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Public Displays of Humanity

Women Bathing by Tamara de Lempicka

I hesitate to mention the iconic and often cringe-inducing TV show Sex and the City (of which I have seen every episode more than once), but in this case I feel compelled to quote Charlotte York. In response to her friends’ urging that she remove her towel at a spa, Charlotte cries, “I didn’t grow up in a naked house!” Well, Charlotte, I didn’t either. When it comes to nudity, I’m kind of a wuss. I don’t feel comfortable in revealing clothing. I don’t like changing in front of friends or in the women’s locker room at the gym. I don’t even want my mother to see me naked, a fact that exasperates her. “You came out of my body, you fool!” she once yelled at me as I struggled to keep covered while changing in her presence. “Yes,” I admitted. “But I didn’t come out looking like this.”

I’ve had my share of body issues; find me a woman who hasn’t. But there comes a time in everyone’s life when you have to suck it up and strip down. This time for me came yesterday, when I drove all the way to Queens to visit the baffling, magical establishment called Spa Castle. My husband had gotten me a day pass as a gift, and since it was pretty obvious that he would rather pull out his eyelashes one at a time than spend a day at a spa, I invited my friend Jess to join me. I didn’t realize that in certain areas of Spa Castle you are required to be nude until Jess told me. “Apparently all the bathing/whirlpool areas are naked only,” she wrote in an email, “so prepare yourself for my glorious flesh.” Whoa, I thought. This is going to be weird.

And it was weird… for about thirty seconds. As Jess and I prepared to disrobe in the women’s locker room at Spa Castle, a spike of panic tore through me. My brain was quietly going Ahhhhh! while my hands were pulling my dress over my head. It’s fine, I told myself. No big deal. And then suddenly, it was done. Jess and I were undressed. The panic lingered for a few seconds more and then it dissipated, settling on the floor with our clothes. We shrugged and headed for the baths.

Spa Castle is an enormous maze of hot tubs and cold pools, steam rooms and saunas, relaxation areas and massage rooms. Only the gender-specific bath areas require nudity, so Jess and I started there, as if to get the tough stuff out of the way. But it quickly became our favorite part of the whole place. Each pool was different: a different temperature, a different arrangement of jets. One had throne-like seats where jets pummeled your back; another had a gentle waterfall that felt more like satin than water. But the best part of this room was all the women. Naked. Together.

There were women of all ages, all ethnicities, all body types. Big women and skinny women. Tall women and short. They had large breasts and small breasts and surgically enhanced breasts. There were women with C-section scars, women with stretch marks. A smattering of tattoos: a hibiscus flower, a crescent moon, a hummingbird, a sleeping dog. A variety of languages could be heard: English, Spanish, Korean, Russian. An older woman and a younger one who appeared to be mother and daughter vigorously scrubbed each other’s bodies in one of the room’s open showers. A few young girls giggled in the kiddie pool as their mothers chatted beside them. Three young Asian women balanced folded towels on their heads as they eased into one of the hot tubs.

Every so often someone tried to sneak into the nude-only area with her bathing suit on. Without exception, these were young women. Their skin was still smooth, their breasts not yet sagging, and yet they were the ones who desperately wanted to cover up. Before long a staff member would tell them they had to remove their suits, and they would give up and leave, headed for one of the co-ed areas where bathing suits are not only permitted but required. I was sad for these young women. Society, the media, or perhaps someone close to them had taught them to feel ashamed of their bodies, and now they could feel nothing else.

Jess and I tried not to stare at all the women around us, but it was hard to look away. The scene was mesmerizing. As I looked around the room I felt a blooming kinship with the other women that I rarely feel with their clothed counterparts as I buy groceries or wait for the subway or walk home in my daily life. Not a single negative thought entered my mind. Not Yikes, look at her or God, I wish I had her legs/boobs/butt. Granted, if you’d plunked me into Spa Castle as a teenager, that might’ve been a different story. But now, in my thirties, I felt perfectly serene. These women were just like me, and I was just like them. We all looked different, came from different places, led different lives, but we were also connected by the simplest of truths. We were daughters and mothers and friends and lovers. We were women. We were humans. We just were.

As my Spa Castle high was replaced with road rage on the drive back to Brooklyn, I knew it wouldn’t be long before I resumed my modest tendencies and general avoidance of awkward changing situations. But I had gotten a glimpse of something that is all too rare in our modern world: a space where a woman can wear nothing but her skin and submerge herself in the warm waters of community and acceptance. I’ve got my complaints about Spa Castle (for one, it is generally overpriced; snag this Living Social deal while you still can), but I’m grateful that I was able to go and have this experience. I’m not sure what it’s like over on the men’s side, but on the ladies’ there is something beautiful going on.

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