In spring this year, I took a long-awaited trip to Morocco. Little did I expect that it would be here that I would learn what it meant to feel truly comfortable in one’s own skin and have the most liberating experience of my life as a young woman so far.
Arriving in the town of Taroudant, I was assured by our hosts that my first experience of Morocco simply wouldn’t be complete without a visit to a local hammam.
Hammams are wet rooms heated by a small stove (akin to the concept of Turkish baths in the West) where men and women (segregated, of course) of all ages go to cleanse themselves once a week. They not only act as community hubs, but are so integral to Moroccan culture that they often exist, in their most basic form, as a dedicated room in people’s homes.
Heart fluttering and skin crawling at the thought of what I was about to do, I entered the building’s open changing rooms and had a babushka style set of plastic tubs, an assortment of soaps, and one bright green glove thrust into my hands. I stripped down to just my knickers – purposely chosen for their modesty – and donned my flip flops as instructed. Stomach sucked in and eyes blurring with the effort it was taking not to make eye contact with anyone, I shuffled to the entrance of the hammam.
My initial reaction was one of total bewilderment. I’d never seen so many naked women, so many breasts. So many shapes, sizes, rolls and blemishes. Dozens of them, toddlers to grannies, sitting, standing, lying: naked in all their glory. My knee-jerk reaction was to recoil. I could feel their eyes on me. Searching my white, pasty, foreign skin. Lingering on the unnatural patches of dark tattoo ink across my back, legs, feet.
My chaperone snapped me out of my stupor and instructed me to take a seat on the tiled bench which lined the room. Curiosity had me yearning to observe the rituals going on around me but surely it was wrong to look? I met a few gazes and threw my eyes violently in the opposite direction, burning with the shame at having been caught.
Through a series of grunts and gesticulations, she proceeded to wash me.
First, henna. A watery, green paste applied all over the body. Pulling my limbs this way and that, her hands reaching crevices I didn’t even know existed, she managed to cover me head to toe despite my violent flinching. This was washed this off with hard, slapping buckets of lukewarm water. Next, clay. With a similar vigour as before she coated me in thick grey sludge.
As I surrendered myself to her pulls and tugs, I found myself detaching from the process. The throbbing discomfort in my ears started to ease and I began to notice the sounds which filled the room. A quiet chatter, broken once in a while by delightful peals of laughter. The lull of water washing over bodies, over and over again. I watched as a young woman helped an elderly relative wash her back and as a mother rubbed down her toddlers. Every single woman occupied peacefully in their own little routine. A few caught my eye and held my gaze and, feeling what I hope was the tug of shared womanhood, gave small encouraging smiles.
Slowly at first, but then all at once, I felt what I can only describe as something slip. A relaxing. I felt my shoulders drop and my posture slump. A release of intrinsic tension and discomfort like I had never experienced before. The constant background noise of self-consciousness had evaporated and I was fully present in my body, unashamed of it, for what felt like the very first time of my life.
I floated through the third and final phase of the cleansing process, a deep scrubbing down with olive oil soap, and re-dressed, thanked everyone and lolled back to my hostel in a daze.
I have tried to sit down and write about this moment for a while now, but it’s taken me this long to truly comprehend the magnitude of what I experienced.
Like too many of my female friends and family members, I spent a large part of my childhood and adolescence crippled by how self-conscious I felt in my own body. To this day, the ghost of this feeling lingers in the background of my every day. I continue to be in awe of how those little girls are going to grow up, comfortable in their bodies and surrounded by those of other women – women of all shapes and sizes –, and free from sexualisation, at least in that precious space.
At the time, I wasn’t fully aware of the implications of this experience and was simply struck by the apparent paradox that being where I was and yet feeling utterly liberated represented. It has left me not only with an improved self-confidence but an appreciation for the endless intricacies and complexities behind the opinions I am often too quick to exhort.