Esteem or Sauna?
Los Angeles, CA
Last weekend, my mom suggested a visit to a “positivity spa,” and I’m willing to concede I was pretty skeptical from the beginning. After a couple lightheaded hours in Esteem or Sauna?, I remain entirely skeptical.
The spa is run by second-generation Korean-Americans, and it’s a weird hybrid of traditional Korean jjimjilbang and the kind of blanket life-affirming pathos that doesn’t quite exist in Korean households. My mom would never have deigned to visit if she hadn’t found it on Groupon.
As soon as we walked in, this cheerful creature in a bird-yellow uniform leapt up and shouted, “Esteem or Sauna?” She held out a stack of towels and loungewear in that same hot yellow, with the assurance that the garments were “one size fits all!”
We took these supplies into a locker room smelling of sweat and air fresheners, the same kind of sticky, socky, sweet assault on the senses that I associated with my brother’s car when he tried to disguise the stink of weed. We shared a locker that sprung open at the shove of a magnetized key, inside of which stood a mirror with “YOU ARE BEAUTIFUL” splashed across the bottom in a paint meant to mimic lipstick. My mom rolled her eyes and said, “You know most people are not beautiful.” I mumbled something weak about positivity and inner beauty before laughing at the look of disgust on her face.
We changed into our spa gear, and I could feel her eyes on my waistline while I stripped. Koreans are pretty casual about nudity of the non-sexual sort, but it had still been a long time since my mom had seen me without clothes on. I’d probably gained a few pounds, and not helping things, I’d had burgers and beers the night before. If I’d remembered this outing I would have starved myself instead—the stress of this moment had been filling me with dread all day. I was aware of the red ring my jeans left around my middle where they’d been pressing in with extra diligence, leaving an angry button imprint under my navel.
I sucked in and gave her a stony look, and she said, “What?” with something that passed for genuine confusion. I wondered if that was that, and climbed into the yellow terrycloth shorts.
They were almost comically large, and it took some real effort to get them tied so they’d stay on. My mother secured her shorts with a lot more ease than I was able to manage, and she helped me with mine when she was done with hers, like the model parent in airplane safety instructions. The waistband bunched around me in a big circle of pleats, and I had to make a giant bow out of the string to prevent it from dragging on the ground. We had a nice laugh about the clown shorts, and to be honest they did make me feel thin in a fun-house mirror kind of way. They were also very soft, like they’d been worn, washed, and dried a few hundred times.
We went to a sauna room that looked like a stone igloo, and found half a dozen women sweating inside. The heat was immense—I felt wrapped in it, like a microwave burrito bubbling in its foil. After a minute, I wanted to leave, and was about to say so when a woman in that yellow uniform shouted, across the floor, “You can do it!” The other women grunted and wriggled in response, some of them leaving wide sweat stains on the floor mats.
We hightailed out and went straight to the shower room to get cool and rinse off. Korean spas are high on the naked factor, and the shower room was set up with three walls of unpartitioned showerheads surrounding a bathtub around half the size of a regulation swimming pool. There were at least a dozen naked women all around—sunburned, wrinkly, scar-bellied, tall—and for the most part none of us paid undue attention to each other. Then, there was the Esteem or Sauna? employee, stationed at the entrance to the shower room in that same yellow uniform, with the same dumb grin on her face.
My mom and I gave each other a puzzled look, but we were happy to ignore her like we would a museum attendant in a crowded exhibit. Then, I turned on a showerhead and my mom shook her head. “Steph,” she said with a cluck. “What happened?”
I was already a bit overheated, and I felt myself turn bright red from head to toe. There was no mistaking her tone, and she hadn’t meant to be ambiguous.
I was gearing up to shout at her—I had no reservations about shouting, and would have gotten right into it if I could just think of the right thing to say to her. Instead, I was standing there, naked and dumbfounded, when the only clothed person in the room came running across it blowing a whistle.
She reached us with incredible speed, and without slipping and falling on the wet floor. She got right in my mom’s face and admonished her in a childish voice, saying, “No shame!”
I could feel a dozen pairs of eyes on us, attached to a dozen naked bodies, attracted to the weird lumpy sun of the employee’s uniform. We stood there, frozen, until I caught sight of my mom’s face, contorted in a classic version of her look of disgust. It was a look that showed me the chicken yards and shit troughs of the Korean countryside, the staunch unwillingness to process second-generation infirmity, pilates and veganism and positivity spas. It was a look I’d seen before, and I was delighted, tickled to pieces, to see it directed at someone else.
The woman left when I fell apart laughing, and we left and got back in our civilian clothes without even finishing our showers. On the way out the door, my mom got a full refund, in cash, and I have to admit, I felt pretty good about everything.
Steph Cha is the author of Follow Her Home, a feminist hardboiled detective novel. She lives in Los Angeles and mothers a basset hound.