Last year I was lucky enough to visit Morocco with my boyfriend, Samir. We were invited out to stay with his Aunt and cousin in central Fes and also spent time with his Uncle who lived on a working farm. I was expecting there to be differences between cultures but I didn’t realise just how different everything would be – eating everything with our hands, having my stomach pummelled with olive oil after a rough night of food poisoning, packing in as many people into a taxi as possible and a full suit being Samir’s Uncle’s outfit of choice when herding the cows. At times the trip was stressful, the language barrier was difficult, being bombarded by more and more family members to meet was intense, the bouts of food poisoning and the heat.. oh it was so so so hot. However, at other times everything felt easy, where words failed us we communicated in actions, dance and music, we were welcomed with open arms by every single person we met and for a group that had so little, they were able to give so much. I learnt a lot whilst I was there, the lack of internet access was incredible for me. I absolutely loved getting to know the family, exploring the medinas and indulging in all of the incredible food that was on offer. I still dream about the pancakes we ate every morning for breakfast with fresh honey. But something that impacted me more than the incredible pancakes (they’re a close second) was a trip to the spa.
On our second day, Samir’s cousin suggested that we visited a spa whilst we were visiting. It was a little out of the centre of Fes but he explained that people travelled for miles to bathe there because of the healing qualities of the water. We thought we’d probably do it at some point but the next thing we knew, bags were being packed and we were going that very moment! I kept trying to put my swimming costume in the bag but Samir’s Aunt kept taking it out again, she continuously pointed to her clothes so we presumed that meant it would be a fully clothed spa. They explained it would be separate pools for men and women and Samir had been to a mixed pool when he’d visited before and women were in the water fully dressed so this was what I was expecting. When we arrived, Samir and his cousin went through one door and Samir’s Aunt and I went through another. I was keeping everything crossed that I’d be able to see into the pool on the way to the changing area so I could suss out the appropriate attire but as soon as I walked through the doorway.. I realised. My swimming costume wasn’t taken out of the bag because I needed to be fully clothed, it was taken out because I needed to be fully naked. The changing room was full of women using the showers and pouring buckets of the hot salt water onto them and the next thing I knew I was being ushered to a cubicle to take all of my clothes off.
When the door of the cubicle closed I literally thought I was going to burst into tears. The room was sweltering hot and I had never ever been naked in public, let alone in a foreign country where I was the only white person and I had no idea what anyone was saying. I’d noticed on my way in that some of the women were still wearing their pants and I was so thankful that I’d worn sensible underwear that day! I took a deep breath and I decided to go for it. This was a once in a lifetime kind of experience and there was no way I could leave so I was going to have to embrace it. I stepped out of the cubicle, covering myself with a towel which Samir’s aunt quickly took away and then she took my hand and led me into the swimming pool. There was one large salt pool and women were sat all along the edge with buckets and sponges, using the water to wash and scrub their skin and taking it in turns to help others too. At first, I headed straight into the water but I quickly realised why everyone else was opting to sit on the edge. The water was absolutely boiling hot, I could already feel my skin going wrinkly but it was the perfect way to hide myself and I stayed bobbing around for quite a while. During this time I was in a sheer state of panic, determined that everyone was staring at me and clock watching as to when we could finally leave again.
After a while, Samir’s Aunt patted the swimming pool side next to her and invited me to sit down. I was absolutely freaking out but I gave myself a little pep talk and just went for it. The next thing that happened completely caught me off guard. I looked around the room and no one was looking at me, no one cared what my body looked like, everyone was too busy scrubbing their skin, chatting with friends and taking it in turns to wash each other. I think all too often we can think that all everyone else is doing is thinking/talking about you when in reality everyone is just thinking about themselves. Samir’s Aunt began to wash me using a sponge and bucket we had bought with us and although at first it seemed really strange after a while I relaxed into what was happening. Before long, the woman next to her stood up and came and washed me too and then I was surrounded by a whole group of women pouring the water over my skin and chattering away to which I continued to nod and smile and try and hide my happy tears because I was so overwhelmed by being surrounded by naked women who were so happy and so free and so not bothered by the whole thing (lucky that it was hot in hindsight because I think they thought I was just sweating profusely!). I couldn’t believe how wrong I had been about my perception of Muslim women. I realised that female groups are so much more free with eachother than in Western cultures. I was seeing a whole different picture.
When we left the spa it actually felt strange to be putting my clothes back on, I wanted to stay in that bubble. I couldn’t believe what I had just experienced. I’d managed to be (pretty much) naked in a spa that was blistering hot without having an anxiety attack and the two hours I had spent there had completely changed how I viewed my body. I felt an immense amount of freedom, I looked at my body and realised that it was the first time I’d really truly looked at myself. Areas that I’d thought of as flawed, didn’t seem so bad anymore. It was like a glimmer of hope. I had the smallest body in that spa yet I was the only one consumed by wanting to be smaller. Enough was enough and I vowed that my journey to self love from here was going to step up a notch, I wanted to feel what these women were feeling – complete security in the body that I am blessed with. My body was perfect in that moment sat on the edge of the swimming pool and it is perfect as it is now and it’ll be perfect tomorrow and next month and next year. It is perfect because it is mine and yours is perfect because it is yours.
It got me thinking that if all women could be surrounded by other women of all shapes and sizes that our perception of beauty and the ideal body would completely change. I’m not saying that we should take all the women of the world on a trip to Morocco, although I’m totally down for that, but more variety of body types in the media/advertising world and less edited images of women on social media in general would be an incredibly worthwhile place to start. I’ll never forget Samir’s face when he asked me “Were you ok? I was so worried about you because it was so boiling in there” to which I replied “Your Aunt has literally just washed my tits”. We had had very different experiences! All of the men in their side of the spa were just swimming and diving and wearing speedos. I feel frustrated that I’ll never be able to convey exactly what I experienced in words but that kind of makes it all the more special. The people in Morocco loved their bodies, they loved each other’s bodies and the community of bathing women was one of the most liberating things I had ever experienced in my life. I’ve realised since that I didn’t see one dieting advertisement at all whilst I was there, the women were encouraged to eat (a lot) and strong, big, healthy, jiggly, strong, happy bodies were celebrated completely without concern. It didn’t matter that I looked different, spoke different and acted differently. We joined together as brilliant naked women and I felt completely part of the sisterhood. For that, I will always be thankful.
Image by the wonderful Frances Cannon