I have the feeling everyone is looking at me. No, it’s not true, not e-ve-ry-one is looking at you! What am I, the centre of the universe? But those looking at me must be doing so because of my skin colour, I am sure of it. Well, isn’t it to be expected? I obviously stand out in a room where everyone else is white. Fine, I am not ashamed about my body anyway. I have grown to cherish this body. Yet I can’t help but imagine some of them projecting some fetishising ideas onto my body. ‘Chocolate skin tone’, maybe checking if my body is ‘curvy’ enough for a Black woman … I am over that as well. Let’s ignore the ignorant. If anything at all, my presence here is educational material. Wait a minute, I don’t want to be educational material, nor do I want my body to be a token of others’ fantasies.
Welcome to the whirlwind of thoughts
For years, the vulnerability of being the only Black body in the room has prevented me from enjoying the misty hammam or the pleasant heat of the sauna. It was as much of a pleasant experience as it was a trainwreck of emotions and reflections. It is one thing to feel like a minority in external public spaces; it is another to be that minority in areas that involve nudity. Reflecting on my first sauna visits in Germany, together with an experience in Morocco, I realise my thoughts lead me to use certain coping mechanisms. Getting on this train of thoughts was a way to cut me from the moment to avoid feeling embarrassed.
If you feel generally trapped in a similar situation, it is crucial to develop tricks to get from the mind back into your body. If that sounds foreign to you and are lucky to not experience any of what I am talking about, I would recommend taking a moment to check on your attitude: are you genuinely indifferent? Or do you still look at those different bodies through a lens of admiration? Staring at people because of their skin colour creates an environment that prevents those people from enjoying something essential: the right to enjoy being in their body.
After a few days spent in the old town of Tangier, my friend and I looked at the map and set our minds on walking a few kilometres to a local hammam situated in the outskirts. The way there was full of our ordinary conversation and comments on the journey so far. We stopped a few times, admiring the kitschy, shimmering horse and camel carts passing by. Sometimes, the driver would stop to ask if we’d like a ride. No, we want to walk alongside the coast. We wanted to be off the beaten tracks. Maybe deep down, we wanted people to forget we were foreigners. We were quite a duo in this context. I am Black; she has SWANA roots*.
We had a moment of doubt once we arrived. A grey and beige building was standing in front of us, with a dull facade and no particular front sign. We could have passed by without noticing it but we checked the reception. We could see some turnstiles, a mop, and a few buckets of water lining on the side as we entered. We could also smell the typically warm, humid air on wet tiles. Yes, that was our hammam. The reception woman arrived one or two minutes later. She gave us tickets and pointed in the direction of the changing rooms, on the right. We first had our bikinis on. That way we’re not fully naked, we’d have some second skin to hide. From the dressing room, we could hear bursts of laughter from kids and soft female voices shushing.
The hammam itself consisted of two big humid rooms. All corners were occupied. On one side, small groups of women whispering. On the other, a woman vigorously scrubbing another’s back and in between, kids joyfully playing with water pipes or quarrelling over a plastic bucket. As we progressed in the room, it was like someone turned down the volume to a whisper. We could hear the squeakings of flips flops whenever someone crossed the room. From time to time, some kids looked in our direction. Children’s eyes never betray. Was it both of us together? Was it my Black body? Maybe all these people knew each other somehow, and our presence was disturbing some kind of reunion? Or does it have mostly to do with the fact we were foreigners? The air was thick and hot but quite clear to see through. Close to the ceiling, little windows added more light to the scenery. There we were between all these bodies different from mine. There was no place to hide.
Feeling exposed traps you in your mind
Coming back home to Berlin, I remembered a similar experience of feeling aware of my body. It was in the gym sauna. There as well, my body would stand out in an environment that is primarily white. Even though the atmosphere always felt welcoming, I have been surprised by a few stares in my direction. Here you are not allowed to wear any bathing suits for hygienic reasons, which add to the self-awareness feeling at the beginning. You’re only allowed to wrap yourself in towels. That level of exposure made me very self-aware at the beginning. Slowly, I started to realise how much people around me were feeling self-conscious about parts of their bodies: varicose veins on the calves, fat around the hips, the gleaming surface of a bald head. By having those daily chit chats, in the changing room, at the fountain, I started noticing tiny things like how people would protectively curl over their belly or tie their towel around. A few (or perhaps a lot?) of people had something that would cause their own self-conscious whirlwind. Mine was my black skin. Who knows what demons the person sitting next to me on this sauna bench is facing every day? It was a humbling experience to understand that my ‘element of exposure’ is an obvious one and that most of us had this one element, this insecurity making our groundedness feel shaky.
Do you know about this mind trick when feeling anxious about public speaking: Imagine people naked in front of you. This trick is a way to undress them from all their protective armour and bring them back to performing bodies, just like yours on stage. It can be a powerful tool of the mind to bring more peace. Over time, I built confidence and started enjoying these sauna moments more and more. But the truth is that it came slowly, one visit after the other; something I couldn’t do at the Moroccan hammam.
That day, in the Moroccan hammam, I was trapped in my mind. The storm of thoughts was going on and on. The room was full of clues but also interpretations. I could grasp some of the cues but was lacking the language to decode what was happening. I was scared of looking like a fool and feeling even more exposed. All I could do was measure my movements and look like I knew what I was doing. My friend offered to give me a gentle back scrub. I accepted, savouring every single second of it as I calmed down, closed my eyes, and could descend a little bit into my body. As soon as I opened my eyes again, my mind started again.
One woman kindly passed along a bucket, and I caught one or two smiles coming from the kids. I might have been entirely wrong about the whole situation. The only interpretation solid enough was the one happening in my mind: I stand out in this room because of my skin colour, and people are looking at me because of it. I know that without that interpretation, free from all the heavy thoughts, I would have enjoyed this moment even more.
Getting surprised by the self-awareness storm is not a comfortable situation to be in. We left and packed our belongings with a feeling of relief.
Getting trapped in the thoughts whirlwind is a result of the environment we find ourselves in and the unique routes our minds make to protect ourselves. As long as the environment is not an offensive one, there are a few mind tricks that allowed me to feel less self-conscious:
- Remind myself everyone has their struggles or point of self-awareness.
- Do not let myself be fooled by the fact mine is obvious.
- Remember that being in the moment and enjoying my body is a right in its highest definition. Everything going against this (looks, comments, discrimination) is a violation of that right.
- At the same time, remember the context and set my mind the best way I can before the situation: “I will be a half-naked Black woman in a room with other half-naked non-Black people” by phrasing this simple statement in my head, I already gain some power back from the storm of thoughts.
Edited by Bethany Burgoyne from The Sassy Show
*SWANA: “is a decolonial word for the South West Asian/ North African (S.W.A.N.A.) region in place of Middle Eastern, Near Eastern, Arab World or Islamic World that have colonial, Eurocentric, and Orientalist origins and are created to conflate, contain and dehumanize our people.” Definition from Swana.org