For the last few years I've been indulging in nudist behavior. With my kids. In public. And it's been wonderful. It began four years ago, when my 6-year-old daughter and I were invited to an unusual birthday party at a castle-like Korean spa. Our hostess gave me a heads-up that the first portion of the day would require some nudity, so I wasn't entirely surprised when, after we checked in, we were directed to an enormous room with separate lockers for our shoes and clothes. It was challenging to disrobe without feeling utterly exposed, but I didn't want to show my daughter I was fazed by it, so I stripped off and closed the locker door on my clothes. Our children make us so much braver.
Next we found ourselves walking, stark naked, into a vast room with a series of shallow pools, each a different temperature and some with pounding jets that attack or soothe various parts of the body. But impressive as these waterworks were, it was much more striking to be surrounded entirely by naked women. Lots of naked women. The rest of the spa is co-ed and therefore clothed, and the other areas are lots of fun: a steaming outdoor pool; a small city of saunas lined with gold, jade and ice; a Korean food court serving bibimbap and fro-yo. But it was the "naked room," as we dubbed it, that defined the experience for all of us.
I've been back several times, with adult friends as well as my daughters (mothers of sons are out of luck here), and I never fail to get a rush out of the naked room. It's surprisingly emotional to witness mothers, daughters and grandmothers all sharing the experience; and while I may not feel comfortable being scrubbed with a rough glove by a friend (exfoliation is big in Korea, apparently), I still feel a bit subversive for participating in this grand nudist display. It's not unlike the "Nude Olympics" that marked the first snowfall each year at my alma mater, when the boldest sophomores dashed around the prettiest quad on campus at midnight clad only in boots and (perhaps) a scarf. The event drew voyeurs and some bad behavior, but my own experience of it was both chaste and exhilarating.
Yet as I've returned to this spa, and as my daughters grow ever-closer to puberty, my enjoyment of the naked room is less about the frisson of public nudity, and more about the experience I'm providing for them. Perhaps I'm naïve, but I'm stunned -- really, genuinely stunned -- by the vast variety of women's bodies I see there. There are women of all, and I really do mean all, sizes and shapes. The sheer range of shapes we come in is literally marvelous. I'm also surprised how much is revealed when clothes are stripped away: it's far more intimate than the beach, where even tiny swimsuits disguise and guide the flesh in various aesthetic directions. Also, the requirement that we all be naked removes much of the judgment that accompanies beachside people-watching.
I've had several revelations prompted by this astounding array of body types. First, not one woman I've ever seen here looks anything like the women we see in magazines or on screen. Some have good figures, sure, but not one has the flat belly, slim hips and large breasts that you'd imagine are standard equipment from media images. Really: NOT ONE. What a gift for young girls to see real women, and I don't mean the occasional "plus size" (size 8) model who releases a widely publicized nude photo. No one looks much like her, either, for the record. My daughters are too young to understand this yet, but I'm hoping that as they grow older they will know, in a way that goes beyond the abstract, that real real women have bumps and lumps, cellulite in places you didn't even know you could have cellulite, scars, tattoos, and funny-shaped breasts and areolas. Skinny girls can have flabby tummies, and fat women can be gorgeous. I would say that nudity is the great equalizer, except it's actually the opposite: nudity reveals how immensely varied we are. And it also demonstrates how grossly manipulated we've been when it comes to seeing our own bodies.
The other group who'd benefit from witnessing this scene -- though it could never happen, for obvious reasons -- are boys and men. I had to suppress a giggle when I started to imagine how males, exposed from an ever-younger age to images of women who look like (or actually are) porn stars, would react to this display of female flesh. Of course they'd imagine it as a great erotic treat, but I wonder how they'd really respond when presented with the female form in all its actual, varied glory. I deeply wish for some kind of counter-programming for boys: how can we teach them that actual women aren't the hairless, emaciated lust bunnies they fantasize about? Of course, for most men, a woman of any shape or size can be a sex object; but these days it can take a while for men to overcome their preference for the kinds of utterly unreal female forms they have been brainwashed to believe in. I would love to replace every centerfold and swimsuit issue with a slideshow of the women I've seen, in the flesh, in the naked room.
Many of my friends have hesitated -- OK, refused -- to join me in this nudist escapade, and I do know that stripping down past your skivvies can be a terrifying prospect. But aside from promising eyes above your neck, I can offer one other powerful inducement: this is the real deal of what women look like, and you owe it to yourself -- and to your daughters -- to bear witness to the true female form.