On Sunday, my sister surprised me with a trip to LA’s Koreatown. My face lit up! For me, this meant one thing only: seshin! A full body scrub Korean style!—twenty years had somehow flown by since my last scrub; twenty years that I had deprived myself of clean skin and barrels of laughter that were always part and parcel of this type of indulgence. This time, my daughter also joined us, and to think that the last time I was there she was only seven years old. There’s always something that triggers an uncomfortable thought or a feeling that you may be suppressing, and for me, it was the sudden realization that twenty years had gone by in the blink of an eye. I was young the last time I went, and now I would enter the premises as a middle aged woman, damn it.
After my initial screech and multiple yippees, I fell dramatically silent—my mind drifted to those good old days at the Korean Spa, when I’d parade around in the nude in front of loads of women and who knows who, but feeling unhampered by my surroundings and my body.
“Ilana, why’re you quiet—you don’t want to go?” asked Sharon.
“No, I want to go!”
She gave me one of those “then what’s your problem” looks.
“Nothing, just the last time I was there—I probably weighed ten pounds less so—“
“Who cares!” she snapped, “don’t tell me you’re intimidated all of a sudden?”
“Are you crazy!” chimed in Maya.
I shrugged, weight was not an issue for me; it was just a passing thought, a symbol of how much I’ve aged. It takes guts to go for a Korean body scrub. It could very well be that in my mid-fifties and especially on my 55th birthday as it were, my youthful confidence had dissolved into reticence, just so much more self-conscious about what was and what’s left of it.
“You know it’s the other way around usually.”
“Wait, how’d you know what I was thinking?”
“You’re not supposed to care at this stage what people think about you or your body, not at this age. And you’ve never cared anyway.”
“Right, I didn’t and I don’t even though my body has changed. But still, it used to be so easy, you know.”
The truth is that the older we get the more we care, otherwise how do you explain the multi-billion dollar beauty and cosmetics industries as well as rejuvenation treatments offered to women all over the globe, and especially sought after by women our own ages? And the spas for heaven’s sake, right there in Koreatown you see a tradition of skin care rituals that are as normal as brushing teeth in some parts of the world—people very much care about their skin! Possibly more than they care about their teeth . . .
And then we walked into this other world. We entered the building and the receptionist handed us our locker keys and told us to undress and put on the robes and slippers that were inside our lockers, and like compliant little schoolgirls we followed her instructions to the dressing room.
When I entered the main bathing area, also known as jjimjilbang, it felt as though I were thrust into another dimension, so strange, like a silent movie when there’s action all around you, but no sound at all. The room looked drab, lacking all the bells and whistles one is accustomed to seeing in high-end modern Western spas, but we didn’t care. We knew what awaited us around the corner. I watched the women, all of whom seemed indifferent to nudity, engage in toweling themselves dry; comb their hair; apply creams; get dressed, undressed. It’s a shock all right, especially if you’re not used to this type of thing. There was perpetual movement all around us and I did my best to keep to the spa’s etiquette of “act like you’re not noticing a thing while your mind catalogues every single image before you.”
I continued to scrutinize my surroundings until the receptionist peered through a little window and barked at me to undress already, because I needed to shower and prep my skin before my scrub. I knew what to do, but she thought I was a newcomer to this strange world of Asian-style holistic relaxation. My sister and daughter were already submerged in water, so I hurried to undress, wear my robe, and join them. Though honestly, why bother with that robe in the first place.
I found my sister and daughter in one of the soaking pools, there was one with regular water, another with tea, and a third with arctic cold-water. There were also a number of therapeutic rooms to choose from, such as dry and steam saunas, including a herbal sauna, a gem room, a salt room, and a red clay ball room. Along the walls there were low faucets where I watched women sitting in groups of three or four in a row, family members I assumed, busily scrubbing each other’s backs in a rhythmic motion.
Communal bathing is a centuries-old tradition, but for someone like me who’d been accustomed to bathing alone it felt like a vivid hallucination or a voyeuristic Peeping Tom show. I watched the women engage in an activity that for the rest of us has always been a private affair. The three of us decided to begin our cleansing steps inside the steam sauna.
Thankfully, there was no one inside, I guess it had something to do with COVID precautions, but in the old days I recall that weird sensation inside this particular woodsy-scented room when it was at full occupancy, and the women looked blankly into space, pretending that no one else was there, and from time to time you’d hear the thud of a bucket of water splashing on stones to generate more steam. This time we had the room all to ourselves so we included a few naked dances, and without a doubt, my sister won first prize for the oddest moves.
Next, we entered the red clay ball room; we watched Maya zip over the balls with the ease and elegance of a ballet dancer in a glissade (glide) across a dance floor. When it was our turn, gravity took over and we sank right in, and looked like two idiots trying to escape inevitable branding. Yes, Maya had a good laugh. Once we figured out how to drag our fatter asses to the center, without burning our bottoms, ta-da—we relaxed. I would have stayed longer but we wanted to try out every single room, so once again we attempted to drag our bodies off the clay without sinking. We managed to sauna hop and visit all of the amenities, even the freezing arctic water—the smiles on all our faces said it all.
On the other side of the room, several naked women were lying down on stone beds covered in vinyl. They looked placid as an army of underwear-clad women labored hard, scrubbing every part of their bodies. The process looked invasive and there was no shame, no modesty involved in the way they were positioned on the beds, and the treatment of their bodies seemed so crude—a smack here, a slap there prodding them to change positions, and buckets of water splashed all over them to rinse off their dead skin as though they were animals on a farm rather than dainty women who’ve come for a beauty treatment. The three of us avoided eye contact with each other because we knew that we would easily burst into fits of laughter.
There was an assortment of breasts on display: small, common C’s, sagging, enormous, tuberous, and stiff mounds that pointed to the ceiling, as well as bottoms of all shapes and sizes jiggling to and fro as they were subjected to vigorous cleansing and orders spouted by authoritative ajumas (aunties). The pruning and grooming of their nether regions was also on display—and my eyes naturally veered below my own navel area for a quick check, just to make sure . . . Could I really do this again? But I’m so dirty, layer upon layer of dead skin and only those scrub bullies would be able to restore my skin. I needed this!
Three ajumas emerged from the scrubbing area, one of them called out my number and without an introduction she grabbed my hand, and led me to my designated bed. I looked back at my daughter and sister—the three of us giggled.
Her name tag read Jenny; she looked older than me, something about her eyes and their deep gaze—but her skin was flawless. Her grip around my hand was tight, she let go to tie my hair up with the rubber wristband attached to my locker key, then she instructed me to lie face down on the bed, fully naked. That’s when my internal monologue kicked into high gear; I wondered whether they used anything to disinfect the beds, perhaps nothing more than a bucket of water to wash off any remains from the last occupant? I looked to my side and noticed how submissive and relaxed the rest of the ladies were, and whoosh came the first warm bucket of water without warning. I let out a combination shriek and giggle, now I knew firsthand what the floor must’ve felt every time it was mopped clean!
A forceful circular motion crept along my back; prickly tingles kept my eyes open–ahhh, I could almost relax despite the scratchy feel of it all, almost, if it weren’t for my overactive brain and intermittent popping sounds signaling the end of someone’s treatment. She leaned into my head and I couldn’t tell whether it was her belly? breasts? vagina? Oh who knows, and why were these women forced to work in their underwear instead of a bathing suit? Would that not be more dignified?
Jenny continued to buff and polish my skin as if she were a Roman tanner, circa 800 BCE, beating and scraping animal skin, then treating it with urine, even biting into it in order to masticate the hides until they turned softer. I was pinned under the pressure of her hands as she roamed the surface of my body until I could finally submit, at last drifting into nothingness. I wasn’t thinking or over-analyzing, not a care in the world—my body melted into the bed. Her hands continued to drift downwards, and I thought nothing of it other than don’t let this moment stop. The circular motion rotated round and round and round and round–and then nothing. She probably needed more soap. Once she resumed the treatment, I felt sandpaper on my butt and my eyes popped open, albeit there was a towel covering my face.
“Hahaha, pimple!” she blurted as though it were the highlight of her day. She made sure to scrub it and I thought I was going to die of shame. But it was a mosquito bite and not a pimple, damn it—couldn’t she tell that I had a few of those on my legs too ( a result of spending hours upon hours tending to my garden). And why were there curtains around my bed, around everybody’s beds if no one bothered drawing them.
What? N-n-nooo, don’t go there, not inside, no no no, don’t let that glove vanish between my cheeks. What’re you doing Jenny?! Oh my goodness, there was not an inch of me that was off limits to Jenny’s slippery hands. She worked methodically on every part of my body, scraping between my toes, behind my ears, under my arm pits, my boobs were also exfoliated. I felt like a plank of wood in the hands of a carpenter handling a power tool to sand down and smooth out all the bumps and uneven parts. Layers of skin, which resembled bits of mud, were scrubbed loose and littered my bed then smeared under my body every time she ordered me to change position. I’m guessing that she must have scrubbed off at least a pound of dead skin and she too proudly pointed at it, in case I had somehow missed it. So gruesome, but such shameless enjoyment had taken over; I could feel the transformation through the shedding of my skin and nothing else mattered from this point on.
Feeling sedated, my muscles had turned into Jell-O and I didn’t care that my legs were split apart, and that she was now diligently smoothing every part of my inner thigh all the way up to my groin. After an hour-long scrub, Jenny tossed a few more buckets of water on top of me, this time with skin as sleek as a dolphin’s, I floundered helplessly like a fish on the pier. She kept me from slipping right off the bed. The next part comprised of cold mush she rubbed on my face and neck. I inhaled the fragrant scent of fresh cucumbers; their cool feel on my skin lulled me to sleep, even though I was completely exposed for all to see and judge—I didn’t give a damn and felt strangely comfortable. Especially after she began to shampoo my hair. I was out. I felt weightless. My body had erased its memory of tendons, muscle, and bone—my mind drifted into emptiness. I could feel the concoction slowly dripping to the sides like the gentle stroke of a hand. The best part was the scent, like a blast of salubrious air, as if I were on a beach somewhere, sitting by the water, enjoying the sea breeze and feasting on a fresh, crisp watermelon.
Once the cucumbers were washed off my face, it was time for the massage. This part was not enjoyable, more like a slapping and pummeling with oil. Oh, but the first part of the treatment was so out of this world that I was still spellbound and smiling. Then I received the dreaded finale pops, a series of them to indicate the end of the session. She didn’t have to shock my system, a gentle whisper would’ve sufficed. But I still felt so good, relaxed, uninhibited, and extremely clean. I looked radiant, the layers of dirt that washed away revealed polished, glistening, glowing, mango-colored, silky, shiny, smooth baby skin.
After showering off the oil, neither one of us bothered covering up with the towel or the robe, so we got the same bewildered stares from the newbies who arrived for their turn of out-of-this-world pampering.
“And to think that you were worried over a few extra pounds when you had a huge pimple on your ass,” said Sharon.
I laughed, even though it was really a mosquito bite. I swear! But who cares, right. Anyway, at this stage there was probably no evidence of it any longer. And that’s what a few hours at the Korean Spa will do for your mental and physical well-being.
Just Google to find the best Korean spa near you. What are you waiting for? Run.
Old Poetry Similar Ideas
How interesting to read old poetry and learn about the prevailing attitudes towards youth and beauty through this art form. We’re all familiar with paintings by the Masters that depict full-figured women as their objects of beauty, so in a way, it’s strange that when reading old poetry the notion of acceptance that you might assume as commonplace years ago, isn’t generally reinforced by most of the old poets. Wider hips and a protruding belly were considered beautiful enough to be immortalized in paintings, but a woman’s age remained an essential component of her desirability and usefulness. In those poems time is the enemy of beauty and love.
To the Virgins
In Robert Herrick’s 1648 poem titled “To the Virgins to Make Much Out of Time,” the theme is about making the most out of life and seizing the day; although, I can also see a little more to the poem’s initial positive stance. Taking into account the era and women’s inferior standing in society, I can’t help but think that Herrick remains steadfast to preconceived notions of beauty and aging. In this poem he emphasizes the need to act fast before the passage of time, “Gather ye rosebuds, while ye may”—a nagging reminder of a woman’s precarious position with respect to time that we never see when mentioning men. “And this same flower that smiles to-day To-morrow will be dying”—this personification cuts straight to the point, and it emphasizes the fleeting nature of a woman’s beauty. If that were not enough reinforcement of the obvious, he goes on to say “That age is best which is the first When youth and blood are warmer“—a woman should take advantage of her youth and virginity if she ever wants to marry. And today, what’s different really? I remember that when I was single, my own grandmother would express a similar sentiment and tell me that I didn’t have much time left, and I was wasting my best years etc. Honestly, all I could do was giggle, she meant well and had married young and her own mother married at age eight! These days people tend to marry at an older age, at least in the West, and have kids in their forties, but with respect to work and career those archaic notions of age as a determining factor to one’s success, still hold true today, especially for women.
You Never Can Be Old
Those of you who’ve read my novel The Diary of a Wrinkle may remember the Shakespeare quote in one of the opening pages of my book:
“To me, fair friend, you never can be old, For as you were when first your eye I eyed, Such seems your beauty still.”
In other words, in Sonnet 104 Shakespeare is saying that as far as he’s concerned his friend will never age; in his eyes he will always look just as beautiful as the day they met for the first time. Indeed a very powerful message. He goes on to describe the transience of time but his love interest remains as green as before, “Three beauteous springs to yellow autumn turned, In process of the seasons have I seen; Three April perfumes in three hot Junes burned, Since first I saw you fresh, which yet are green.” Green coveys renewal and rebirth, youthfulness—the type of positive outlook we’d love to hear more often, I’m sure. We all want to be viewed as beautiful and relevant, regardless of age.
Shakespeare employed ambiguity in his writing, and he loved to tease his readers about his love interest’s identity. There is so much speculation about these sonnets and the identity of a young man he often addresses, or the true identity of a mistress whom scholars have called the Dark Lady, because he describes her with dark features and a dark nature. It’s widely believed that his love interest in Sonnet 104 is none other than a man, and in that case it’s just as interesting to see whether his generous ideas on beauty and aging differed with respect to women.
In Sonnet 18 we delight in his use of the sun as a metaphor to describe his beloved’s beauty, but the sun doesn’t quite compare to that beauty either as his love’s beauty is “more lovely and more temperate.” Shakespeare is concerned with the idea of fading beauty and he continues to distinguish between the unstable nature of the sun and his love’s beauty; it can be too hot, too dim, the season doesn’t always last very long, whereas his love’s beauty will never fade. But in the final quatrain Shakespeare is determined to make this beauty last forever, in a way he concedes to inevitable aging because he tells us that only the written word could survive the passage of time. But he uses this to his advantage by promising to immortalize his love’s beauty through the eternal power of his words. “When in eternal lines to time thou growest: So long as men can breathe or eyes can see, So long lives this and this gives life to thee.”
Shakespeare was talented and prolific but he also suffered from a healthy dose of prejudice towards women, which was pretty commonplace among the white male population during the Elizabethan era. Ironically, this was the case even when Queen Elizabeth was known as a talented linguist, with impressive fluency in several languages. For most women, only very basic education constituted the breadth of their knowledge and while the privileged may have furthered their education more—adding to their overall charm and appeal—though heavier emphasis was on home economics as there were no career opportunities for women once schooling was over.
Disparity in the treatment of women is further expressed in Sonnet 20. Here, the object of Shakespeare’s affection has natural beauty, as opposed to made-up and unnatural beauty. His love interest has the grace and features of a woman but is devoid of guile and pretense, and this too is a generalized idea of female characteristics and so is the idea that all women suffer from mood swings and empty, false flirtation.
To be fair, for proper insight on Shakespeare’s ideas of love and beauty, one must look at his entire body of work, which is impossible to do in one post but with the few sonnets I’ve mentioned we are still able to get a general feel for aging and beauty in Elizabethan times. However, if I’ve learned anything of value from Shakespeare’s writing, it’s that he can’t help but humanize even the most vile and hated characters and he’s employed this type of empathy when describing his female characters as well. In The Merchant of Venice, there’s no doubt that Shylock is portrayed in the same racist light the rest of society had viewed Jews, but then Shylock says: “I am a Jew, Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions; fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer as a Christian is?” He’s giving the audience a chance to empathize with Shylock, with a Jew. Some scholars believe that his mistress, the Dark Lady, was really Emilia Bassano Lanier and she was the illegitimate daughter of a Jewish, Italian musician from Venice named Baptista Bassanoa. In the play, one of the characters is named Bassanio, and Shylock is definitely portrayed with a little bit of humanity.
We can find the same sentiment in Sonnet 130, which is a parody of the ridiculous standards attached to women generally or the clichéd way that other poets describe their beauty. “If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun.” “And in some perfumes is there more delight Than in the breath that from my mistress reeks.” He then qualifies all of those disparaging remarks with “And yet, by heaven, I think my love as rare As any she belied with false compare.” Shakespeare’s mocking of other poets is interesting to me, it means that despite the prevailing views about women and beauty, despite the many literary devices he used to portray negative images of women in some of his works, conversely he was also sensitive to the majority view of beauty and felt the need to express otherwise. His wife, Anne Hathaway, was eight years older than him but I am not entirely sure that this had any impact on his ideas of age and beauty because all we have is a lot of speculation about the state of his marriage. He also left his marital home and spent the majority of is life in London. I think that what it comes down to is a type of hubris, and his ability to argue conventional ideas in the most literary means possible.
And you see this further in Sonnet 95 when he demonstrates a balance of sorts because as he describes his love’s beauty, it’s not devoid of a realistic observation as well. He compares the young man’s behavior to a rotten spot on an otherwise beautiful flower. In other words, the young man’s beauty will allow him to get away with bad behavior, but bad behavior will also distort his beauty. There is a moral question he addresses in this sonnet, it’ one of personal and moral responsibilities and those will determine one’s visage at the end of the day.
Has Anything Changed?
Centuries later, we find that the very same ideas about beauty have remained intact. And we see it now, more than ever, the notion that youth is the one and only answer to achieving success, whether in the workforce for a better job and career, or with respect to our ability to find love, or a “good catch.” If that were not the case then we wouldn’t be bombarded with so many treatment options for enhancing our youthful appearance, it wouldn’t be necessary for a female news anchor to fill her face with Botox and fillers in order to secure a prime time position in front of the camera. Why can a male newscaster sport grey/white hair and still be regarded as a top notch journalist or anchor? Anderson Cooper’s hair color has never been a deterrent for employers or viewers, he’s been able to hold on to his position on CNN for years but where have we seen a grey-haired female journalist or anchor before? I haven’t.
Of course I can see the appeal in young and flawless, and when I’m watching one of those pretty women on TV, after the initial reaction of “wow she’s pretty,” I become more focused on the content rather than how beautiful and flawless her skin is. On occasion, when I’ve watched Barbara Walters on one of her specials, I’ve never been concerned with her age, albeit she’s had a few procedures done, it’s obvious, and her older looks would never be the reason for which I’d switch to a different channel either. Similarly, Joan Rivers never fooled anyone with her artificially enhanced younger looks, she talked about it openly and with much humor, but the point is, she still looked like an old woman who had altered her looks, so I never really understood her need to keep pulling and stretching her skin.
The Pressure to Change
I liked her for her humor and bluntness anyway, and for anyone who remembers what she looked like before she started to alter her looks, well, it just doesn’t make any sense. Unless she too was influenced by the domineering male presence in her field of work where there was stiff competition, including a few lots battles, maybe that’s what drove her to the plastic surgeons table.
I’m not a critic of all the Joan Rivers of this world, but I’m definitely carving out a different path for anyone who’d like to join me and feel that it’s okay to show age; it’s okay to have wrinkles or grey hair and still feel confident and beautiful. And it’s okay to demand that first-class job. Let’s read old poetry in the context in which it belongs, in a time long gone when women barely had a voice. So much has changed since that era, and change is a good thing most times, it shows progress and the acceptance of new ideas.
My hope is that this generation’s idea of beauty will be a brief phase at best and that less emphasis will be placed on one’s looks and that a varied interpretation of beauty will open doors for so many women who would otherwise be ignored and missed. Join my Wrinkle Revolution will ya.
I thought that I had created a fictional character with Poker Face Polly when I wrote The Diary of a Wrinkle, until I came across a little blurb about a real person who has not smiled in 40 years in order to avoid lines on her face. I promise you that I have not made this up. Read More
The extra nipple
Recently, I noticed a dark spot on my chest; I didn’t like the way it looked so I showed it to my husband for further inspection. He looked and touched, then gave me his educated guess that in his opinion it was nothing more than an extra nipple that I had suddenly developed on my chest. Joking aside, I decided to make an appointment with a dermatologist for further investigation, and this is how my decline into the dark foray of age-delaying treatment began all over again. Read More