A thin, 50-something Korean woman wearing a mismatched bra and panty set takes my hand and leads me down a brightly lit hallway. The tiles lining the walls and floor blend together, all white and rectangular and dripping with condensation, and the wet air sends a chill down my naked spine. She lets go and I instinctively shiver, crossing my arms over my exposed nipples. We’ve stopped in front of a massage table covered in clear plastic. She points to it and says, “Face down.”
I’m at a jjimjilbang, or a Korean spa, as they’re known in America. Los Angeles is full of them, and I discovered years ago that there’s almost nothing a trip to the K-spa can’t fix. Here, $20 grants you access to 24 hours of uninterrupted “me time;” where you can lounge in the Himalayan sea salt hot tub, sweat in the jade-tiled sauna, or relax in heated rooms filled with clay or crystals or infrared magnets, each designed to draw out toxins and recalibrate your system. There are no clothes or phones allowed; there are no distractions. It’s just you, your naked body, and your naked thoughts. I retreat to a cozy, women’s-only K-spa in Koreatown anytime I’m feeling down and always emerge hours later feeling renewed in mind, body, and spirit.
SCRUBBING AWAY THE SHAME
While I normally only lounge in the K-spa’s aforementioned general access areas, today I splurge on a traditional Korean body scrub. It involves a neck-to-toe exfoliation technique that’s aggressive, invasive, and, apparently, totally life- and skin-changing. Rumor has it you leave with approximately none of the skin cells you came in with; and right now, that sounds like heaven.
I maneuver onto the table and turn my head to the side, resting my cheek on the squeaky, thick plastic covering. She empties a large bowl of water onto my body to soften my skin, pulls on a pair of exfoliating mitts, and gets to work; starting with my right arm and working her way down my back.
The scrubbing mitts are rough and painful, and a cliché thought crosses my mind: It hurts, but not as much as what I feel inside. Tears prick the corners of my eyes but I fight the temptation to cry. I will not be the woman crying about her abortion in the middle of an indulgent beauty treatment.
LIFE AFTER ABORTION
The abortion. I don’t regret it. I wasn’t ready to surrender my body to another human being, my husband wasn’t ready to be a father, we weren’t ready to give up our relationship. But the after-effects are constant reminders … The spare tire around my waist (from the hormones or the stress eating, I don’t know). The hormonal acne. The constant state of anxiety. I don’t feel at home in this body anymore. Suddenly, it seems imperative that every single one of my skin cells is gone. I steel myself against her roughness and surrender to the sensation.
She scrubs and scrubs, her demeanor brusque and businesslike, with no regard for my body at all. It is no sacred temple; it’s just another slab of flesh on her table. Her hand digs in, moving up and down and up and down my thigh, smoothing over the rough patches and inching shamelessly close to my vagina—as if this part of my body was no different from any other, as if it was nothing special.
I can’t help thinking that it is special. It’s a portal for life and a portal for pain and the sheer power inherent in my body amazes and thrills and guts me. I never wanted to be a mother… but when I found out I could be one, a part of me changed my mind. A part of me imagined myself rubbing a round tummy, and holding a baby like one of those impossibly chic Instagram mothers. A part of me was devastated to give that up, even though I knew it was The Right Thing.
PROCESSING THE PAIN
I flip and she begins the process over again. The combination of the mitts and the citrus-scented sugar scrub is rough on my breasts, which have been extra-sensitive since just before I found out I was pregnant.
I noticed changes in my body—no appetite, bigger boobs—gradually, before putting two and two together and taking a pregnancy test. (Three pregnancy tests.) And now, a month after taking the abortion pill, my body still doesn’t feel like my own. My breasts are swollen, I’m eating my feelings, and I’m in no mood for sex. Actually, now that I think about it, the K-spa employee is the first person to see me naked since it happened. I haven’t let my husband look at me. I haven’t let myself look at me. I am happy with my choice … I just wish it never had to happen.
She moves to my stomach; massaging its soft doughiness with circular swipes of her mitt. I’m used to the roughness now; the deep exfoliation actually feels good, necessary. Maybe because I’m realizing it’s more than just layers of skin that are being sloughed away. With every stroke and every stray tear, I feel more peaceful. More in tune with my body. More like myself.
And then it’s over and the woman is filling up an industrial-sized bowl with warm water. She splashes my arms, refills; splashes my chest, refills; and finally throws the remaining water across my stomach, washing away the remnants of the scrub and the buildup of dead cells. A baptism of my womb, a blessing on my decision.
MAKING PEACE WITH MY CHOICE—AND MY BODY
My body completely rinsed, she turns me over and begins to lotion my back. I’m still wet and the lotion doesn’t sink in, it just slips around like oil on the surface, and nothing prepares me for its softness. After the harshness of the scrub, the touch of her hand feels so tender, it’s almost unbearable.
It’s funny how that works.
By now, I am that woman crying about her abortion in the middle of an indulgent beauty treatment … but am I really crying about the abortion? Or am I crying because I’ve come back to my body—my body, no one else’s—and it feels better than I remembered? I can’t tell; every emotion is mixed up and massaged out of me until there’s nothing left to do but get up, pull on my clothes, and emerge from the K-spa, renewed—in mind, body, and spirit.