Pacific Northwest | September 14, 2003Pacific Northwest MagazineSeptember 14, 2003seattletimes.com home
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CONTENTS
COVER STORY
PLANT LIFE
TASTE
ON FITNESS
NORTHWEST LIVING
NOW & THEN
SUNDAY PUNCH
PREVIOUS ISSUES OF PACIFIC NW


WRITTEN BY PAULA BOCK
PHOTOGRAPHED BY BETTY UDESEN

In the womb of water, unwound
 
  Experience the bathhouse


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 Photojournalist Betty Udesen compiled this photo essay using black-and-white infrared film and an electronic flash made invisible to the eye by an opaque red filter. Pools of water absorb infrared radiation, and appear darker in print. Areas below the skin reflect infrared radiation, sometimes making veins more apparent. This is especially evident in the spa's heated rooms where temperatures rise to 170 degrees.
At first the mix seems odd: A south Tacoma shopping strip. Floppy cotton bathing bonnets. The musty aroma of steeped mugwort.

Water is what's familiar. Soothing water. Splashing, swirling, bubbling in warm pools, cascading from cold falls, steaming on gray rocks, evaporating from worn wood, beading on skin, oozing out of pores. Add heat, radiant heat, the kind that hugs your body so your mind can float.

No phones. No pagers. No clothes.

"There is some relationship, I guess, between water and being nude and being comfortable," says Kamie, a regular at the Olympus Women's Health Club, a traditional Korean-style bathhouse in Lakewood. "Maybe sort of a going back to birth in the womb. Especially the warmth and the fogginess of it all. So very human."

Such a sanctuary for women.

"It's the one thing we can do for ourselves to care for ourselves," says Phyllis, another regular. "We bathe our children, we scrub our husband's back. We're always taking care and being a caretaker. When we go to the tub, then it's our time."

This is not a fancy manicure-pedicure spa, nor a seamy pickup joint, nor a gym. It's a place where women all kinds of women soak, scrub, steam and relax, a tradition spanning centuries and the globe, evolved from times when few families had their own private bath.

In Russian banyas, women absorb the sauna's heat, slap themselves with bundled birch leaves, then shower in cold mist before repeating the cycle again and again, a practice that survived the Russian Revolution and collapse of the Soviet Union. Finnish saunas were once used by rural women as birthing places, then later served as a warm retreat for new moms. For centuries in Japanese public baths, sento, and hot springs, onsen, women have lathered and scrubbed vigorously before sinking into ofuro hot tubs to soak away daily cares. Now frequented by tourists as well as locals, Turkish baths, hamams, originally became an important part of Ottoman culture because washing is essential to Islam. The baths were a good excuse to leave the house, and one of the few places where women could freely socialize. German spas, usually co-ed, have become such an integral part of health care that some visits are covered by insurance.

"For me, it's something that's part of my culture and part of my taking care of myself," says Lilo, a frequent Olympus visitor who went to spas weekly while growing up in Germany. "Not just outside cleansing, but inside cleansing. The steam rooms and hot rooms are really about detoxification. When you release the toxins, not just on a physical level, but also on a mental-emotional level, you get in a space of relaxation and you forget about your daily worries. I feel like a new person when I leave there."

In this country, where there's no history of communal bathing and most households have their own bathrooms, many women at first feel shy.

"I was actually kind of a little bit worried because you're nude there," Kamie recalls. "But then I remember being really interested in how different everyone's bodies are . . . I began to see the beauty in every shape. The heavy women looked really beautiful because their folds are really nice. I think in the nude, people look better. You wouldn't think so, but! It's very natural."

In Gloria Steinem's first book, "Outrageous Acts and Everyday Rebellions," she includes an essay, "In Praise of Women's Bodies," which describes a few days at an old-fashioned women's spa. "Gradually, skinny bikinis, queen-size slips, girdles and other paraphernalia begin to disappear from our bodies and our lockers, like camouflage in a war we no longer had to fight. Without those visual references, each individual woman's body demands to be accepted on its own terms. We stop being comparatives. We begin to be unique. I know that fat or thin, mature or not, our bodies wouldn't give us such unease if we learned their place in the rainbow spectrum of women. Even great beauties seem less distant, and even mastectomies seem less terrifying, when we stop imagining and try to see them as they really are."

With permission from the Olympus and each woman pictured here, photojournalist Betty Udesen compiled this photo essay. The women later shared their thoughts with writer Paula Bock. To take the pictures without intruding on the mood, Udesen chose black-and-white infrared film and an electronic flash made invisible to the eye by an opaque red filter. Pools of water absorb infrared radiation, and appear darker in print. Areas below the skin reflect infrared radiation, sometimes making veins more apparent. This is especially evident in the spa's heated rooms where temperatures rise to 170 degrees. You can literally see blood circulate.

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