True story: Slapped by an ajumma at a Korean bathhouse

PHOTO: Her World Online

Ever since the onset of the pandemic, there’s been lots of talk about the importance of “self-love” — in everyday conversations, in the media, on social media, and advertisements for all kinds of products that promise to deliver feel good fuzzies.

But what exactly does the term mean? According to the American Psychological Association, self-love is defined as “regard for and interest in one’s own being and contentment”.

In an article on the website Psychology Today, clinical psychologist Dr Deborah Khoshaba calls it “a state of appreciation for oneself that grows from actions that support our physical, psychological and spiritual growth”.

Sounds terribly broad and sweeping? That’s because it is. Just like love, self-love can take countless forms and be expressed in myriad ways. It can mean setting aside time to meditate, enjoying a pick-me-up facial, or hogging the bathroom for a long-drawn DIY spa session.

Some may feel it’s a mental thing, and practise self-love through positive mantras, self-affirmation and learning to love who they are — literal and figurative blemishes and all.

And yet others nourish themselves with healthy, wholesome activities, such as feel-good exercises, eating well or enjoying kick-ass sex with a loving partner (the knock-on benefits of this on a person’s appearance and mood are pretty well-known).

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The bottom line is that self-love isn’t just for emo folk, or an indulgence among followers of New Age fads. It’s the essential process of staying touch with your needs, your emotions and your sense of well-being. There’s no right or wrong way to go about it either — you do what you need to feel good about yourself, so long as it doesn’t jeopardise your mental or physical health, relationships or bank account.

To provide some inspo and spur you into action, Her World team shares their stories of the lengths they went to for self-love.

“As a spa junkie, I’ll visit a choice establishment in whichever foreign destination I’m in. This is time that I set aside for personal TLC. So when I travelled to Seoul, a trip to the jimjilbang (bathhouse) was a foregone conclusion.

Having sampled many spas, plus watched countless K-dramas, I figured I knew what I was in for, especially since I had picked one of the city’s more famous jimjilbangs. As it turned out, my expectations were way off course.

Although the jimjilbang I went to was big, it was far from luxe. There was a huge communal shower ‘room’, cold room, cave-like room, claustrophobic warm room that wasn’t quite a sauna, computer games room, and a singing room.

I was on a mission to experience the full works, so I did the whole get-naked-in-front-of-strangers thing, sitting on a plastic stool to shower then dipping into hot and cold pools. Although the experience reminded me of a Turkish bath, it was more like a three-star family-run outfit than an opulent six-star resort.

PHOTO: Her World Online

This poor rating is purely down to my revulsion at the shared bath products. I’d spurned the receptionist’s offer to purchase my own toiletries, but then realised I couldn’t bring myself to touch the half-used soap bars harbouring all manner of hair and skin cells belonging to strangers.

After the unsuccessful shower, I explored the place, all the while trying to not feel icky at wearing the PJs sans underwear. After wafting in and out of these experiences a little dazed and bewildered, I was more than ready for the retreat that I had pre-paid for. It was the worst beauty experience of my life.

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As I lay on the damp plastic couch in a corner of the bath area that offered little privacy, an ahjumma (affectionate term for older lady in Korean) with curly hair, clad in black bra and panties, descended on me with a pail of lukewarm water, splashing it onto my body unglamorously.

She then scooped a massive fist full of sea salt and worked my skin raw with her hefty arms, even over my privates and armpits. Ouch!

Grunting in a very self-satisfied manner, she showed me rolls of dirt that ostensibly came from me. Then splash went another bucket of water. I longed to move on to the massage, thinking it would soothe my maltreated body… but slap!

On came a boiling hot towel and the strongest kneading I had ever experienced. Just when I thought I could finally relax with the rose facial, again, slap!

A hot towel was thwacked onto my face, and cream plopped on so untidily I had to scrunch my eyes. There might have been a rose-scented mask applied at one point, but by then, all I wanted to do was cover my (still) naked and raw body, which was already going into hypothermia too, as I was left there to cool and dry like salted fish while unspeakable things were being done to my face.

To be fair, my skin was baby smooth for weeks after the ordeal, from my face down to the soles of my feet.”

PHOTO: Her World Online

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This article was first published in Her World Online.