This is where I learned to love my body, I thought, as an old woman’s lingerie-clad boobs brushed against my head as she leaned over my head to exfoliate my bare stomach. I was laying on a bed of pleasantly soft and warm pink rubber surrounded by naked women soaking in hot tubs, swimming in cold ones, and washing their hair under rows of shower nozzles.
This is a Mokyoktang, dear western world. Something the majority of my friends at Tufts have never heard of. Similar public structures can be found in China and Japan, but those are usually naturally occurring hot springs, not artificially built, rectangular, shallow pools of hot water. My friends in the west coast of the US tell me that there are a few mokyoktangs there, usually located in various Asian diasporas. And undoubtedly, nudist places all over the world provide the same experience. Still, it’s pretty unique to have regularly visited mokyoktangs in childhood.
When I was little, female members of my family made frequent trips to the local mokyoktang. I would sit on my mom/aunt/grandmother/sister’s lap in a pool and play with the water. When I got older, my sister and I would bring our Barbies there, wash their hair, and play make-believe with them. My sister taught me to swim in one of the cold pools when I was seven. When I go back to Korea now during the break, the few things I always have to do is go to the dentist, get my hair cut, and bathe at a mokyoktang.
Here is what happens: you pay, receive a few towels, and make your way into the locker room. There is usually a woman selling boiled eggs, canned drinks, and small bottles of shampoo, conditioner, body wash, moisturizer and anything you could possibly need in the shower. You choose a locker, strip down to nothing, and enter the steaming mokyoktang. You are expected to shower before going into the pool, of course. Oh, and it is divided into men’s and women’s.
Here’s the thing, though. The mokyoktang is the only place where I was exposed to healthy representations of the female body. Mostly because healthy representations of the female body, in all shapes and sizes, were walking around naked everywhere in front of my eyes. Short women, tall women. Women with body hair, women without. Women with large breasts, women with small breasts. Small nipples, big nipples, lopsided nipples. Stretch marks and rings of cellulite. Scars where most people wouldn’t see them. I saw everything. Compared to the Barbie I was holding in my hand as a little girl, all deathly proportions and unblinking blue eyes, these women were real. Real women looking at each other in the eye and conversing, lounging in pools, eating together. All naked.
Contrastingly, in the outside world, I was exposed to thousands of media platforms showing me the one type of female body. Every single woman I saw out there was unblemished and thin. Thin thin thin, to the bone. The women in the magazines are, of course, still like that. Way too spotless to be real. When I look at them for too long I start to believe that women really look like that, and that I should also aspire to look like that. For young girls and boys, proper representation is especially crucial, as I wrote about in this article. For me, I can think back to the women I saw in the mokyoktang and rest assured that people don’t actually look like they do on TV, in magazines, and on billboards. But I fear for those who have never personally seen that many naked bodies of various shapes and sizes. I have to wonder what experience they can think back to in the midst of all this unrelenting exposure to airbrushed and perfectly cardboard-to-the-core bodies.
At Tufts, there is a new student organization called JumBodies that supports self-love and body positivity. A photo shoot is soon coming up in which we have an intentional space to embrace our bodies unabashed, unafraid, with our friends, and really think of ourselves as beautiful regardless of, because of, our physical differences. And JumBodies is crucial. We as a vulnerable university population are desperate for someone to tell us that we are beautiful, that human bodies are beautiful. I hope that JumBodies thrives to help students begin to believe that their bodies are worthy of being loved and being treated healthily: not starved, beaten, and ignored. I hope it helps us become media literate – able to look through the advertisements selling us the warped image of a “universal beauty”. Still, the mokyoktang makes me think: if everyone had made a few visits to a mokyoktang in their lives, perhaps we wouldn’t need such organizations so much.