my discord with all-things-my-body. I worry that in the telling that others will attempt to diagnose me. She must have been abused. She likely was molested. Her parents must have treated her bad. She must be emotionally immature.
So why even post this? Why now?
Why put myself and my body through the experience of the Korean bath house and why write about it with lucid candor? I can only think of one thing: Age. I am 48-years old. I am no longer a young maiden nor a child-bearing female. I am entering the tribe of the crone, the wizened women around us who have journeyed beyond girlhood, maidenhood and arrived to the full moon of their years. There is a new fury within me, a new determination to own the story, the life and the body that is mine. I may not yet be able to write a love letter to my body, but I can at least begin to tell the tale that is mine to tell. Perhaps in the telling the love will someday be found. Fake it til you make it has not worked out for me. Tell it 'til I own it is more my style. In the moonlit spaces among the crones and sisterhood is where I will tell it.
I'd love to hear how others are getting along with their bodies. Especially those readers who have difficult relationships with their body as I do. Your story matters!