Turkish Baths are good for the soul

June 10, 2006

Illustration: Amelia Johnstone

Does my bum look big in this? Do I look fat? No matter how many times we are reassured about our weight, we worry. Perfectly healthy women are brainwashed into thinking they’re fat, and three per cent of women will suffer from an eating disorder in their lifetime.

Nowhere was the worry worse than in the communal showers at school, where you longed to cover up your body, and where bullying reached its highest pitch. But in the influential feminist book The Beauty Myth, Naomi Wolf argues that women need to be around naked women in order to accept their bodies: “The fastest way to demystify the naked Iron Maiden is to promote retreats, festivals and excursions that include – whether in swimming or sunning or Turkish baths or random relaxation – communal nakedness.”

I think about her advice, swallow my reservations, and head to the Turkish baths at Ironmonger Row, Islington. When I walk into the changing room-cum-rest area I see about 20 women of all shapes, ages and nationalities lounging on beds. They are mainly in groups of two and three, but some are on their own. Most are completely naked, some wear swimming costumes, and others clutch at unravelling towels. A young Korean girl sits on a bed and paints her toenails. Two thirty-something career women say hello to me. I listen to them chat about Shameless, holiday retreats in Italy, their jobs, and sex, while I undress and empty my things into a locker.

I walk out of the rest room into the main bath area, enjoying the warmth on my naked body. In the main room there is a freezing plunge pool, where women yelp and shriek as they hit the water. In the corner, there are marble slabs where therapists are giving massages, Reiki and scrubs. I was expecting exquisite marble floors and walls and glorious mosaics. There are scattered mosaic details, but these baths date from the 1930s. This is not exactly ancient Rome.

There is a separate steam room and three hot rooms of varying temperatures. I have a warm shower and enter the steam room. Here, women recline on the tile ledges, barely visible through the eucalyptus fog. Some women lie on plastic sheets, because towels get soaked with sweat very quickly. A fan whirrs, breathing becomes heavy. Four Middle Eastern women in their forties babble in soothing tones. In the hot rooms, there are wooden racks like those you’d find in a sauna. The hot air envelopes me like a warm hug. The final room is so hot that it burns the inside of my nostrils. It is brilliant for period pain, and I doze off.

Being naked was strange at first. Absurdly my overwhelming fear was not of embarrassing myself, but of offending others. After a while I saw that Wolf was right – when you see other people’s bodies, it makes you feel comfortable with your own. All the images in my head telling me “lean and angular equals good, round and full equals bad” no longer made sense. Lean and angular are good to hang clothes off, but they don’t have the exclusive right to beauty. I realised that round can be beautiful. I saw lots of beautiful things about the female body for the first time: round bums, round bellies, round breasts.

I can describe it only as an epiphany. The fear of being fat I have held onto for so long has dropped away. For the first time I understood the beauty of plump women in classical painting. Most importantly I saw women as complete human beings, made of flesh, hair, soul, spirit and humour rather than flat images made of paper, plastic or pixels on a screen. I got so used to being naked that putting clothes back on to accentuate lumps and bumps seemed quite a shame.

Ironmonger Row Turkish Baths
1–11 Ironmonger Row, London EC1V 3QF
020 7253 4011.

Women only – Wednesdays and Fridays 9am – 9.30pm, Sundays 10am – 6.30pm.

Weekdays before 12 noon – £7.20. Weekdays after 12 noon and weekends – £12.00.

Payment is for a minimum three-hour session, including access to the swimming pool. You will have to leave after three hours only if it is busy. Give yourself two hours at least for the whole process.

Towels – £5 refundable deposit
Lockers – returnable £1
Hairdryer – takes 20p
Olive oil soap body scrub – £5
Sea salt and essential oils scrub – £10
Apricot and elderflower cream scrub – £10
Massage – 30 minutes £20, one hour £38
Reiki – 20 minutes £11, 30 minutes £15


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