At a public bath in Morocco, I watched a young adolescent bathe her grandmother. She picked up each limb, moved her breasts this way and that, and shifted her belly about to reach every crevice. She stood over her, squatted next to her, and sat alongside her as she put a fair amount of muscle into scrubbing her grandmother clean. The black soap made from olive oil oozed from the coarse cloth she used to slough off the dead skin and dirt. The grandmother lolled on the tiled floor in a reverie.
Nearby, two middle-aged women took turns scrubbing each other. One lay on the floor while the other worked over every inch of her body – attentively, gently, and thoroughly. Afterwards, the recipient of all the attention pulled herself up and kissed her friend as if to say thank you. Then they switched roles, the scrubber moving into a prone position on the floor and the ritual was reversed.
Through the steam, you could see dozens of women, some wearing underpants and some not, sitting in pairs or small groups – all very matter-of-factly but tenderly cleaning each other. For these Moroccan women, a visit to the hammam is a weekly ritual that allows not only for deep cleaning but for socializing as well. For me, a westerner accustomed to private showers and no public nudity, the hammam was a revelation. If it’s impolite to stare under regular circumstances, it must be even more so when everyone around you is naked, but still it was difficult not to let my eyes linger. I have never seen so much female flesh.
It made me realize that the only female bodies I am really familiar with are my own and the billboard version, and since the billboard version offers only one type of female body (young, tall, and impossibly thin), that means I have a pretty limited awareness of what’s going on under women’s clothes.
I was trying to explain this to a friend of mine, and she scoffed, "You don’t hang around at the gym too much, do you?"
Well, the fact of the matter is, I don’t go to a gym, but I get her point. There are some opportunities to see your sisters in the flesh. But stepping past each other in the locker room as you head into your private shower provides a much shallower and more furtive experience of what we’re really like under our clothes. "So what?" you might ask.
As a problem, it doesn’t rank up there with the Iraq war and the systemic economic crisis, but participating in a culture that constantly promotes one type of body – the billboard body – and requires privacy and discretion about every other type of body is not good for women. In the hammam, women and girls get to see their past, present, and future all laid out in a completely unremarkable way. Each woman can locate herself in timeline of aging. The 40-year olds absorb their transition from the 20-year old and 30-year old body to their current state and have coming decades mapped out in all their variety.
How many of us women remember the adolescent version of ourselves? I had completely forgotten until I saw numerous girls in various stages of puberty hanging out at the hammam. Why remember and why care? I think it might simply because in our culture, we are mystified by adolescence. Our young girls are hyper-sexualized by corporate media, which appropriates the transformative stage they are in and uses it as fertile marketing territory. As parents, we are coached to worry and fret about what they will "get into" at this age or how they might "rebel." What if we got a chance to simply be with them and be in the presence of their transformation – all the while treating it like it was the normal, everyday, unremarkable thing that it actually is. What if adolescent transformation was something we were able to fully acknowledge and simultaneously ignore (similar to how we notice the seasons change)?
And for the young girls, they get to see women of all shapes and sizes, completely at ease in their own bodies and around the bodies of others. This is no small gift. Compare that to our culture where women age in the privacy of the dressing room, where we turn this way and that to see how well the "slimming technology" of the new bathing suit works or scrutinize whether the push-up bra adequately disguises the sagging breast.
(It would have to be the subject of another commentary to more fully explore how it is that a culture — like Morocco’s — that requires women to be all covered up in public also manages to have space for women to be congenial and intimate in private. And how a culture — like ours in the U.S. — encourages women to show all in public, but fosters atomization and competition with each other in private.)
The weekly visit to the hammam gives women a completely unselfconscious visual of other women’s bodies, something that at a minimum normalizes the variety in our shapes and sizes and lays out the aging process in full detail. More than that, though, it must be a relief to not constantly see yourself in comparison to the billboard body. Instead, you see yourself in the mix of a great assortment of bodies, and (I’m only guessing here, but it seems a reasonable guess) so you see yourself as *belonging* in that great assortment. Unlike those of us in the great western world who never belong because the familiar and publicized versions of the female body are literally unattainable for most of us.
The visual contact in the hammam is only part of it, however. There is also the incredible luxury of physical contact – safe, intimate, platonic, unselfconscious, full-body contact. Even as I write that, I wonder if I’m making it up. It sounds … utopian. The women in the culture that I am a part of do not often get together and *tend* to each other – so lovingly and so thoroughly.
We do our best, though. We talk about our bodies. Some fix each other’s hair or do each other’s nails. We probably do more platonic touching among ourselves than men do among themselves. We hang out at websites like http://thebellyproject.wordpress.com/ or http://theshapeofamother.com/ that display anonymous pictures of bellies, submitted by women who are trying to come to grips with their post-partum bodies. These cyber-delivered images remind us that we are not alone, that stretch marks are normal, and that flat stomachs are extremely rare among regular people. Women reply to the anonymous images with anonymous words of support. "You look great!" and "You’ll be hot again in no time."
The pictures are anonymous. And it’s just me and my computer monitor. So it’s okay to stare. And I could always log on and add my words of encouragement. But I’d rather step into the steamy public bath, where it’s possible to get really clean, really relaxed, and really at home with your body.
Cynthia Peters can be reached at cyn.peters [at] gmail.com.