How I Learned That Beauty Doesn’t Have To Hurt

Growing up in a Korean American family, I absorbed the idea that any feeling of pleasure comes at a cost. But as I get older, I’m realizing it doesn’t have to work that way.

“Don’t ever, ever scrub your skin,” says Marie, the licensed esthetician. Her accent is light, a little mysterious. (A French father and a Latvian mother, she tells me later, when I ask.) Her tone is calm but authoritative; vaguely maternal. “That’s the biggest mistake,” she says. “Be gentle, always. The skin sheds and regenerates on its own, when it’s ready. Use a lotion like this” — admittedly, the cucumber-scented cleanser she is massaging into my forehead is soothing — “sometimes even just water. Then pat dry.”

I open my eyes. Usually I’m the nod-and-smile type with hairdressers, doctors, the mammogram ladies. But this woman has just said something so surprising as to be actually disconcerting — as if she’d just claimed, Eating more carbs will help you lose weight, or Fertility increases after age 40.

“But what about...exfoliating?”

A 19-year-old fiction student of mine once opened a story with a male character exfoliating, and not one classmate raised an eyebrow; such is the ubiquity of the mandate to scrub away dead cells and “reveal fresher, smoother skin.”

“Don’t scrub,” she repeats. Now she is laconic; her response most unsatisfying.

“You know, Koreans actually pay good money to have someone scrub down their whole bodies,” I say. The words just come out; someone has to fill in the blanks here. “Or you do it yourself. When you walk into a Korean spa, they hand you a key to a locker, and a piece of cloth that’s basically sandpaper.” I pause, recognizing that it sounds like I’m exaggerating, but I’m not. “Scrubbing off dead skin is really the point of a Korean spa; it’s what rejuvenation is.”

Marie nods and smiles, massaging cool lotion in circles over my chin and cheeks with her thin, soft fingertips.

I think about my mother kneeling by the bathtub, the Korean word ddeh — dead skin spat out like poison as she scrubbed down her young daughters, head to toe, and made sure we saw the volume of nasty gray matter that sloughed off and gathered at our wrists and ankles. I think of all the microbeads and Buf-Puf pads to which I subjected my pimply T-zone through middle school and high school. I think about my friend Michelle Cho in college, swearing by a face brush — hard-bristled like any hairbrush — which I used on my face for the next 10 years. I think about an independent film I saw recently, in which a Korean-American teen, gay and closeted, engages in sexual acts in the steam room of a Korean spa where he works; after he is caught by the manager, he sits in the shower and scrubs his skin with that sandpaper cloth until it’s so raw it bleeds.

“I can see it, here and here,” Marie says, tapping one cheek and a spot near my nose. “The blood vessels are red where you’ve been scrubbing.” Busted. In my medicine cabinet is a cheap apricot scrub that I use during the summer. “Relax your face.” She presses her index finger firmly between my eyes, and they close involuntarily.

I think now about Megan from Mad Men — one of her early appearances, when she is called in for a focus group on Pond’s Cold Cream. “I’m of French extraction, and my mother has beautiful skin, she never washes her face,” she says. “She uses water but nothing else. ... She splashes it on her face, and she pats her cheeks with her fingertips.” (Wasn’t her mother’s name Marie, too?)

I inhale deeply — the cucumber scent has faded, layered over by traces of peppermint from Marie’s breath. Frequent scrubbing of teeth is apparently fair game; or maybe that’s her Baltic side.

“Your skin looks good,” my mother says to me. It’s winter now, of the same year, and my sister Jackie and I have convened in the early morning at my mother’s apartment, readying to depart for an overnight ladies’ spa getaway. “You’ve gained a little weight?”

I chuckle inwardly at the signature compliment-criticism. I am also surprised: I’ve been worried about my skin, because I am 43 and I smoke (my mother doesn’t know) and I never used sunscreen until a year ago — which was why I splurged on the facial with Marie a few months before.

“If you’re too skinny, you get wrinkles,” Mom continues, leaning toward me over her kitchen table. She half-whispers, “Your sister lost too much weight; her face looks old.”

Jackie is in the bathroom, out of earshot. She is 19 months older, 45 this year, and since childhood she’s been considered “the chubby one.” It’s true she’s lost weight, though she assures us it wasn’t intentionally. She’s been going through a hard time, in marriage and motherhood and work, and the stress has manifested in sporadic eating and obsessive exercise. A few weeks ago, things apparently took a bad turn with her husband over the holidays; a crisis may be imminent. My mother and I can empathize — we are both divorced — but we're not sure we have much else to offer.

We’re not the most expressive family, typically Korean in that sense.

We’re not the most expressive family, typically Korean in that sense. Our family life was volatile and unhappy, and we all came through it by keeping our cards close. I just want to get somewhere comfortable, where there might be a spa and some decent food, was all my sister wrote when she suggested the trip. The gist of her difficulties I got from my mother. “You should talk to her,” she said.

On the surface it seems we will be tending to our physical needs, primarily. My sister is an extreme planner, and she’s not only found us a spacious bungalow to rent in a nearby spa town, but also laid out our activities: We will cook, drink wine, get massages, go to mineral baths, do yoga (bring your mat!). We will decidedly not be going to a Korean spa. My sister hates them — the public nakedness, shared bathing (like double-dipping fondue with strangers, she once said), and the mandatory scrubbing. “Koreans,” she says. “Even relaxing involves suffering.”

Rewind to summer 2013: I have arrived in Paris to teach a four-week writing course. Within three days, I am besotted — with the outdoor food markets and excellent wine, the historical and cultural seriousness of a major city wrapped in the sweet rhythms of an intimate village. I bicycle everywhere, soak in each charming street and immeuble ancienne, inhale the scent of baking bread, and coo at little dogs walking freely down the sidewalks like Sempé characters. Paris is everything I love about New York, where I’ve lived for most of my adult life, and yet different in all the right ways.

A major difference: the particular French aptitude for simple pleasures. A warm baguette, perfectly croustillante; an excellent bottle of five-euro Morgon from the chain grocery store; a late morning cigarillo à la terrace at the corner café. The difference is moderation in everything, via wondrous accessibility — pleasures inexpensive, democratic, the unassuming originals from which clichés have been born. Pleasure as pleasure; neither medication, nor rebellion, nor avoidance, nor covert bingeing, nor addiction. In Paris, one becomes aware of how distinctly American is the expression “guilty pleasures.”

I return to Paris every summer for the next three years. I discover new cheap wines and new stinky cheeses and new charming streets. The pleasure of ripping off a hunk of baguette and eating it on the way home from the boulangerie does not get old. I have cycled along more streets in more neighborhoods than perhaps the average Parisian; I ride with my nose turned up and quivering, like Colette’s young Claudine in her beloved forest.

I am at midlife and only now discovering the bone-deep goodness of unaffected pleasures. 

One summer, a friend tells me about Citypharma in St. Germain-des-Près. You can find every French skin care product imaginable, she tells me, at much-reduced cost. My friend is half French, tall and lean with beautiful skin — elegant and ordinary in that French-female way. When I visit the pharmacie, I stroll the aisles, lifting the caps off of lotions and oils, inhaling elegant-ordinary scents like lavender and honey and rose petals.

I think of a line from Norman Rush’s novel Mating: An American anthropologist moves from frigid Minnesota to Botswana, and she stays because she loves the heat. “I was overdetermined for Africa,” she says.

I am at midlife and only now discovering the bone-deep goodness of unaffected pleasures. How can this be? Where has pleasure been all my life? So many factors: immigrant work ethic, Protestant roots, family turmoil. Happiness always deferred — put your head down, delayed gratification, light at the end of the tunnel. But pleasure is about presence: sinking profoundly into the now, letting the fullness of experience wash over you.

Traffic is light in these days after Christmas. The drive to the spa town from my mother’s is about 90 minutes. We’ve packed up the car with yoga mats and healthy snacks and our favorite teas and wine. My sister drives, and I sit shotgun. My mother sitting in back feels somehow notable. It occurs to me that the three of us have not traveled together since Jackie and I were kids.

The talk is almost exclusively about our bodies. My mother proudly describes her exercise routine — two-hour daily walks, weekly Zumba, a seniors yoga class. Jackie says she has a good yoga video we can all do together, and I say I am definitely getting a massage. We talk menu: red meat for sure. I brought a half loaf of home-baked bread, and Jackie will make her homemade Caesar dressing, with anchovies and raw egg yolks. We talk about vitamin D, and calcium, and green smoothies, and the unanimous waning of our lactose intolerance, allowing us now to enjoy cheese and ice cream.

It’s all mundane talk, evasive in a way, and yet it isn’t. My sister’s crisis hovers, and we are trying to talk about it — about the need to feel good, and nourished, and healthy. We are talking about how we take care of ourselves and about what we’ve learned to enjoy. We are talking about what was so utterly absent from our family life: pleasure.

Jackie and I start talking about gray hairs and sunspots, which leads to skin care in general. My mother chimes in: “You know Korea is the best now, for skin. Everyone wants Korean products.”

Jackie hrrmphs, and I say nothing, quietly sharing her skepticism. A mildew cleanser, maybe a wart remover, seems the more likely product to break out from our native land — something both highly effective and ruthless.

Of course, my mom is right: A few years ago, while both my sister and I were paying attention to other things, Korean skin care products took the world by storm. Something called BB cream became as common as hand lotion. Young female entrepreneurs like Alicia Yoon and Charlotte Cho launched US-based import companies, now booming.

Last year the founder of a French-Korean skin care line called Erborian described in an online interview the difference between French women and Korean women: “French women accept their imperfections as part of them. Korean women ... would never accept imperfections and they are always working to find ways to correct them.”

I imagine entering a Korean skin care store and, instead of strolling and inhaling, having a mild anxiety attack.

It’s steak night in spa town.

At the grocery store where we stopped en route, we went straight to the butcher counter. Three slabs of marbled rib-eye sit in the fridge, and even though it’s just after 10 a.m., I find myself thinking about them.

We start the day with yoga. I usually do yoga alone, so it’s strange to be doing it with Jackie and Mom. But we each focus on our own movements and breathing, what feels good and what causes strain — not worrying too much about keeping in sync.

The rest of the morning we putter around the bungalow, and then Jackie makes afternoon appointments for us at the local spa. We wander into town for window shopping, milky espresso drinks, other comforts and distractions. It’s a cold winter day, gray but somehow still luminous.

By early evening, mineral-bathed and massaged, cheeks shiny and muscles like jello, Jackie and I start working on dinner. I’m in charge of meat; Jackie will make the salad and heat the bread. Mom is free to just pour glasses of Bordeaux and keep us company. When we were kids, my mother made elaborate dinners that included both Korean and Western food. She is a great cook, but because my father was invariably both irritable and irritating, we never experienced anything like pleasure at that dinner table, no matter the cuisine.

We drink, and eat, and drink some more. The steak is deliciously charred and bloody; the salad is excellent. The wine is good too, and we drink a lot of it. Jackie begins to open up. She’s been depressed and anxious. There’s so much she never knew about herself, what she needs, how she deals with conflict and loneliness. She is having a hard time just getting through the days.

Soon, we begin revisiting our childhood. We tell stories about my father, who was a real sonofabitch, self-pitying and abusive, and from whom we are all increasingly estranged. We learn about things that happened — terrible, demeaning things he did or said that we’d each kept to ourselves, that damaged us. At one point we are all tearing up — apologizing, forgiving — and we drink some more.

It took a calculated series of indulgences to bring us to this place: layers and layers of hardness that needed to be softened.

It’s getting late, and we are spent, hollowed out. It feels painful, but also good, and deep. It took a calculated series of indulgences to bring us to this place: layers and layers of hardness that needed to be softened, awakened — with yoga stretches and slow breathing, curative waters and deep-tissue massage, juicy meat and raw eggs and lots of wine.

We drift into gossip about old family friends. Almost all the stories involve damaged, woeful Koreans. My sister asks through a yawn and a slur: “Can you think of any Korean family that isn’t fucked up?”

We all laugh, a little sadly. In fact, we can’t.

I think again of the film about the gay Korean-American boy. Of that scrubbing scene, one reviewer wrote that “the film imposes an exaggerated penance upon him, forcing [him] to scrub himself raw.”

Is it the film that imposes penance, “forcing” him to scrub? The filmmaker is Korean-American; the reviewer is not. The scene did not strike me as imposed or exaggerated at all: Self-care and self-infliction as close cousins is a familiar notion. The character is scrubbing away his “sin,” but also shedding an old, false layer; regenerating and renewing. The scene enacts a stubborn rendering of a simple, old-fashioned truth: No pain, no gain. In my experience, Koreans are consummate keepers of this truth.

“We should do this more often,” I say, head throbbing, not unpleasantly. “You guys can meet me in Paris next summer,” I mumble, though I’m too soused to know if I mean it.

Late morning, we’re all three quiet on the drive home. In the rearview mirror I see my mother’s head bob drowsily. There’s something familiar about the thick, contented exhaustion I feel in my bones: I am reminded of the drive back from family vacations to the Maryland shore. Our father was more relaxed on those trips. He liked the ocean; it seemed to refresh him like nothing else. We’d wade in gradually when the water was ice cold, but my father would plunge in, then emerge with a big grin on his face, shaking off the chill like a wet dog.

Around lunchtime, we stop to eat at a BBQ place — our last chance, the cherry on top of our indulgences. But when my pulled pork sandwich comes, I find I’m not as hungry as I thought, and eat only half. Jackie and Mom both eat heartily, though Jackie seems distracted, a little edgy. Her boys have been with their father, and they are waiting for her; her life is waiting.

We drive on in silence. I tap at my phone, searching Korean cosmetics online and surprised by how many hits come up. As we near home, I turn to my mother: “Do you still get scrubbed when you go to the Korean spa?”

“Me? Not anymore. Too painful,” she says, grimacing. “Some people still do, but mostly old-timers. Everything is changing now.” I click on a few image links, and up come online photos of young Korean-American women — their dewy porcelain skin and plain-styled black hair so different from the heavy concealers, blue eyeshadow, and wavy perms we all wore back when we were trying to look like Farrah Fawcett.

I don’t ask my mother if she thinks the change is for the better; I know the answer is yes, and no, and it’s not so simple.

When we say our goodbyes, my sister says we should definitely do it again, maybe next summer. “Thanks for coming down,” she says. “I really needed that.” She seems calmer than when we left, though not quite buoyant.

I hug her longer and tighter than usual, and I say, “It was my pleasure.”

Some names in this piece have been changed for privacy.

Sonya Chung is the author of the novels Long for This World (Scribner, 2010) and The Loved Ones, out now from Relegation Books. She is a contributing editor at the The Millions and founding editor of Bloom. Currently she lives in New York City and teaches fiction writing at Skidmore College.

To learn more about The Loved Ones, click here.

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