The Hammam and the Moroccan Body Image by Isabel Spence

Among the different experiences I had heard about prior to arriving in Morocco, and one that I was greatly looking forward to was my first trip to a hammam. First of all, a hammam is a bath-house/ sauna where Moroccans go to get a really intensely clean. The basic set up of the hammam is a large tiled room with three different chambers that connect yet get progressively hotter. I had read a lot of different accounts of how a trip to a hammam would be and so I couldn’t wait to get my first experience under my belt!

My roommate, Alli, and I have been very excited about this trip. When our host mom suggested we go this week we jumped at the chance and so we found ourselves arriving at the hammam with our shampoos, soaps and changes of clothes, just ready to get started! I knew, and it is implied in the name bathhouse, that there would be a lot of nudity when it came to our trip to the hammam. However, I didn’t expect to see so many naked women right when we walked into the changing room!

Alli and I in Rabat!

Alli and I in Rabat!

We began our hammam experience by quickly stripping off our clothes down to our underwear. At this point, we gave our things to the attendants at the front desk and were given three buckets to use in the hammam. A quick side note: most Moroccans shower with a bucket and I’ve quickly adapted to this custom. You shower in such a way that as you rinse your hair, etc., the excess water flows into a bucket at your feet. You can then turn the water off and use the water in the bucket already to scrub your body down with.  This is something I’ve grown very accustomed to doing in my homestay, which definitely is a carry-over from the hammam.

Once we had our buckets, we were ready to get started! As we walked through the three chambers to the hottest one where we found a spot to sit down, I realized just how hot it is in a hammam. In the hottest room,  it was definitely in the 90°F range, or hotter. Once we were situated my host mom went and filled our buckets as we got a chance to look around. Alli and I stuck out quite a bit as the only foreigners in the hammam as we are clearly of European descent with our light skin. On top of this, our host mom opted to wear a bikini in the hammam and so we had left our bras on… whereas everyone else in the hammam was solely wearing panties.

It was about at this time that I thought, “Well, when in Morocco, do like the Moroccans!” and decided to take off my bra to get the completely authentic hammam experience. We then started to rinse ourselves off by scooping water with small buckets out of our large buckets. The hammam is a hugely social experience as there is a lot of camaraderie and teamwork. I helped my mom rinse off her back and she did the same for me. We then used some beautiful super-soft amber soap to cleanse our bodies. Next, my mom got out these scrubbing gloves that are called keeses  and she showed Alli and me how to efficiently scrub your body down with them. It’s incredible how well they work! I never fully understood how much dead skin one carries around on their body until I saw so much of mine being scrubbed away!

My mom and I helped each other with our backs and then we went out to the coolest chamber (still pretty hot) and finished scrubbing before she made a concoction of a watery mud-like substance. As she was fetching something in another room, one of the women in the hammam noticed Alli was still wearing a bra and took it upon herself to inform Alli that her breasts would never get clean if she continued to wear it; by going over and taking it off Alli! My roommate took it completely in stride, thanking the woman and continuing to clean herself.

All of the girls on our program! We’re a diverse bunch and I think they are all gorgeous and swell. Props to Bri Rinaldo for the great picture!

All of the girls on our program! We’re a diverse bunch and I think they are all gorgeous and swell. Props to Bri Rinaldo for the great picture!

Once we were completely lathered in the mud like substance we returned to the hottest room where we laid down and enjoyed the hot tile and steamy air. At this time, I had a slight miscommunication with my mom. She said something in Darija I didn’t understand and slapped her stomach so I assumed (like the American I am) that she was making a comment on her weight. After all, what American pool party or event where there are minimal clothes required do girls not question their bodies? I told her I thought she was beautiful then my mom explained that she was saying she was hungry and that she was super comfortable with her body.

Around then, I started really thinking about the hammam and how wonderful it is. The body is seen so differently; all body types seem equally appreciated in Morocco and beauty seems to be distributed fairly from one woman to the next. Every Moroccan in the hammam was comfortable enough with her body to wash herself in full sight of others. There was no shy covering of the body or squeezing of fat rolls or sighing at widening arms, legs or waists. Instead there was an intense feeling of community and femininity.

After our little recline in the sauna room, our host mom gave Alli and me a nice massage and we clumsily tried to return the favor! I feel I’ve truly developed a familial connection to my hosts in Morocco, even with my baby sister and our live-in maid. The rest of our hammam trip involved rinsing ourselves off and washing our hair. I left the hammam slightly pink and incredibly soft all over.

I feel like I still had the hammam glow during our trip to Chefchaouen this weekend.  I felt lovely!)

I feel like I still had the hammam glow during our trip to Chefchaouen this weekend. I felt lovely!)

More than anything else, I left the hammam with a brand new mindset. Morocco is making me see myself in a new way, and I really appreciate it. There are a lot of times that are supposed to be special in a young woman’s life in America and times when she is supposed to have felt incredibly beautiful. My senior prom, the day I got my braces off and days I got great haircuts all are frivolous memories in comparison to the intense beauty I felt by going to the hammam. Being surrounded by women who are happy and comfortable with their bodies instilled a pride of my own. I only hope that one-day women all over the world find peace with their physical selves, flaws and all. Women of the world: you are beautiful; old, young, fair, dark, traditional, contemporary and from here or there. I hope you feel lovely today.

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1 Comment

Filed under Area & Arabic Language Studies, Isabel Spence, Morocco, Rabat

One response to “The Hammam and the Moroccan Body Image by Isabel Spence

  1. Love your post! I studied abroad in Rabat last Fall with a different program, and one of my favorite things about Moroccan culture was the hammam. I wrote my own blog post about the experience and noted very similar things about its positive effects on body image, I’m glad others felt the same way!

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