Places to Go - A New Perspective on SPA WORLD (Centreville, VA)


A few months ago I wrote a review of Spa World that received quite a few hits and became one of my popular posts (click here to read it). Since then I've had quite a few people ask me about the whole Spaworld experience, especially the bathing-suit-free single-sex area. I don't have many issues with nudity, not that I'm a nudist, but it doesn't particularly bother me (bikinis, on the other hand, are my nemesis). But I've come to realize that for some people a nude bathing area is a little uncomfortable. A few weeks ago, my good friend, Alison, decided to take the plunge and try out Spa World for herself. She wrote a review for her grad-school creative writing class about the experience, which I found very funny (and insightful). She's agreed to let me "publish" it (if you can call what I do "publishing"). I think you'll like it.

I’m the sort of person who changes clothes in the bathroom stall. If I’m feeling especially wild, sometimes I’ll do it in the gym locker room itself, but only by burying myself in the corner, my back to anyone who might be walking by and catching a glimpse of exposed sports bra. I’ve trained myself to take off one piece of clothing while simultaneously putting on another, a MacGyver style move that saves me from exposing any body part for one second more than necessary. Despite this ninja-like ability though, changing clothes in public can get awkward. The worst is when someone walks by at the critical moment, and I’m literally caught with my pants down, exposed in my gym-friendly, decidedly un-sexy, wedgie-proof Fruit of the Loom underpants. The best I can do then is try to avoid eye contact with said person and shimmy into my gym shorts at lightening speed.

Intellectually, I’m sure no one cares. I’m not narcissistic enough to imagine that every person walking by is just dying to see me without my clothes on, but the possibility that maybe they are evaluating me and secretly thinking, “whoa, big butt” is pretty humiliating. I realize this level of self-doubt is incredibly juvenile, and I’m not sure why it bothers me now. After all, age is supposed to bring self-acceptance, peace, tranquility.

Many of the older women I see in the locker room seem to be purposefully moving in slow motion, stretching in all of their naked glory as they towel off from the shower and slip back into their sweatpants, no MacGyver style clothing changes. While all of this nakedness makes me wildly uncomfortable, on some level I have to give them credit for being so unconcerned with what people think.

While 30 years old may not be quite old enough for the “what the hell” attitude I see many of these older gym women adopt, I’d think by now I’d be well beyond caring so much about what other peoples’ opinions. Sadly, that’s not the case. On some days I feel just about as self-conscious as I did back in the dark days of middle school when braces, acne, and a nose that I’d yet to grow into plagued my day-to-day existence. Maybe it’s partly due to spending so much of my time around my teenage students or maybe I’m just self-critical by nature, but I don’t like the feeling of being so uncomfortable in my own skin. It seems a little shock therapy might be in order.

Enter my friend Darcy. For the last year, she’s been on a quest to get me to accompany her to Spa World, a Korean spa that she frequents during her limited kid-free time. For the last year, I’ve resisted. While I enjoy massages, manicures, and aromatherapy as much as any other gender stereotyped female, I have to put my well-manicured foot down on one of Spa World’s rules: to use the pool area, you have to be naked. As someone who finds being viewed in underpants horrifying, you can imagine how unacceptable I find this.

Though I admittedly am not down with public nakedness of any sort, there’s an extra layer of discomfort to my feelings on Spa World: it’s located just a shopping center away from Centreville High School, where I teach a large number of Korean students each day. Over the past year whenever I’ve briefly considered taking Darcy up on her offer, the possibility of running into one of my student’s parents, or worse still, one of my students themselves, has been all I needed to hit the brakes. After all, my kids are teenagers. They’re freaked out enough on the few occasions they see me on the loose at the mall (still seeming confused that I don’t live under the desk in my classroom and grade papers at all times); I can only imagine the PTSD that would result for all parties involved if they saw me in the buff, “relaxing” in a hot tub at the spa.

Spa World was definitely an experience I could skip. The student connection and the fear of public nudity were two extremely valid reasons for my disinterest. Then, my mom called me a prude. My mom, while very cool, is 61, and I don’t like feeling like the uptight one in our relationship. The worst part is that she was right; if you did a side-by-side comparison, general consensus would find her more likely to try new things, more comfortable with herself, and more relaxed than I am. This is something that I wanted to fix. So I decided to call Darcy, schedule a date, and get naked. She was thrilled.

We walk through Spa World’s doors at 8:30 on a Sunday night, a time that I figure most people are at home making their lunches for the next day, or watching 60 Minutes, or lying on the couch and mourning the end of the weekend. We chose this time accidentally, the only convenient point in a sequence of crazy weeks when we can both go, but I’m hoping to cash in the fact that it’s got to be pretty dead at that time of night. When I walk up to the front desk, I realize I’ve miscalculated. “Wow, this is the most crowded I’ve ever seen it,” Darcy says as we get into the long line of people waiting to pay their $35 admission. There are men, women, and young children in line, many of them appearing to be together, most of them quietly talking and seeming familiar with the drill.

The front desk clerk offers no help beyond directing me to sign in, swiping my credit card, and handing me a pair of faded orange elastic-waist shorts and a matching tunic, strangely reminiscent of a prison uniform. As I begin to walk away, she obscurely points to a bank of tiny lockers to the right. I stand there a moment, confused. Am I supposed to change right here? There are men! This is beyond what I’ve signed up for. And how in the world will I fit my clothes and giant purse in one midget-sized space? Thankfully, Darcy directs me to remove just my shoes and stick them the tiny spot assigned to me. There’s another area assigned for clothing and purses in the actual locker rooms themselves, which are thankfully broken down conventionally by gender. “I’m assuming you want to start with the saunas and work our way up to the pool area?” Darcy asks.

“Absolutely. I’m not going to jump into the naked part—that can be our grand finale,” I tell her, forcing myself to smile bravely but still feeling a little sick about the whole prospect.

Entering the locker room isn’t just unusual for me because of the sheer number of naked women I see, but for how out of place I feel. While Darcy’s told me that on most of her visits it’s about 60/40 Korean women v. other ethnic backgrounds, tonight, I’d put it at 90/10. I’m not uncomfortable with this per se, just aware of my race in a way that I’m typically not. We make our way to our respective lockers, where I again practice my ninja changing maneuver, squirming as quickly as possible into the orange uniform, not stopping to take the time to determine if my shorts are on backwards or not. There are naked Korean women to my immediate right and left who take no notice of me, but I feel incredibly rude, like I’m invading their personal space as we all stand in front of our assigned lockers.

I walk quickly out of the locker room to meet Darcy in the main area, and I’m amused to see that like me, her shorts come down well past her knees, technically too long to be counted as shorts. We claim a straw mat in the middle of the room, placing the books we’ve brought to read down to save our spot before taking a walk around to check things out. Every other mat is taken, most by families who are reading, talking or just lying down. On one, a baby sleeps peacefully, its tiny head turned to one side. I wonder whose baby it is as no one seems to be watching it. No one else appears concerned.

On my unofficial tour, Darcy gives me the lay of the land, from the different poultice rooms with temperatures ranging from 90-something to 178 degrees to the sleeping area to the spa services section. She’s already instructed me to avoid the massages, relaying that the last time she had one here she kept whimpering the whole time and the exasperated masseuse told her that she was clearly “too weak” to handle the deep tissue.

Instead, I’m content to spend my time in the different poultice rooms, though I only last in each one for a few minutes because they’re so hot it’s uncomfortable. I like Darcy’s favorite, the charcoal room, because its smell reminds me of the relaxing face mask I sometimes put on when no one’s home to see it. The red clay ball room sounds fun in theory, sort of a grownup version of the ball pit from Chuck E. Cheese’s that I used to love as a child. In reality, it’s less enticing. For one, the tiny clay balls hurt to stand on, and in order to get in and out of the room, walking over them is required. In addition to hurting, they’re slippery little suckers. Most horrible though, is the smell. Though all the rooms probably should reek considering how hot they are and how many people are crammed into each one, only the red clay balls do. Not surprisingly, they smell like sweaty feet, the very sweaty feet that people have been sticking in them all day.

While I’m in there, a woman loses her footing on the way in, and ends up knee-deep in the pit. She laughs in the nervous “this hurt but I’m pretending like it didn’t” way that seems to transcend all cultures, and everyone in the room chimes in with our own nervous laughter and inquiries about whether she’s okay. It’s a nice moment, the only moment so far at this spa where I’ve felt connected to anyone else’s experience.

I need to take frequent breaks from the sauna rooms to make my way to the water coolers stationed around the main room. The smoothie bar is also tempting, but I’m too distracted by the odd combination of food offerings at the same stand to feel confident ingesting anything; the menu offers ramen noodles, hardboiled eggs, egg rolls, and, in the one of these things is not like the others odd moment of the night, chicken wings.

As I wander around the spa in an attempt to cool down, I encounter several more oddities- a children’s playroom with nothing but an enormous television set and rows of chairs in front of it, a quiet study area where people clad in the orange jumpsuits work on their laptops, even an arcade equipped with the standard issue games, except with soothing, spa-friendly music playing in the background. I have to wonder if I’d finally be successful at the impossible claw grabber game if I could listen to relaxing music while working the lever.

As I make my way back to the main room, I realize how strange it is to feel anonymous. In my uniform, I blend in completely, which is the point I suppose. No matter how bizarre some of the spa’s features seem to me, I don’t feel as weird as I expected to feel because there’s just not much room for feeling anxious and self-conscious when no one cares what you do. If a beautiful sleeping baby seemingly there by itself doesn’t attract any stares or questions, then another jumpsuit-clad woman certainly doesn’t either. Buoyed by the realization that I’m not that special and no one is scrutinizing me, I head back to the mat to meet up with Darcy and announce I’m ready to take the plunge, literally. It’s naked pool time.

My plan all along has been to wrap a towel around myself on the seemingly long walk from the locker room into the pool area, dropping it at the last possible moment before entering the water. I had also hoped for large bubbles, hot tub style, to safely camouflage my exposed skin. While I’ve had an epiphany of sorts that no one here is paying the slightest bit of attention to me, old habits die hard, and I don’t feel quite bold enough to parade around naked yet.

Unfortunately, my plan doesn’t quite work out as I anticipated. For one, we’re each allotted only one tiny towel, and it is just barely long enough and wide enough to cover my front torso. The next problem comes when Darcy tells me we have to step into the showers and rinse off before getting in any of the pools or hot tubs. There are no shower stall doors, natch, so I have to quickly decide if I’d rather expose my front or backside to the entire pool area. I must be breathing heavily in an effort to calm myself down because it’s loud enough for Darcy to notice and soothingly tell me that it’s okay as we make our way into the pool. And it kind of is. Like I said, no one is watching me at all. No one bats an eye at anyone else. It’s not that they’re afraid to look; it’s just that they don’t. Everyone else is blissed out, eyes closed, standing in front of a powerful jet in the pool or sitting in a hot tub, or even getting their bodies scrubbed down in a side section of the pool area. This last treatment is one that you have to pay for, and the Korean women doing the scrubbing are dressed in what I first think are bathing suits (hey! No fair! How come I can’t wear a bathing suit?) until Darcy points out that it’s actually lacey black lingerie. In any case, it doesn’t appeal to me, but the women all seem happy, firmly in the relaxation zone.

I’d love to say that after a few minutes I’m equally relaxed and loving my naked pool time, but that would be a lie. Not wanting to ruin it for Darcy, I make the rounds in the pool to all the various jets and streams, sit in the hot tub for awhile, then do it all again. At all times I have my arms crossed over my chest, and I hold up the pathetic little towel covering whenever transferring locations. Even though I’m not intimidated by the women I see, who are mostly older and larger and not the least bit ashamed of their bodies, I just don’t feel okay with being so exposed. Also, I can’t turn off the germaphobe living inside me who wonders how sanitary communal bottomless bathing can possibly be.

Finally, after what I deem a respectable amount of pool time, I wade up to Darcy to tell her I’m heading in to reclaim my clothing. She tells me she’ll be five more minutes and that she’s proud of me. I can tell she really is, and I’m kind of proud of myself too.

Back in the locker room, I still get dressed in my trademark style. This time when I do it, there’s another girl standing close by my locker. I try to avoid eye contact, but accidentally make it anyway. Lightening speed, I throw the orange shorts back on, unsure of whether Darcy’s ready to go home or if we’ll be heading back to poultice rooms. My heart is still beating a little fast from the adrenaline rush of facing my fear, when I hear, “Uh….excuse me…I’m sorry…I don’t mean to, but you….” from my locker neighbor.

Oh my god. My worst nightmare. Someone has seen my naked body and is going to say something about it. I brace myself, force eye contact, and look up expectantly.

“Sorry, it’s just—I think your shorts are on backwards. I think the Spa World logo is supposed to be in the front,” she smiles.

“Oh, thanks! Yeah, I was wondering if there was a right or wrong way to put them on before.” Sheepishly, I take them off and turn them around facing front. “Thanks—this is all just…”

“Yeah, I know.”

Another connection. It’s reassuring to know that someone else is suffering from a bit of sensory overload, and that despite how accepting the environment is, I’m not the only one feeling a little shell-shocked.

It turns out that Darcy’s ready to leave, so we pack up our stuff, return our locker key, and head home. She tells me that she’s proud again, but also that it’s probably safe to say I won’t be returning, which is true. I have a long way to go before I’m happy lounging in my birthday suit in front of strangers, but maybe that’s okay. This spa trip wasn’t to get me to become an exhibitionist, or try Korean chicken wings, or get some work done on my laptop; it was to get me to relax enough to realize that the rest of the world isn’t judging me as harshly as I feel that they are sometimes, so maybe I should stop doing it to myself. While I left Spa World without getting a massage or manicure, I feel more Zen than I have in a long time. I’ll try to remember this feeling the next time someone sees me in my Fruit of the Looms at the gym.


  1. I loved this! You have such a knack for writing. Thanks for sharing.

  2. Thank you! But the writing is all my friend Alison's - isn't she fantastic?

  3. This place sounds crazy! I am definitely going to go. :)

  4. What a great read! I had my first Spa World experience about two months ago... used a Groupon I bought just after reading your original post. It was interesting, to say the least, from the location in a random strip mall to the black lacy lingerie to the body scrub that made child birth seem modest... and I will be going back! Already purchased another Groupon. :)



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