One of my most frequent stress dreams involves being naked in public. I’m walking through the mall when I realize I’ve forgotten to don pants, for example, or I’m sitting at a restaurant, puzzlingly topless. I grew up in an achingly conservative, Christian family tucked into Middle America’s middle class, where everyone changed with the door locked, and our thick family photo albums held almost no bare baby butts. At my Lutheran grade school, storm-eyed teachers dragged girls into the hallway and had them stretch their arms toward the sky, touchdown-style, and if, at the zenith, a sliver of skin revealed itself above the waistband — demerits all around. So I always figured my prudishness — my refusal to skinny dip, my shock at college friends who went streaking, my non-participation in the Free the Nipple campaign (though I applaud it) — stemmed from my upbringing, the environment endlessly buttoned-up and modest. I never would have guessed that getting naked in a foreign country would finally make me feel comfortable in my own skin. I visited Marrakesh last summer, Istanbul and Cappadocia in the fall, and Casablanca this spring. Beautiful, haunting places where I covered my arms and legs out of respect and then baked in the hot sun. And, in each steamy city, between visits to mosaicked mosques and pauses to listen to the chorus of calls to prayer, I indulged in hammam (or Turkish bath) treatments, an ancient spa ritual that's a normal part of life for locals. Many women head to the bathhouse once or twice a week, stripping off their headscarves (and, well, everything else) to chat with friends in a steam room before reclining on a tiled table, in full view of their neighbors, for a full-body wash n' scrub.
The treatment feels amazing; after a stint in a sauna, you stretch out on your back, then your belly, as a strong-fingered woman in a bikini coats you in warm bubbles and kneads away with massage-like pressure. Then, after a rinse of warm water from a wide bowl, there’s the loofah-ing section: With just-south-of-painful strokes, the therapist sloughs dead skin off your legs, back, even armpits in gross yet weirdly satisfying grayish rolls. Even your scalp gets a good, brisk shampoo. As you rinse yourself under a free-standing shower, you can’t help but think that you might literally never be this clean again. Which is especially satisfying when the days bookending the treatment involve 100-degree heat, thick dust, the exhaust of a thousand roaring motorbikes; and constant, relentless meat smoke. Yet the first time a practitioner indicated with gestures that I should remove my bathing suit — yes, top and bottom — and draped a tiny washcloth over my lady parts, I couldn’t relax. Here was a stranger literally scrubbing my boobs. In full display of other naked women, big and small, old and young, wrinkly and smooth, each just a neutral, nonsexual body coated in skin cells that were not long for this world. (It’s worth noting that some hammam treatments are one-on-one, but not at the bathhouses I patronized.) The practitioners chatted with one another in Moroccan Arabic as they used huge windsock-like things to drape their charges in thick, bubbly cloaks. Are they talking about me? I wondered. Are they discussing this white chick’s weird bod?
When it was all over, I reclined in a bathrobe, half-drunk on endorphins and dehydration, and someone brought me sweet tea. I couldn’t believe how knot-free my back felt, how soft my arms and legs were. My practitioner had moved on to the next client with the smooth detachment of a gynecologist. A thought like a shooting star: Maybe nobody here gives a shit what your body looks like. When I found myself in Turkey that fall, exploring its winding streets and opulent mosques, I was determined to seek out another bathhouse. I signed my then-boyfriend and myself up for traditional hammam treatments, waving goodbye as he, unsuspecting, headed over to the men’s changing room, then I followed a flock of locals into the women’s steam room. This time, cognizant of how good I’d felt afterward (and perhaps aware that I should stay positive, since I was thrusting the experience on my trusting S.O.), I managed to begin relaxing much sooner. I discovered another tourist in the sauna spoke English, a teacher from Boston, and we chatted while reclining on the tile tiers, tits out. During the scrub-down and exfoliating treatments, I was able to zone out sooner, to think less of the nakedness all around me.
And by the third time I got a treatment, visiting family in urban, untouristy Casablanca, I was a hammam convert. In fact, I convinced other visiting relatives to come along, chitchatting with my conservative cousin and aunt as we all got scrubbed down. Somehow, improbably, all the hammam body love left a lasting impression; since then, I’ve managed to skinny dip in a friend’s hot tub and travel around Vietnam with a not-super-close friend without caring if she saw me change. I see the irony: Morocco and Turkey aren’t thought of as bastions of women's lib, and the clothed portions of my trips meant annoyances like climbing a mountain in a full-length skirt or wrapping on a headscarf to enter a mosque in triple-digit heat. I make no claims on the state of women’s rights there, the long road ahead toward equality. But from my pinhole view, lying flat under brisk hands and warm bubbles while women laughed and chatted around me, I’m grateful that a little slice of life halfway across the world made me feel more comfortable naked. It's your body. It's your summer. Enjoy them both. Check out more #TakeBackTheBeach here.