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The Truth About the Fact: An International Journal of Literary Nonfiction

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The Truth About the Fact: A Journal of Literary Nonfiction is an international journal committed to the idea that excellence in the art of letters can play a vital role in transforming the planet we share.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Not-So-Private Parts

By: Colleen Bouey

American women are notorious for wearing less clothing than the people of many other cultures. We flaunt parts of our bodies that many are forbidden to ever expose. However, we rarely find anyone making eye contact in the locker room. It is socially unacceptable for us to expose our body parts highlighted in sexual relations in front of people who see the same thing in the mirror, yet we don’t think twice about showing 95% of ourselves at the beach.

In June of 2010, I spent a week in Morocco, where I got my fair share of culture shock. When visiting places with conservative social dress codes, I had always been told to cover my shoulders and legs down past my knees. Morocco is one of these places, but the only way to truly avoid degrading, aggressive outcries in the streets is to cover from head to toe. In this society, every part of a woman’s body is sexualized, not just those that men lack.

This is why I was caught off guard when I was taken to a bathhouse at the end of my visit. The house I was staying in had no hot water, so our daily hygienic routine consisted of jumping around in the shower with a little soap for no more than a few minutes. It was a dirty week. My host had spoken of a “hammam,” the word used for bathhouse, just a five-minute walk from her place.

She said she would go at least once per week because it had hot water and it was a chance for her to scrub off the built up grime, but it was also a social event. That’s where I was thrown off. A social event in a room full of naked women who are completely covered the rest of the time? I didn’t understand how this was possible but it certainly sounded interesting, so we went on my last night there.

Upon arrival, we paid the small entrance fee and went to the lockers (which actually had no locks, but instead women sitting in front of them who we would pay to watch our things). We undressed and carried buckets with soaps, sponges, and floor mats to a large tiled room with several tubs of hot water and a fountain for cold water. We filled our buckets with hot and cold water and sat on the floor mats while we began to scrub off the accumulated dirt.

Feeling awkward at first, I focused on soaping myself up. But I soon noticed the interactions of the women inside. They were talking and laughing with each other as they washed themselves. People would approach and initiate conversation with us, although the only one who knew Arabic was the girl who lived there. We were asked by strangers to scrub their backs, and they would scrub ours after. A remarkably friendly group of women, they wanted to know about our stay in Morocco and our lives outside of it.

Undressing in a locker room inside the U.S. is one of the most isolating activities in which we participate. In contrast, a hammam is one of the most intimate, comfortable environments I have ever experienced. It fascinates me now to be in a room of women changing and see no interaction. What are we hiding?


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