Life as an Extreme Sport

Access and the Day Spa

Through the generosity of some mutual friends, I was taken to a day spa today, for a fabulous afternoon of soaking and spa’ing. For several reasons, I opted to indulge and treated myself to a full body scrub, as well. It was an interesting experience, and as I was laying there having someone else scrub my skin, the academic CHIDbrain kicked in and I found myself thinking about issues of access and privilege. After all, it hadn’t occured to me that the only people there were old Asian women and white women of all age until the young woman from India walked into the spa room.

What a privilege it really is, to live in a place where I, a very broke college student, can still pay someone to scrub me clean, to massage me, or to place different conditioners on my face in a facial, or have parafin treatments to soften my hands. What a privilege it is that I can take a day to sit around and soak in pools of different temperature, or repeatedly get up to drench what is essentially mugwort tea all over myself. What about the people who can’t, who don’t have that privilege? Do the people working there have the option for free or discounted treatments? What about those who work in other service jobs – after all, isn’t it a service job to scrub the dead skin off of me? – and can’t necessarily take the time? Or, even more basically, afford it to begin with. I certainly couldn’t have afforded a body scrub if someone else hadn’t been paying for my entrance, and most of the time wouldn’t be able to pay that. What about the people who make less than me (and they do exist, and in more numbers than people want to admit)?

Issues of access came up, as well, although largely tied to privilege. You have to have a car, know about the place, have the time, the energy, the ability. And what a completely and utterly upper middle class thing to spend your time doing, and to pay someone for.

The final thing that kept going through my head was one of colour, of the Indian girl awash in a sea of whites and yellows, and of the fact that all the women doing the body scrubs were Korean, and the women giving the massages were white. An odd hierarchy of colour, prestige, and cleanliness versus less; do you just rub the skin, or do you have to remove it? I didn’t receive a massage, but from what I heard you weren’t handled like a piece of meat, and being scrubbed was a detached cold and clinical experience. Which makes sense, but also makes it seem as though the people who don’t have to so strongly dissociate their clients have it a bit nicer.

I’ll definitely go back to the day spa, but I’m not sure I’ll have another treatment of any type done. Or maybe I’ll just avoid the full body scrub – or just make peace with the part of me that can’t stop thinking about race, access, and privilege.


  1. I had some similar musings, with mine mingling with thoughts about whether this falls under the notion of immigrants taking advantage of the so-called “American dream,” and whether or not in their view they’re merely taking advantage of the proclivities of overprivileged Westerners in utilizing knowledge they brought with them. I suspect the truth of it falls somewhere in a mix of all of it. Not to mention that in this country the whole spa “experience” has typically been something regularly available only to those with a great deal of disposable income–while your arguments about privilege are entirely valid, this place is making visiting a spa accessible to people who don’t have quite as much privilege as those who typically visit the more upscale spas, so there’s something of a hierarchy of access involved.

    I will also note that I, personally, didn’t feel like a piece of meat; while the scrub is certainly…efficient, I guess is how I’d say it, the woman who provided mine was very friendly and made me feel welcome, and to some extent I found that part of the experience more…I don’t know what the word is, authentic, less tied up in trappings of privilege and expectation, something like that, than the massage was.

  2. Hmm.. I think I disagree with this. It think it’s all a cultural thing – we weren’t taking advantage – we were entering into a different culture. It seems like you missed that half of the clientele were old Korean ladies who scrubbed each other at the showers. And the price of this spa is seriously negligible. (Talk to Vanessa, who works at the Fairmont Olympic hotel spa, and sees white women dropping a couple grand in a few hours…) I’d rather talk about it in person, though – I’m not being clear enough in writing right now.

  3. Well, you both have points that should be addressed, and I’m a bit annoyed that this interface doesn’t allow for actual response that you’ll definitely see. For Ice Princess:
    I think that part of my feeling of meat was that it moved from an efficent experience to an assembly line one when I was on my side watching other women have the same thing done, and the women were all talking above us in their native language. While my scrubber was certainly nice to me, I felt very detached from her. I wonder how much is changed by the fact I was in the secondary (overflow) scrubbing room, and not with anyone else I knew?

    For Colleen:
    No, I caught that half the clients were old Asian women (as I noted above), and that they scrubbed one another. But they weren’t exchanging money to be scrubbed, it was friends doing it – would have been like you taking a scrubber to me, or vice versa. I did see a few of the older Asian women being scrubbed professionally, but not many. Overwhelmingly, the paid services were taken by the white women there. And yes, expense-wise, it certainly was quite a bit cheaper than the traditional spa, but that doesn’t change the fact that there are a lot of people who could never afford such a thing. I understand that it seems seriously negligible to you, but for all my talk of it being a new addiction, I’ll never be able to afford going there on my own. It’s simply out of the range of what I can justify and afford. And if it’s out of my range, then there are a lot of other people for whom it’s not affordable, as well.

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