top of page

becoming aware of my body in public baths

Becoming Aware of My Body in Public Baths


For most of my life, I had serious body image issues that affected my sense of self and my awareness of my own body. I was chubby as a child, especially in comparison to my close-in-age older sister and my young mother, both of whom were slender and lanky while I was stocky and stout. As a result, I started to understand my relative physical size not within the wide range of bodies that surrounded me at school, but specifically and solely within the very narrow bounds of my own household. Compared to my mother and sister, I was large, round, and plump and so I started to understand myself in this sense outside of the home and in the larger world. This morphed understanding of my own body made me very self-conscious in social situations and affected my confidence greatly.


Since then, I have come to accept my body for what it is and my relationship with myself has improved greatly. In recent years, there have been body positivity movements that have increased the awareness and acceptance of diverse body types, and I have had conversations with friends where we openly and frankly discuss these difficult and tumultuous relationships with our own bodies. However, I don’t think anything has been more influential in changing my understanding of my body than my semi-regular visits to public baths.


A few weeks after I arrived in Korea in 2017, I went to a public bathhouse with two friends. I remember the hesitation that I felt as I gingerly removed my clothing and began to put it in the locker. At first, I remember covering my stomach and pubic area with a towel while waiting for my friends to finish undressing as well. Then, I knew that I would not be able to hide myself any longer – I was self-conscious, but greater than those feelings was my pride and I did not want my friends to look upon me with pity when realizing that I was self-conscious. I dropped my towel and walked into the baths with my friends. We showered side-by-side and went into cold, tepid, and hot pools. If I had any self-consciousness left in me, it had washed off somewhere in the water.


I would come to visit bathhouses many times during my time in Korea. Since most bathhouses are open for twenty-four hours and often provide sleeping mats, pillows, and sometimes even blankets, I would go for the night when I didn’t have a place to sleep while visiting a new city or when I had stayed out late and didn’t want to pay for a taxi home or wait for public transit to start up again. I went in the winter several times when my apartment was too cold to bear and the water from my showerhead was only warm for a minute or two before sputtering out ice cold. Once when I was between jobs and staying with a friend, I rushed off to a spa for the night when he was bringing his date back to his apartment. I went to bathhouses on my vacations to Japan too – both onsens and sentos.


During all of these experiences, it felt nice to be naked – not in an exhibitionist kind of way but rather in the opposite sense of it. Despite being naked, there was no one staring at my body just as I did not stare at the bodies of others. Old women walked hand in hand with their grandchildren who pulled them toward shallow pools, young women chatted with friends as they perched on stools and soaped their bodies, and I lay in a bath that was not too hot but comfortable. Simply existing amongst others in my most vulnerable state allowed me to become more aware of myself in a physical manner. My body was not exceptional or freakish – something abnormally large that people would stop and stare at because it was so far from normal. Rather, it was ordinary. I was treated as if my body did not matter and eventually, it began not to. I started to understand my physical presence in respect only to myself and not in comparison to others.


I know that my experience is not one that might resonate with everyone. I have friends who are not Asian and often said that when they went to public baths, they could feel the stares of the locals on their markedly foreign bodies. My experience of being ignored and treated as if I was ordinary also occurred because I am ordinary in terms of physical appearance. I don’t know if I would have had this same experience if my body deviated from the norm in terms of weight.


Additionally l, it would not be true if I said that these public baths completely healed my issues. That is a process that is occurring every day and truthfully, I still have many issues with my body. However, I think that awareness of and love for one’s body are two vastly different concepts. In terms of love, that is something that I am still working toward. But speaking of awareness, going to public baths truly made me understand my physical presence in the world and helped me reject the flawed physical ideals that existed in my head from childhood.


Public baths are something that I dearly miss now. Not only am I once again living in Canada where bathhouses are few and expensive, but I also wonder if it would even be possible to go during our current tumultuous health situation. I often think about the ladies who worked at the bathhouses in Seoul that I would frequent, selling baked eggs with sweet rice drinks and scrubbing dead skin off pliant bodies, and wonder if, like many others, their jobs were taken by the pandemic. Reflecting on their significance in my journey of self-love has made me appreciate them in a way that I did not think about when I used to go every other week or so. I miss feeling completely unspectacular in the same sense that you should in your own home but in a place that is warm even on the coldest days of winter, such as those that are descending upon us now.


Images by Caitlyn

Japanese Translation by Mia and Hikari

Edited by Eli and Hikari

bottom of page