Shame Walks into Steam

There is a place I like to go that makes me feel brave and beautiful.

From the congested street corner you might miss it. If you didn’t know what to look for, you would be carefully watching for the tram or from which direction the long line of honking taxis will emerge first. You might be distracted by the guy squeezing fresh pomegranates, or the one shaving lamb doner on the other side of the double doors leading down to five marble steps. And of course, if you didn’t know the word for Turkish Bath, you would not understand the gold embossed letters above said doors that welcome you to the 16th century Çemberlıtaş Hamamı. 

I have been visiting this hamam for decades, joining the centuries of women making the same pilgrimage. Historically, the hamam evolved from the Roman bath, a civilized public space that showcased the engineering feat of piping, heating, and cooling water in cities. Traditionally, locals gathered on gender-specific days in their village hamam to exchange gossip, escape domestic duties, arrange marriages, and celebrate bridal parties. Women still linger in the hamam. So do I.

In the past, I have taken my daughters, but they haven’t lived the feminine journey long enough to appreciate the hamam’s powerful effect. This summer, however, I brought eight women whose fresh encounter gave me words for the restorative and transformative experience that exists in this utterly foreign place.

From the moment you enter the hamam, other-worldliness engulfs you. Ancient Ottoman script hangs above the entrance where you receive your very small, very thin towel and disposable undergarment. An attendant leads you to a small changing cabin and waits for you to emerge in these provisions. She escorts you through a lounge, lined on one side by a low divan and capped by a fresh orange juice/Turkish coffee station, and then pushes open a thick wooden door into a wall of steam. The interior of the bath is entirely white marble. Light shines through small recessed circles of glass from the domed ceiling above onto an enormous heated marble slab in the middle of the room. Encircling the slab are four arched doorways that lead to little rooms. Each room is rimmed with a low step and three marble fountains with hot and cold brass water faucets and a copper bowl floating in the basin.

We gather on the step, awkwardly arranging our “towels” around our naked bodies, anxious in all the ways, and begin to douse ourselves with water: hot, cold, lukewarm, cold, cold, cold. It is July and we are sweaty. I have tried to describe this experience, to prepare them, but it is useless. We are basically strangers and our vulnerability, our body stories, all of it, is raging inside as the first of the “hamam ladies” comes into our alcove. Naked save the little panties barely visible beneath her tummy, she reaches for the first woman, pulls her to her feet, rips the towel off as she arranges it on the slab and gestures for her to lay atop. As more “hamam ladies” come for the women of our group, the marble slab fills with our naked bodies. The scrubbing commences. Then the singing, as the ladies hum and sing and scrub, their bare flesh hanging over ours.

And the strangest thing begins to happen.

Their gruff, indelicate washing, non-sensual as it is, allows for a shift in those whose body has often felt objectified. The way they slap our butt cheeks to flip us over and then pull us up to scrub our hair feels oddly nurturing to those who long to be mothered, still. And the way their bare bellies and breasts slap against our skin normalizes our own flesh that we have covered with so much shame through the years.

As we return to the fountains in the alcove, we marvel at our smooth skin, and something else. Something sacred. Just beginning to put words to the feeling, it will continue to work itself out the rest of the week. As we get to know one another better, leaving the ancient Ottoman city of Istanbul to carry on with our pilgrimage, we will say again and again how surprised we were, how nourished we felt. It will be the highlight of the trip—the biggest risk yielding the greatest gift. And slowly, we will wonder if we left our body shame behind that thick wooden door. Is this what women have known for hundreds of years, a mystery we only just discovered? Is it possible? Could the steam of this ancient hamam evaporate shame? At the very least, the question is one of the treasures we bring home from this exotic land. And it’s why I’ll return.

Beth Bruno lives in Colorado where she and her husband lead a team of ReStory™ experts at Restoration Counseling Center. Additionally, as a podcaster, author, and content strategist, Beth guides women to raise fierce and lovely teen girls. When she’s not creating something new, she and her family enjoy the mountains, traveling, and good food.