This article is the fifth in a series of research studies about Philippine communication environments. For the introduction and theoretical framework, see Part 1. To know more: Part 2 / Part 3 / Part 4
Professor Julienne Baldo took our Communication Environment class to visit a spa, not only for us to relax at the end of the semester, but also to examine our ideas of body image vis-a-vis current cultural definitions and standards.
On the surface a spa seems like an ordinary, even boring, place to go, where not much happens by way of communication. After all, people go there to rest, not to talk. But as communication scholars always say, communication happens everywhere, anytime – even in places you’d least expect it. And the silence of the spa spoke volumes.
Wensha Spa: Exploring Body Image and Wellness
The facade of this – and any – establishment conveys meanings that give clues to the kind of place it is and the patrons that frequent it.
First, the sign. Wensha Spa at Timog Avenue corner Quezon Avenue is open 24/7 , and makes this information known via a huge yellow and green neon sign. Mounted on a wall faced with Mactan stone, the bright sign beckons; it can be seen a long way off.
Next, the parking lot – it was crammed with late-model sedans and SUVs, with other patrons being dropped off by cabs.
The use of comparatively simple materials in the sign and the number and type of cars in the parking lot convey to passersby that the place is upscale but still within a price range that is affordable to those of a certain socio-economic status; that it is decent and perhaps not too expensive, as, say, the same services at a five-star hotel. One can derive meaning from these signs to assess if he or she can afford this establishment’s services or not.
The entrance is of transparent glass, allowing people from the street to see within. Thus, it attracts; an opaque front would be a barrier to walk-in customers because it could denote exclusivity. Since one can peek within, she is aided in her decision-making on whether to enter or not. The impression is one of cleanliness and good service, with a welcoming air.
Once inside, the place offers more clues about its nature. A sofa greets patrons on the left side of the lobby; here, one can wait and view the menu of services. (At the time of our visit, Wensha was offering a promotional discount package of P680 for a massage and all-you-can-eat buffet for a six-hour stay.)
Further into the lobby on the right side is an altar, painted red, upon which are displayed Buddhist statues and offerings of fruit and candy. This leads to the assumption that the owner is Buddhist and is Filipino-Chinese, if not a Chinese national. Right across the altar is the reception counter, where harried front-desk clerks check in customers, take their shoes, and issue claim tags and locker room keys. One must pay in advance for the chosen services.
At the end of the lobby is a curving staircase. The color scheme changes from bland to black and gold. A huge painting on the upper part of the wall is a surprise. One would not expect to see this, an image that depicts “the bath” in a confused jumble of themes, with a Roman-style bath surrounded by nude Chinese beauties, echoing the “harem” themes of the Orientalist paintings of Gerome and Grecian-inspired ditto of Alma-Tadema that were so popular among the Victorians during the late 19th century.
The image is replete with meanings and ideas. Are these ladies the concubines of an emperor, perhaps? What would seeing this image make female customers think – that they should look as curvaceous as these painted ladies, so that the “emperors” in their life will take notice of them? that one should be as sensual and sensuous as they are? For male customers – what ideas will they carry away after looking at this painting? That the women in their life should look like this, or aspire to? Would this painting lead someone to believe that frequent bathing at Wensha will make one’s appearance mirror that of the ladies?
Upon reaching the second floor, guests are greeted with a buffet spread of food. It is nondescript and too oily. There are hardly any vegetable dishes, no fresh fruit, and desserts are kept behind glass cases and cost extra. Do not, under any account, think of coming here for the food. As for drinks, there are dispensers of too-sweet Tang and Nestea. It is all self-service, though waiters scurry around clearing the twelve or fifteen tables that bristle with diners clad in street clothes or spa-supplied bathrobes.
Shabu-shabu is offered, the tiny gas-powered stoves placed directly on the dining tables. Some of the couches are covered in badly-cracked vinyl that pinch skin horribly, especially if one is wearing shorts or a skirt. That lack of attention to the furniture disappoints; with comfort diminished, the estimation of the place is lowered.
The men’s and women’s bathing areas are separate. This reflects cultural norms. Entering the bathing area, guests pass first through a door and into a corridor with more doors on both sides leading to common area (shared) and VIP (exclusive) massage rooms. At the end is a dressing counter with mirrors and one hair dryer – a problem when there are many women getting ready to leave after their baths. At the end are the locker rooms. Guests are issued one towel and one robe. All are expected to undress to bare skin. Clad only in the robe, the baths beckon.
The spaces up to this point are small and narrow, acting as conduits for the guests, leading them inevitably to the baths, which are in a wide and low-ceilinged space, contributing to a feeling of coziness and shelter. However, these are precisely the attributes, along with the lack of windows on the entire second floor, that might induce claustrophobia in those who cannot bear to be in enclosed areas.
The Artifacts and Activities
Inside the “wet” area are several rooms, stalls, and a couple of pools. First on the right is a “body scrub” room, which is tiled and has drains, shower hoses, and a padded waterproof table. Beside this room, along the right-hand wall, are rows of hot-and-cold shower stalls. Then comes the sauna with glass walls; beside it is the steam room, always fogged over; and a toilet.
In the center of the space are the two pools, raised above the surface of the floor – one filled with hot water, the other with ice-cold. Guests first take a bath in the shower stalls with the supplied liquid soap, then step into the hot pool, staying in it for as long as they can possibly stand before switching to the cold pool.
A television set mounted on the wall gives bored bathers something to focus on. There were also TV sets in the dining room, showing the ubiquity of the mass media, and that many people nowadays prefer or require the electronic buzz to stimulate their brains, instead of giving their entire attention to their companions.
First-timers will mostly experience timidity and shyness when disrobing, especially with friends. With strangers, the anxiety is less, but, Julienne assured us, it diminishes with subsequent visits and after one gets used to the experience of bathing nude with strangers.
Bea, Gia, and I, all newbies to the public bath experience, whipped off our towels and stepped into the hot bath as quickly as possible while trying to cover what we could of our private parts, until we were fully hidden by the water. Chitchat opted to merely dip her feet in the pool, admitting her reluctance to disrobe. Julienne was more relaxed and comfortable with herself, and showed no shyness in being nude, although being pregnant, she could not stay in the pool for long.
We had all taken Dr Sylvia Claudio’s class on Gender and Sexuality (Women and Development 227 at the UP-Diliman College of Social Work and Development), where body image was heavily discussed and debated, and agreed that the spa experience forces one to directly confront issues about self and image. How does one perceive beauty? What are one’s standards – do they subscribe to the cultural norm that is Western-based, idolizing a “Barbie” frame – thin waist, big bust – and mestiza looks – fair skin and tall nose? Or is one content with what she looks like, glorifying in her body, with health and glowing skin the prized assets?
The sauna and steam room have a more relaxed ambience, as towels are allowed. Skin takes on a ruddy hue, and, as sweat breaks, one imagines dirt and toxins leaving the body through opened pores. A bucket of ice cubes, drinking water dispenser, and plastic cups are nearby. Rubbing ice over skin helps one take the heat and stay longer in the steam and sauna rooms, where chatting is more animated since the distraction of nudity is eliminated.
After the bath, sauna, and steam, massage is next. Still in a robe, nude or with panties, one chooses a common room, shared with strangers, or VIP rooms that can hold up to three friends. The rooms are dimly lit and there is unobtrusive Asian muzak in the background.
A masseuse approaches and asks if one wants a hard or moderate massage. I ask for “Whatever, and if it hurts I’ll tell you.” I am kneaded and pummeled and rubbed into a state of gelatinous relaxation. I feel almost boneless until she lifts me and cracks my spine. After the massage, one may sleep. (There are charges for every extra hour spent at the spa over six hours.) But before you doze off, the masseuse hands you a ticket upon which different tips amounts are printed. Though a tip is customary in such circumstances, being reminded of this, forcibly, detracts from the entire experiences as one is unpleasantly jerked back to the realization that this is a commercial establishment.
The Spa Goers
In the dining area, which is open to both men and women, there are quite a few foreigners – Koreans, Chinese, Middle Easterners, Caucasians. Most of the patrons were young to middle-aged people, many looking like professionals. There were people with their arms around each other – lovers, perhaps – but only hetero couples.
We saw no same-sex couples in the women’s area, but Rod said there were in the men’s area. His assessment was that for many of the couples, the hours spent at Wensha were a treat, to unwind and relax after a stressful day’s work. Certainly all the spa goers looked refreshed. Any problems they had were put on hold as they, with their visit to the spa, consciously sought to set aside their cares for a time and attend to themselves for once through this method of alternative healing and recuperation.
After dinner, bath, and massage, Chitchat, Julienne, I, Rod, and Bea glow for the camera. For obvious reasons, photography is not allowed within the bath and massage areas.
Rod, Bea, and I rode a cab home together. We processed our experiences during the trip. Soc-sci geeks forever!
Wensha Spa is at Timog corner Quezon Avenue, Quezon City. There is a branch at Buendia Avenue, near Sofitel.