At first it was scary but then getting naked in South Korea was liberating, freeing and thought-provoking for writer Fiona Hyde
As I stand in front of my locker in the jjimjilbang in Busan, South Korea, I feel suddenly self-conscious that my pausing could be misread as hovering. Hovering or lurking in the jjimjilbang could be badly misread, I feel. That said, I also feel paralysed because moving would involve first taking all of my clothes off.
Before we get right into the scary nudity, and we will, let me rewind and explain what a jjimjilbang is. Like neighbouring Japan and places further afield like Finland and Russia, Koreans are big into public pathing. They have a different attitude towards these bathhouses and spas than we do in Ireland - they’re very regularly used, visited in groups of friends or with the whole family, and some stay open all night so that people can sleep there if they need to.
They’re a very social space, where people gather to chat and catch up.
"The advice for tourists is clear: go totally nude, or risk making yourself look even more odd than you already do."
Then there is, of course, the nudity. Locker and thermal bath areas are segregated, where nudity is not only encouraged but pretty much required, but then mixed in the public spaces, where there are places to lounge, various hot rooms and cafes selling shaved ice. (This raises problems for trans and non-binary users of the spa, which I think in Ireland would hopefully be mitigated by our sensible laws on self-identification.)
Before rocking up to the jjimjilbang, I read up on the culture. The advice for tourists is clear: go totally nude, or risk making yourself look even more odd than you already do. With that in mind, I steeled myself and went for it.
Like most things in life, the thought of doing it was way worse than actually doing it. No one screamed or fainted, and I didn’t somehow cause a massive scene. Thankfully, me getting in and out of the thermal pools naked passed without anyone giving me a backward glance. In fact, I felt a bit elated by the whole thing - the novelty of it, sure, but also an unexpected feeling of empowerment.
It’s liberating and freeing to see a wide range of bodies nude - bodies not selling you something, be that a product or a lifestyle, and not at all sexualised. The only places we see platonic nudity in Ireland is in sporting spaces, not social. As a woman who has never really engaged with sports and had no school changing rooms, this was the first time I had ever seen a room full of naked women, just milling about and doing their thing. We see a lot nudity, sure, but none of it de-contextualised like that.
"Thankfully, me getting in and out of the thermal pools naked passed without anyone giving me a backward glance."
The sheer number of women in the room highlighted for me just how many lies we’re fed about our bodies by homogenised, so-called ideal figures we get shown. Bodies are incredibly diverse, not just in size, but shape and everything else you can think of.
All of us accept that faces are wonderful for their uniqueness, but then we simultaneously insist there is one default idea of what a perfect body should look like. In fact, bodies are just as unique as faces. And just as wonderful for it. Maybe I knew this on some level, but seeing it for myself in the jjimjilbang made me realise the truth of it in a new way.
"We’re also comparing ourselves to one another at an unprecedented rate."
Back in the day, it was just models, media and airbrushing we were dealing with in the battle for getting to level-headed body image. These days increasingly, we’ve been introduced to ‘real life’ influencers who hold down a job, raise a family but also find the time to pump iron in the gym and bare their midriff. We’re also comparing ourselves to one another at an unprecedented rate. Thanks to Instagram, it’s not just professionally beautiful people who can make us feel bad or weird about our own bodies any more.
Equally, the thought process of our body as either purely sexual or totally private is one easily led down negative paths, like objecting to women breastfeeding in public, despite how natural that is, due to society’s desire to see us cover up totally. It leads to our obsession with policing how other people use or treat their own bodies and to us internalising how we think our own should look, at all costs.
So, I write to you as a new advocate for platonic nudity. Bodies are actually fairly disobedient, wildly diverse and totally great, no matter what they look like. Irish people might learn a thing or two from taking their kit off in the jjimjilbang and getting comfortable with that - and themselves.
See you at the Vico.
Read more: Here's what a hammam is really like
Read more: Is this breastfeeding policy all about shaming?