On Witnessing Beautiful, Real Bodies

I recently spent two weeks traveling with a group in Morocco and was fortunate enough to have the experience of going to a hammam. A hammam is a type of spa where women and men (separately) go once a week for 2+ hours to perform ritual cleansing. It’s relaxing, exfoliating, and a great time for female bonding. The “catch”? You must be completely naked. Maybe for some people this isn’t a big deal, but for me it was horrifying. My body has been a constant issue for me. I’ve done crash diets, Weight Watchers, lost weight, gained it back, struggled with days of self-loathing and through countless workouts. I have done many things to feel comfortable—much less beautiful—in my own body, and yet I found unexpected inspiration in this hammam.

As soon as we walked into the hammam we were immediately instructed to lose the clothes. It was one of those moments where we all kind of paused, thought “I’m really going to be naked in front of all these people,” and then dove into the process. We went into the first room, the coolest of the three steam rooms, and began scrubbing our bodies with this grey-looking olive oil scrub. I took a moment to look around the room and realized how rarely I actually see real, naked female bodies. Women in American rarely, if ever, see each other naked. Throughout my life, I have only really seen one female body: the one presented to me daily by the mainstream media. I assumed that most women had this body under all their clothes. I was ashamed of my body for not fitting this image. I was so, so wrong. No one in that room had a “perfect” body, and yet we were all absolutely beautiful.

There's a prevailing idea in the West that women of Eastern cultures are oppressed and ashamed of their own bodies, hiding their femaleness and beauty under layers and layers of clothing. But these same women think nothing of getting naked in front of each other—the naked female body is, at least in the hammam setting, normalized. I do not want to generalize about Western v. Eastern women, because I’m sure body issues are relevant on both sides and there's of course no single "Western" or "Eastern" woman. But I think it's interesting that, at least for me, it took going to an Islamic country, getting naked in front of all of the women in my group, and allowing a naked Moroccan woman to scrub every area of my body to feel truly beautiful and comfortable in my own skin for the first time in my life. I felt more liberated in that hammam in Morocco than I have ever felt as a woman in the United States.

Think about this: if you are brought to a hammam once a week for at least two hours every week of your life since early childhood, if you have seen every woman that matters in your life—much less countless other women—naked, how would you see yourself? If you have seen these different bodies and curves and creases and breasts and hair, if these things were normal to you, how would you see your own body? How differently would American women’s body image be if instead of being bombarded with images of one “perfect” female body, we weekly experienced the vast differences between naked women? Would it be obvious to us how absolutely beautiful and unique and wonderful our bodies truly are?

More articles by Category: Body image and body standards, Feminism, International, Media, Religion
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Chelsea L
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