My older sister and I were outside a hidden glass door of a hammam, a Turkish bathhouse. We were there to experience a ritual, born in the seventh century, of washing and purifying one’s skin. Up above the glass door was a giant gray, faded dome, made of huge chunks of stone. We had traveled to Istanbul, Turkey, eager to see the world after saving up enough money for a summer trip. I was 24.
“Are we in the right place?” I asked her, as we navigated down a wide staircase with no signs. When we got to what appeared to be the entrance, we found arrows on the floor which indicated women were to turn right. This took us down to a locker room, made of more stone with black and pink pebbles.
This was no American locker room. Instead of women changing, we walked straight into a group of Turkish women in a circle, dancing, clapping their hands, and shaking everything Allah gave them. One woman yodeled while another clucked her tongue, in what seemed like a festive femininity dance. The women were of all shapes and ages. Some had the build of sumo wrestlers, others resembled tiny fairies.
All were completely naked.
“You didn’t tell me we had to be nude?” I yelped to my sister. I was terrified of showing anyone my small breasts. The only person who had seen them since puberty was her. I turned back around into darkness. I was getting out of there.
Growing up in a family of six as a Muslim-Bangladeshi American, I was always the flat-chested one. My mother’s side of the family is filled with curvaceous cousins much further along in the alphabet than me: Cs, Ds and beyond. Their breasts and womanly figures propelled them into all sorts of torrid affairs I heard about three continents away. If I was to inherit the family history of diabetes, surely it would come along with a nice pair of double Ds. It had passed down to my older sister, who started wearing a bra at age ten, and was deemed a prized beauty. I, in contrast, was given the part of a small boy in our high school production of “Our Town.” I was medically underweight and undersized.
My mother, my Mamuni, took me to a nutritionist to figure out what the problem was. After carefully taking my measurements and writing detailed notes on my eating habits, the nutritionist looked up from her notepad and declared, “She needs more butter.” Mamuni dutifully began to put butter in my rice at dinner, which made my previously delicious Bangla meals much less desirable, all in the hopes of fattening me up. It didn’t, but it did give me high cholesterol.
After I got my period Mamuni resigned herself to the fact that I wasn’t going to grow. “Well I guess that’s it, then” she said, looking at my chest. She didn’t bring it up again, but people outside of our home did.
In a middle-school typing class, a boy I had a crush on, with green eyes and pale skin, once pounded on the side of his machine and said, “You’re as flat as this computer.” My crush soon faded.
I would often go to my sister, whom I called Apu in Bangla, for solace and education in these times, lamenting the fact that my chest looked nothing like hers.
“What’s cleavage?” I asked Apu. I had a hard time understanding what all the fuss was about. “It means you can push your boobs together, stick a pencil in between, and the pencil won’t fall.” She demonstrated. I didn’t get it. What exactly was so sexy about that? Nevertheless, I tried it. The pencil dropped straight down to the floor. I tried to press my own breasts together. If I mashed them really hard, I had a hint of something.
“I don’t even have cleavage.”
She tried to cheer me up. “Neither does Keira Knightley. And she’s gorgeous!” Apu didn’t need to add what we already both knew. I was no Keira Knightley.
* * *
It wasn’t until I started wearing hijab in high school that I found a way to cope. I began to use my religion as an excuse to disconnect from my body. In a time where dating and looks dominate a girl’s thoughts, I was different from my non-Muslim girl friends in two huge ways: I did not date or have premarital sex, and I began to wear hijab to cover my hair for modesty and as a declaration of my faith. I had already started wearing long sleeves in middle school, and had covered my legs since fifth grade.
When I began to wear hijab, my understanding was that Allah encouraged men and women to be chaste, but called on women to wear hijab in chapter 33, verse 59 and chapter 24, verse 31 of the Quran, where, according to Muhammad Asad’s translation, it said, “And tell the believing women, to lower their gaze and be mindful of their chastity, and not to display their charms (in public) beyond what may (decently) be apparent thereof; hence, let them draw their head-coverings over their bosoms.” I took this a step further by burying my breasts within my hijab to hide my flatness.
During high school, the more my friends pushed the boundaries of their sexuality and relationship with their bodies, the more I appropriated Islam to hide from my own. So what if boys don’t find me attractive, I thought. That’s the whole point of my superhero hijab outfit, to repel boys in the first place! I convinced myself I didn’t care about fashion or looking good because I was on a higher spiritual plane, when really it was because I felt like a hopeless cause.
I was so used to pinning the same black hijab tightly around my neck every morning, that I was surprised when a guy once asked, “Why do you wear it like a noose?” I distanced myself from the idea of being attractive or having a body that was perceived that way. I stopped looking in the mirror. Instead, I became a brain with two brown eyes that happened to be attached to a pair of skinny legs. I felt less like a female and more like an amorphous, floating being.
* * *
Back in the locker room of the hammam, I told my sister, “I don’t want to be here.”
“We can leave.”
I thought about it.
If I left, I’d go back to my hotel room, fling myself onto the bed, and make plans to see some other tourist attraction. I’d be safe. I wouldn’t have to confront my body and deal with what would surely be awkward eyes fixated on my small chest.
If I stayed, I’d do the exact opposite of what my mind was screaming, and enter into the unknown.
I had come to Turkey to see a part of Islam’s rich heritage, explore a foreign country I may never see again, and embark on something new. I was in a beautiful stone and marble building built by the country’s greatest architect in the 1500s.
If I fled, I’d leave it all behind. I was tired of running, waiting for the day I’d arrive to a nameless, happier destination I’d chased since I was young.
I decided to stay.
Overhearing us, a woman told me we could keep our undergarments on. That sealed the deal. Apu, of course, fluidly removed all her clothing with full confidence. I deliberated about what to do while the dancing continued; one woman even encouraged me to join in. I said no.
I took a closer look at the circle. I had never seen anything like it. The women were completely unabashed with their bodies, it didn’t matter if their breasts were too big or too small. They hadn’t separated themselves from their bodies as I had. Rather they were one complete organism, calling on all of their senses to harvest joy.
I took my bra off.
I stored my clothes into a locker and wrapped my body in a peshtemal, a thin cotton towel, I found in my locker and walked into the bathing room, filled with steam. Straight up above was the dome and below it was a huge octagonal marble slab. I hadn’t realized from outside, but the dome had hundreds of tiny, stained, glass, circular windows to let light in.
A washer greeted me and led me to a free corner of the heated marble slab, and I sat down next to a bucket of warm water and soap. The washer, a big woman, spoke only Turkish and so our main communication was when she tried to remove my underwear, which I had still kept on. I firmly shook my head no and kept my fingers tightened on the seam.
Like a Roman tableau, there were women everywhere. I had never seen so many breasts – Turkish, French, American, Spanish, Japanese – all gathered together simply to be washed. None of the breasts, and the woman attached to them, seemed to care whether I snuck a peek or not, and none looked at my own in disdain.
The washer lathered me with soap and used a kese, a thick brillo mitt, to scour my skin so harshly I thought I’d bleed. After her initial lathering, she relaxed her hold, and with each exfoliation, I grew more calm, and felt that with every dead skin cell removed, a part of my old, unsure self washed away.
After shampooing my hair, she laid me down on the warm marble to dry. As I looked around, I felt utterly O.K. that I had revealed my full self. Yes, I have small breasts. But I am a woman, just like them, and there is nothing more nurturing than being in a room with women who are all, in this moment, completely content.
It was the first time I made peace with my body.
I stood up, went back into the locker room, put my bra and clothes on, and walked outside. I turned to my sister and looked at her with relief.
Back there with my breasts bare, I let go of all restraint. I decided to be less interested in defining my femininity, or lack thereof, by my flat chest, and more by maintaining a strong, joyous body that can walk, run, think and love. I focused on being grateful for my healthy breasts that are, so far, cancer-free.
The Quran refers to Allah in chapter 32, verse 6-7 as “The Almighty, the Dispenser of Grace, who makes most excellent everything that Allah creates.” Right there, Allah says it – I am excellent, I am grace, small breasts and all. If Allah had already given me this light, my duty was to brighten it. That meant I couldn’t just ignore my body or fight it, but nourish it for its work ahead.
I still wear hijab, but now it’s a symbol of my faith and not something for me to hide behind. As my relationship with my body changed, so did my relationship with Islam. I realized I’d been regularly melding my body and mind, without knowing it, through the five daily prayers I’ve done since I was a child. In one part of the prayer, I stand and place my hands over my chest while reciting verses from the Quran. In that moment, my mind and chest are fully connected, and I do this 32 times a day. Now I know what that step means. My body had been telling me that it was here to take care of me, and I was finally ready to hear the message.
Though I’ve traveled further east and west since then, my time in Turkey remains a stark and mysterious crucible. I remember a lot about that trip, praying in the Blue Mosque, journeying across the Galata Bridge, better understanding Turkish women’s fight against the government to wear hijab – a fight they won. But my mind always goes back to the hammam, where I first lifted the anchor I placed in the pool of my own contempt, and allowed myself to sail free.