Every month or so, on a night when I badly need to be separated from my cellphone, I get naked at King Spa & Sauna. I take the long drive out to Royal and Stemmons, where signs with Asian lettering along the highway make me feel like I’ve entered another country without ever leaving the city limits. In the locker room, I put away the cute red heels and the earrings chosen to match. And I walk out into the steamy ladies-only pool area without a stitch of clothing to hide behind.
For a woman, no fashion statement is bigger than this. Getting naked is such a baffling mix of torture and titillation. Childhood is all backyard sprinklers in your birthday suit, but at a certain age, public nudity becomes a stage onto which you hope never to step. I’ve known lots of ladies who kick that anxiety in the teeth. They can strip down to their skivvies and enjoy the heat of any stranger’s eyes. But in my 20s, I couldn’t even undress in front of my boyfriend without a few glasses of red wine in me. (Of course, pour a few too many, and every room became King Spa.)
But age brings comfort, even if stretch marks come along for the ride. And so, at 39, I can slip inside those bubbling 102-degree waters as if I were entering my own tub. Sometimes I take a paperback, letting the pages get soppy from the spray, but often I just sit there and marvel at how different every woman’s body is: nipples hard and dark as cherries or wide and pink like pepperoni slices. Stomachs taut and covered with tattoos, or soft and undulating and engraved with Caesarean scars. I don’t think I knew what a woman’s ass really looked like before King Spa. Just: the awesome jiggle.
Of course I’d seen naked women before. I was 8 years old when I stumbled across my cousin’s stash of Playboys. These were the days before internet porn, when the sight of a woman’s bare breasts felt dark and electric. Oh my God, you guys. This is happening.
And it kept happening. In cable shows airing after 11 pm, in movies starring Mickey Rourke. Women disrobed to reveal supple boobs and backsides like a juicy plum. But they all looked the same. Blonde, leggy, like a relative of Kim Basinger’s.
King Spa, meanwhile, is as gloriously mixed as our city: Asian and Latina and black and white women. All ages, all sizes. And you can see how ethnicity informs each frame, the way my Irish curves create a different topography than the lean lines of, say, Chinese women. I’ve spent so many years cursing my shape. But seeing it in this broader context brings a kind of relief. Like, maybe your body is not a mistake that you made. Maybe your body is an inheritance that you’ve been given.
Not everyone’s visit is so angst-free. My friend Paige told me in an email that she “skulked around trying to hide behind my washcloth of a towel, worried my privates weren’t manicured in the right fashion.” A sad little fig leaf in Eden. She jokes that she suffers from American Body Shame, which is especially intense in Dallas, where religion and vanity and the fear of being different can make for a potent cocktail of squeamish modesty. “I went to SMU, where the women worked out in pearls!” she added. “Sigh. I’m damaged goods.”
But every culture has its quirks, and King Spa will teach you others’. The whole complex—with its fancy mixed-gender saunas and kimchee served with meals and the random Simpsons etchings (the cartoon is animated in South Korea)—is an education in another part of the world, where the centuries-old tradition of Jjim-Jil-Bang, or thermotherapy, offers a fascinating window into alternative medicines. In the locker room, you can try a device my friend Leah calls the “vagina humidifier.” You sit over “medicine-infused vapors” for 40 minutes, wearing a black cape to hold in the steam. Apparently it helps with menstrual cramping. Sounds crazy, sure, but in some other country, there’s probably a magazine column about how nutty America women slather their hoo-has in wax and rip out their pubic hair. The world is big and full of best guesses.
These days, King Spa is expanding, with plans to open an indoor water park by year’s end. The place needs to stay competitive with Spa Castle, a lavish import from New York (with booze and giant jet pools) that recently opened in Carrollton. I just hope I can always take that drive out to Royal Lane when stress and distraction have gotten the better of me. It may feel like a vacation to another country, but it’s actually a trip deeper into my own city. And myself.