When it comes to self-indulgence, there are three types of people in the world: Those who spa, those who do not spa and those who repeatedly attempt to spa, each time thinking, Surely, this time I will experience a gelatinous descent into the eucalyptus-scented nirvana that so many of my girlfriends rave about. Yet this third type of person always emerges from the steam more tense and aggravated and knotted and kinked than when she first slipped her feet into the complimentary rubber pool shoes. Shoes that have been worn by other people. With who-knows-what-kinds of foot fungus, and, dear God, I hope they wash them every night.
Can you guess which group I fall into?
I find it awkward to have someone I’ve never met rub me with oil and make small talk to the sounds of Enya and crashing waves on a loop. It strikes me as absurd when a stranger with good bone structure and tiny pores uses a magnifying glass to unclog my aged ones.
And then there’s the whole being-naked-in-front-of-other-people thing. I don’t know the psychology behind it, but I’m actually more comfortable getting a bikini wax than I am taking off all my clothes in a locker room.
Granted, I realize this is an unhealthy attitude toward my body, and I have worked to overcome it. I’ve spent more hours on topless beaches than I have in community service, and I’ve done my fair share of public streaking. If you were on Granada Avenue in North Park on election night, 2008, that was my flesh you saw bounding by.
Yes, public nudity is easier when you’ve thrown back any combination of seven different cocktails, but most spas I’ve been to don’t encourage cocktails, furthering my general disdain for them.
For my husband’s recent birthday, I checked us into a hotel in La Jolla known for its spa. I’d booked a massage for him but not for me; I’d planned to sit in the poolside jacuzzi with a good book and a glass of wine while I waited. But after noticing Dijon mustard-colored bubbles creeping toward me—never a good sign—I opted to kill time in the women’s spa, hoping for a whirlpool with a more strictly monitored pH. As usual, my experience was about as relaxing as being on a 12-hour flight with a colicky baby and seats that don’t recline.
Inside the women’s locker room, I fumbled to undress much like I did when I was 13 and awkward, embarrassed to be naked in front of other girls. The mandatory naked-showering in seventh-grade gym class— enforced by the rigid Mrs. Allen, who stood snapping her gum at the shower exit, waiting to inspect all the girls—is a trauma still with me 28 years later. See? Some teachers do make a lasting impact.
Pushing thoughts of Mrs. Allen out of my mind, I wrapped myself in a thick spa robe, and shuffled outside to a whirlpool secluded in an alcove of lush plants and bamboo. I was terrifically uncomfortable, but I recognized this to be irrational: I was the only one in the place.
Girl, I said to myself, this is a spa and you’re supposed to be naked. Be a grownup. Get over it. So I shrugged off the robe and my neurosis and sank into the (much cleaner) whirlpool.
My hamstrings and low back thanked me. I had been soaking for a good 10 minutes and was just beginning to relax when I noticed the sign. “Proper attire must be worn at all times.” People: I couldn’t have been more horrified had I farted publicly.
My hamstrings and low back seized. My breathing became sharp and shallow. I had to get out of there before all the people who weren’t around noticed me, the stupid girl who went naked at the spa!
Paranoid? Oh, totally. What’s worse is that I knew I was being paranoid, but I was powerless to overcome it. Instead, I cut my soak short, calmly lifted myself out of the water, and dragged the robe around me. My heart was pounding and I quietly berated myself for taking off my swimsuit in the first place. Which is about when I noticed my robe was on inside out.
I felt my cheeks turn red as I hurried to peel the robe off and put it back on properly. Still determined to make this work, and with another 30 minutes to kill, I decided to sit in the steam room. In my terrycloth robe, of course. But it got mighty hot in there, as steam rooms tend to, and I finally said aloud to nobody, “Fuck this.” Again, I undressed and laid the robe down as a barrier between my derriere and the wood bench.
It was quiet, warm and peaceful. My hamstrings and my low back were thanking me and I was just beginning to relax when a drop of hot water—and then another, and another—fell from the ceiling onto my forehead like Chinese water torture. Drip. Drip. Drip. Then began an ominous, throaty, machine-like groan. It started low and got louder, a stuttered and angry rumbling that culminated with a burst of hissing and a cloud of thick steam.
Which is when I thought of Auschwitz. I shouldn’t say that, but it’s the truth. Call me the Juan Williams of saunas. Call me what you will, but the plain fact is that thoughts of torture and murder effectively cancel out any possible spa benefits.
My hamstrings and low back seized. I was done.
I gathered my robe around me and used it to dry off. Then I got dressed, fast, and retraced my steps to my hotel room. Then I called room service and ordered a hot fudge sundae.
Every Wednesday at 5-o’clock, Ruby has swim class. Once her thirty minutes of floating, leaping, belly-flopping and retrieving pink plastic rings has elapsed, it is our routine to head for the locker room and change her into her “soft pants.” This has proven to be a giant effort because while I’m trying to get her wet clothes off and her dry clothes on, she is involuntarily frozen in place like a zombie, transfixed by three 8-year-old girls who are also changing—secretly, beneath towels pulled around their bodies like cocoons—at the same time each week following their swim team practice. Oh, how her eyes swirl when these little girls tramp through the locker room in their swim caps and racer-back suits, dripping wet, shivering and hugging themselves on the way to the showers.
Ruby stares at them as I wiggle her swim suit over her bottom, around her hips and down to her ankles. She stares as I dry her naked body with the mostly wet towel, as I coach her like I might an invalid to step into her underwear (if I remember to bring them) and then into each of her pants legs. Meanwhile, the girls completely ignore her—with the exception of a slight smile offered by one on the very first day of lessons—while they gossip about other kids and prevent any accidental exposure of their privates.
As I’m pulling Ruby’s clothes across her sticky skin, watching her rapturously watching them, I’m aware of the already-in-full-bloom body image issues being modeled not 6 feet away from my daughter. And I’m reminded of 7th grade gym class. And my teacher, Mrs. Allen.
At nearly 6-feet tall, Mrs. Allen was an imposing figure. She wore white tennis socks, white leather athletic shoes and pleated navy blue Bermuda shorts, always with a cotton tank top, usually white. She might wear a wind breaker or warm up pants if it was cold, the kind that made a wooshing noise as she walked. She was big boned and thick-kneed with a voice like ball bearings and short, curly brown hair that looked like it had been plucked from a mannequin head circa 1977. I used to watch for wig confirmation, to see if it would slide around when she scratched her head, something she did often when she wasn’t handling equipment or managing fitness tests.
Whatever our activities, each day at the end of dreaded gym class, we were required to take a dreaded shower and then, to prove it. Mrs. Allen would lean against the doorway of the shower room with a clipboard in her hand, inspecting each girl for shower evidence. I don’t know where I’d learned to be self-conscious but, like the other girls in my class, I wasn’t about to get naked in front of anybody, which of course makes it fairly challenging to shower. But, like the other girls in my class, I managed my way around the requirement quite well.
I wrapped myself in a white towel, tucking it at mid chest like I’d learned from my mother, and I did the hokey-pokey in the communal shower like the rest of the troops: Stick one leg in, then the other. Stick one arm in, then the other. I’d splash some water on my chest, shoulders and face (sure, actual showering would have been less effort but this was equally convincing and less…nude). Then I’d show Mrs. Allen the necessary proof to be freed for a day. I was 12 years old.
Later, as a dance major in college—a situation that sometimes required full costume changes not just backstage, but in the wings—I had a very difficult time unlearning the don’t-get-naked-in-the-locker-room rule that had defined my self-loathing since junior high. I’d hidden and hated my body for a long time and that didn’t just magically come undone. And now my four-year-old is learning, from girls only twice her age, that she should be embarrassed and ashamed of her body.
Raising a daughter is treacherous. Short of stripping off my clothes in the locker room every Wednesday, I’m not exactly sure how to combat this message or if anything I say will be half as cool as what those girls do.