Sarah Irving

I do things with words, mainly English and Arabic


I’ve been thinking (not necessarily by choice) more than usual about my body in recent weeks. For reasons to do with both better fitness and some bouts of illness, I’ve lost a lot of weight in the past year. For reasons to do with that and with the inexorable aging process, my shape has shifted. Having in the recent past spent a year on crutches, connected to injuries from an attack by an Israeli soldier over a decade ago, I’ve been forced into new understanding of the psychological and social effects of long-term pain and public disability. I may be in better shape at the moment, but it’s a spectre that lurks in the back of my consciousness. All in all, these things have added themselves to the usual ambivalence that Western women are encouraged by the media and ‘beauty’ industries to have about their physical appearance, and that feminist heterosexual women are often doomed to in relation to their relationship to their own bodies and physicality.
As usual, this blog is a set of mental questions and starting-points rather than answers or solid ideas. It will no doubt be a relief to many that I am far too British to go into physical detail in public, so my musings on the subject are by definition circumscribed. But in some ways this is all just an intro to an interesting article I was pointed to some time ago and want to share. It’s by Cynthia Peters, on the subject of Moroccan women and their communal use of the hammam. It’s easy, as Peters admits, to romanticise this experience in an overdose of misty-eyed orientalism or feminist fantasising. But there is also a lot of truth (and beauty) in her words:

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.

The full Cynthia Peters article, entitled Women Who Bathe Together, is here.

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