Arabelle Sicardi

Arabelle Sicardi

I'm a fashion and beauty writer.

I write about beauty, fashion, feminism and identity for a bunch of different places.

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The Spa Isn't as Relaxing — or Safe — for Trans and Gender Nonconforming People

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. I felt mystical, knowing I was swimming in water touched by the looming volcano in the distance: it was a gift and a warning, and it made me giddy to know the world could make me afraid and happy all at once. My family asked me to recognize the hot hurt as a luxurious good. Now, every time I run a bath or go to a pool, I reach for the hottest pool. It’s what I was taught: if you jump into the hurt, you can probably adjust. Your body is strong enough.
I go to the spa a lot and every time I do, I remember this moment of family and volcanic fumes. I almost exclusively go to Asian-owned and operated spas for this reason; though, instead of Taiwanese, they’re typically Korean. There are few places in my life that are entirely occupied by Asian culture so I find as much home in whichever version of it I can find, though I realize it’s by no means monolithic. It helps that the spas I frequent are in the same town I went to Chinese School in. Life layers onto itself that way — things return to you in different forms or drift right by you as if they didn’t recognize you at all. I think that’s what’s happening to me with spas. I don’t know if I’ll be able to when I go back now that I’m genderqueer and presenting in a way that people can kind of tell.

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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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I’ve traveled the world on beauty trips and the outcome has always been the same: gender nonconforming people are pretty much screwed.

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