Jenny Zhang’s descriptions of bodies are grotesque and explicit: they are often insomnia ridden, resplendent with open wounds, flinging off roaches with a dancer’s grace, sweaty and fumbling from childish and codependent explorations into sex and humiliation.
My first memory of beauty is being coaxed into the water at the base of a volcano in a place called Hell Valley in Taiwan. It was the smoothest, softest water, and it burned to the touch. I was scared at first when I was pulled in by my aunts, watching my skin pink up, and then, adjusting, delighted.
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This is because the Korean spa is gendered and nude, with a clothed common area in middle ground. The uniforms themselves are gendered, as well — blue and pink, of course. To get into the common and clothed areas, where your body would be less likely to be observed, you’d still have to go through the pools. To enjoy the spa you have to choose how you’ll be gendered, and if you are visibly trans and otherwise gender non-conforming, the choice is a dangerous and difficult one. If your gender identity is not what you were assigned at birth, if you have gone through all gender-confirming surgeries to align your gender and sex and it is visible, if your anatomy doesn’t align with expectations of gender norms — you’re essentially not allowed in, unless you optionally choose to misgender yourself. This isn’t written somewhere on the rules, of course; but it’s still the rules.
My last trip there, they disbelieved I was the girl my ID said I was. The receptionist stared at me a few beats too long and muttered under her breath, “Which one?” By this, she meant which locker room I'd be entering. On that day, I did look ambiguous: a buzzed head underneath a baseball cap, bomber jacket, sweatpants I stole from a guy. I got her point — she was wondering which gender I’d choose. She and the other receptionist laughed when I thought about it and chose a locker room, in some kind of sticky triumph. I half expected them to tell each other they won a bet I hadn’t seen coming. It was also perfectly legal for them to do.
It gets harder to visit these places the more truthful I am with my body, the farther I get from femme. I don’t identify as cis and have made efforts to make this known; I’ve gotten more comfortable adding more masculine accouterments to my everyday look. For years, I’ve identified openly as GNC but resigned myself to being misgendered regardless because of my femme presentation. Now that I’m changing that, too — though not out of shame, I assure you — people’s interactions with me have shifted, as well.
Every new visit to the spa is also a reminder of the fact a place that was once a place of comfort is also (and has always been when I wasn’t thinking about it) a place of restrictions and sometimes violence. This is not a new issue. Bathroom policies have long been around, the focus on the conversation has simply never been extended to this zone. The problem is historical, the issue is not new. Not even to me, though I’m only writing about it now. I just remember it differently these days.
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