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The (Un-Erotic) Glories of Nudity

Bearing witness to the real shape of women.

For the last two years I've been indulging in nudist behavior. With my daughters. In public. And it's been wonderful. It all began two years ago when my eldest daughter, then six, and I were invited to a most unusual birthday celebration: a day at a mammoth Korean spa in College Point, Queens. The hostess alerted me in advance that the first portion of the day would necessitate 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 remove everything without feeling totally exposed, but not wanting to show my daughter I was fazed by it, I stripped off and closed the door on my clothes.

In minutes, we found ourselves walking, stark naked, towards an equally vast space filled with a series of shallow pools. Each pool is heated to a different temperature, from a bone-chilling 60 degrees to a scalding 108, and many have pounding jets that attack various parts of your body. But as impressive as this show of waterworks was, it was much more striking to be surrounded entirely by naked women. Lots of naked women. After this area the other parts of the spa are co-ed and therefore necessitate clothing (a scrub-like uniform of shorts and t-shirts worn by all). And the other areas were lots of fun--a warm outdoor pool that we basked in despite the freezing January temperatures; a collection of saunas lined with gold, ice and jade; a Korean food court. But it was the "naked room," as we quickly dubbed it, that captured everyone's fancy most.

I've been back several times, with adult friends as well as with my daughters (mothers of sons, you are out of luck here—only very young boys are allowed in the women's area), and I never fail to get a rush out of the first floor. There's something incredibly sweet about seeing mothers and daughters and grandmothers all sharing the experience, and while I wouldn't feel terribly comfortable having a friend scrub me all over with a hard exfoliating glove, as I see other women doing (exfoliation is big in Korea, apparently), I do feel a bit subversive for being part of this grand nudist exhibit. It's not dissimilar from the feeling I had as a college sophomore, participating in the so-called "Nude Olympics" that marked the first snowfall each year. Clad only in boots and perhaps a scarf, the most daring sophomores would dash around the prettiest quad on campus at midnight; needless to say, the event drew impressive crowds and some bad behavior, but my own experience of it was both chaste and entirely exhilarating.

But as I've returned to this spa, and as my daughters grow closer to pre-pubescent body changes, my enjoyment has become less about the subversive frisson of being nude, and more about the experience I'm providing for them. It's possible that I'm incredibly naïve, but I am 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. It's impossible not to marvel at the sheer variety of shapes that we come in, and at how much is revealed when clothes are stripped away. It's so much more intimate than even the beach, where even small bathing suits can disguise and guide the flesh in various aesthetic directions.

The revelations prompted by this astounding array of body types are many. First, not one woman I've ever seen here looks anything like the women we see every day in magazines, on TV and in films. There are women with good figures, but not one with the flat belly, slim hips and large breasts that you'd think were standard equipment from media images. Really: NOT ONE. I can't overstate how invaluable it is for young girls to grow up seeing 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 am very much hoping that as they grow older they will, in a way that's beyond abstract: real real women have bumps and lumps, cellulite in places you didn't even know you could have cellulite, scars, tattoos, and oddly 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 how terribly 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 this group, exposed from an increasingly young age to images of women who look like (or actually are) porn stars, would react to the display of female flesh in the naked room. Of course they'd imagine it a great erotic treat, but I wonder how they'd feel when presented with the female form in all its actual, varied glory. I find myself wishing for some kind of counter-programming for boys, too: how can we teach them that actual women aren't the hairless, emaciated, lust objects they imagine in their fantasies? Of course, you don't have to dig very deep to discover that, for most men, a woman of any shape can be a lust object; but these days it can take a while for men to overcome their preference for the kinds of utterly unreal female forms they, too, have been trained to believe in (see this New York magazine article for more. Or this one.). Which is why I would love to replace all the centerfolds and swimsuit models with a slideshow of the women I've seen, in the flesh, in the naked room.

I have friends who've hesitated to join me at this spa, and listen, I know that stripping down beyond your skivvies can be a terrifying prospect. But aside from promising not to look below your neck, I can offer one other inducement: this is the real deal of what women look like, and you owe it to yourself—and if you have any, your daughters—to bear witness.

What I cooked this week:

 

 

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