Like many young women in their early twenties, I struggle with body image and the harsh constraints of Western beauty standards. For years, I was too hard on myself for eating that cookie, or for enjoying two scoops of ice cream—convincing myself that the reason for my fastidiousness toward food was for my own health. It’s a constant roar of guilt in the back of my mind, and since coming to Morocco, I’ve learned to silence the roar—or at least reduce the volume.
I’ve lived in a country that appreciates big, beautiful women for the better part of a year, and in some ways, this is what I appreciate most about Morocco. By shoving bread in my face and constantly forcing me to kul (eat), this fierce Moroccan hospitality has freed me from this thing that held me back for so many years. With the weight I’ve gained here—which I honestly don’t love—I’ve learned to accept myself and these remarkable cultural experiences. However, this hospitable culture isn’t the sole reason for my ease-up on food guilt; the main reason is the hammam.
Hammams are bathhouses found throughout the Middle East, but they’re especially notable in Morocco, as their enigmatic inner workings were brought to the public eye by Moroccan feminist Fatema Mernissi‘s book, Dreams of Trespass. The first public baths were spearheaded by the Greeks and the Romans, but Moroccans soon followed suit, building hammams near mosques for easy access before prayer times. Muslims wash themselves before praying, so public bathhouses were game changers in a world without running water. Today, millions of Moroccans regularly visit hammams, using their time together as a relaxing, cleansing social hour—or in the case of Moroccan women, social hours. Segregated by sex, some hammams have specific areas for males and females, or they might have certain hours for each sex; men’s hours are often in the evening after work, and women’s hours are usually in the middle of the day.
- “Locker room” to undress or dress.
- Resting room in which to drink tea and eat cookies after bathing.
- First bathing room; closest to the exit and is generally cool or lukewarm. Mothers and young children are often the most common people in this room.
- Second bathing room; adjacent to the first room and separated by an open door or walkway. This room is usually warm or hot; it’s where people fill up buckets under spigots and do the majority of their bathing.
- Third bathing room; separated from the second room by another door or walkway and is usually HOT. People enter this room to sweat away impurities. Plus, this is generally where they’ll lather up with a natural black soap made from olive oil (called savon beldi) and let it melt into their skin.
What to bring:
- Fresh clothes
- Savon beldi
- A kess, which is a rough loofa that’s worn like a glove
- Body wash, shampoo, and conditioner
- Water bucket
- Small cup for scooping water out of the bucket
- Either a small mat for sitting on the floor, or a small stool
- Other toiletries (razor, face wash, towel, robe, etc.)
- Plastic sandals
- Brush and lotion to use after washing
While I can’t speak for the male hammam experience, the female experience is exceptionally liberating; women will stroll into the “locker room”—balancing a bucket on one hip and a small child on another. They will immediately disrobe, choosing to hang their clothes on wall hooks, or give their items to attendants for the time being.
They remove all clothing except for their underwear, and I remember my first time at a hammam, watching in awe as these women—95% nude—strolled around with such confidence and grace.
Shielded within this personal haven, no man can grope, or whistle, or make them feel inferior; they don’t have to cook, or tidy up the home; they don’t have to scrub grass stains out of clothes, or make tea; they don’t have to do anything but laugh and soak and wash; during these hours, they are free.
Self-conscious at first, I covered myself as I walked into the bathhouse, subconsciously hoping no one would see the stretch marks on my breasts, or the dimples on my lower back. However, very little time passed before I found myself parked on a soggy floor mat, gripping the water pipe in front of me as a big-breasted old woman vigorously scrubbed my back (and my front, for that matter). Another (equally big-breasted, albeit slightly younger) woman took turns dumping hot water onto my head, and onto the head of her young son, who sobbed profusely on his own floor mat. I remember sitting adjacent to him and making brief eye contact as if saying, “I understand, kid. I GET you.”
After another two hours of random women coming up to take turns bathing me, I found myself wearing a robe that wasn’t mine—a scalding cup of mint tea in my raw, pink hand. The owner of the hammam brought over a plate of cookies and demanded that I “kul.” This woman clearly took her job seriously, so I quickly grabbed one. Taking a bite, I glanced around at a room filled with gleefully naked women—perfect at all sizes—and for the first time, I knew I was perfect, too.
Header image: floratheexplorer.com