I Learned to Love My Body in a Room Full of Naked Korean Grandmothers

How I learned to love my body
Daniel Fishel/Thrillist
Daniel Fishel/Thrillist

I took off my sandals at the door of the bathhouse as panic set in.

Struggling to recall the YouTube videos on bathhouse etiquette I'd watched, questions raced. Do I shower first? Do I leave my clothes in the locker room? WHY ARE THESE TOWELS SO SMALL?! The locker-room matron, patient with our language barrier, conveyed that I was to leave my jeans and T-shirt behind and take my naked ass down into the basement to join the all-female watering hole.

During a 10-day trip through Taiwan and South Korea with friends, we'd made our way to Seoul -- and it was there I'd announced my intention to visit a real-life Korean bathhouse. Traditional bathhouses, or jjimjilbang, are big in today's Korean culture; offering a place for friends and couples to socialize, practice beauty and health rituals, and relax. Sure, my decision to check the place out was partially fueled by a few beers and a waffle from a local sheep cafe -- but in that moment, I was determined to treat me, myself, and my easily sunburned 5'5" frame to the skin scrubbing of a lifetime.

I didn't realize I was about to learn to love my body, too.

My journey around the world ended with a trip inward

When I presented my friends with my plan, they reminded me that one, I didn't speak a lick of Korean (I can say "thank you" and "THAT'S CUTE," which I of course yell for emphasis); and two, I would be going alone on a Monday morning to a basement bathhouse in Seoul because said bathhouse was for women only -- and the only other woman in our group wouldn't be joining me. Still -- the potential to return home after my first trip abroad with a naked story felt too good to pass up.

And so it followed that the next day I tromped two blocks through a rainstorm in my sandals from my friend's pint-sized apartment to the bathhouse in question in order to strip down and hang out in my skivvies with a bunch of naked Korean grandmas.

Standards of beauty were complicated for me

Being born to a half-Chinese, half-white dad and a mother of mixed-European descent, standards of beauty were complicated in my American household. I was raised in California and bore witness to classic American variations on one theme: long-legged white girls in magazines, advertisements, and movies; resplendent with their long blonde hair, full breasts, and bright-blue eyes.

"The obtuse angle of my nose and my mosquito bite-sized boobs very gradually became beloved pieces of who I am."

My dark brown hair and chocolate chip-colored eyes -- the few traits I share with my Chinese grandmother -- were in stark contrast to my blonde-haired, hazel-eyed mother. And really, none of the images of beauty in my line of sight came close to representing the appearances of my family members… or my own reflection. To be honest, I didn't really know what I was supposed to look like.

Over the years, my body and I have shifted from a relationship of critique and confusion to one of comfort. The obtuse angle of my nose and my mosquito bite-sized boobs very gradually became beloved pieces of who I am. But stripping down in front of a bunch of strangers in a strange land was a test I wasn't entirely sure I was ready for.

Acceptance is all about letting go

Now, it’s one thing to be comfortable with yourself in everyday life -- and quite another to be confident in front of a room of bathing Korean women. Growing up, I had been curious about yet distant from my own body. I saw makeup and fashion as things that would undermine the respect given to me by my male peers, and strove for comments like, "You're not like other girls." It wasn't until college that I began to realize I could be a feminist and a female; and that I wasn't worth less because I was proud to be a girl. It was that moment that freed me to fall into a healthy, committed relationship with myself.

In Korean culture, women take great pride in their appearance. Their outfits, makeup, hair, eyeliner -- all perfect. City streets are saturated with makeup stores promising perfect pores, brighter eyes, and preserved light skin. So I couldn't help but wonder: what was I about to walk into?

"To me, my boobs were too small, my dark hair too obvious against my pale skin."

As I stood trying to look through the steam-coated double doors of the bathhouse, I couldn't help but be transported back into my junior-high locker room. In those two years, I had tried to cover up as much as possible. To me, my boobs were too small, my dark hair too obvious against my pale skin. Now, 14 years later, I felt equally as exposed. Yes, this time I was braceless, had learned how to put in contacts, and no longer wore a training bra (barely); but standing at those doors, I felt certain I was already failing to achieve a beauty standard I didn't even know existed.

Maybe I did it for junior-high Carly, maybe I did it because I was starting to get cold just standing there, but after two minutes, I opened the door.

The tiny, steamy room held big lessons

The room was no bigger than a New York Starbucks -- only here, Korean grandmothers were unabashedly scrubbing themselves from head to toe. Some chatted with friends, others enjoyed the solace of simply being in the room, but no one looked up. I was naked and they did not care.
In the privacy of this basement bathhouse, these women who I perceived as so concerned with being looked at, being beheld as objects of beauty, weren't aiming for perfection.

I beelined for the first tub I saw, praying I was stepping into a bathing pool instead of the bathhouse's only drinking water supply. I sat fascinated by the freedom of my own nakedness and the obliviousness of the women around me. It didn't shock them to see a naked 26-year-old traveler bouncing from 70-degree to 80-degree water in an attempt to understand the difference. The women only seemed to look up once when they noticed my tattoos -- but soon even my ink failed to hold their interest.

Unable to communicate with anyone around me, I slid deeper into the tub. Floating in the now-simmering tub of tit soup, my freckled forearms took on a sparkling shade of ruby rose. I looked up and admired the parade of boobs, stretch marks, and sagging skin around me. Each body was beautiful in its imperfections.

I shed more than my clothes in that bathhouse

The naked bathhouse simply allowed us the space to appreciate our own bodies in that exact moment and not demand anything more.

I toweled off using a washcloth-size piece of cloth and said a silent "thank you" to the group of women who would never know my name or the impact their presence made on me. And with a completely soaked towel and a still-wet body, I pulled my clothes on best I could and made me way back into the world a little lighter.

While I had traveled thousands of miles to reunite and spend time with my friends, it turned out to be a roomful of strangers who gave me the best gift of all: the permission to be comfortable in my own perfectly imperfect skin.

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Carly Lanning is a freelance journalist and curation coordinator for YouTube. Follow her for cat photos and obscure YouTube videos on Twitter @CarlyLanning.