In her column, Body Language, Tracy O’Neill considers how our physical selves relate to one another and the world.
Two years ago, I flew to Istanbul to stand in a fancy dress and watch one of my best friends marry on the roof of a factory that didn’t make things anymore. Even today, I don’t know his wife well. She is a reserved, feline woman who he calls Bunny and who often orders the soft-shell crab appetizer in a restaurant. Another thing I can say about her is that on the day of the wedding, the bridesmaids wore giant lampshades resembling paper snowflakes on their heads. That is who my friend married: a woman who can convince people she isn’t paying to wear lampshades in a filmed procession. I think she called the housewares “headpieces.”
A few days before Bunny and my friend—let’s call him Fox—were to be married, Fox notified me that Bunny would like me to join her and the bridal party at a Turkish bathhouse the next day. My other friend E, who was out watching music with me at the time, issued one of those high noises smokers don’t usually make unless they’re sneezing. It would be wonderful, she explained. I would sit in a hot room, then be washed and abraded by another human being until everything dead on me had been worn away.
From what I understand, many people find grooming by strangers to be recreational. I have heard acquaintances refer to manicures and blackhead extractions as “fun,” and I am aware that there are salons at which one can, for the right price, have one’s genital area adorned with Swarovski crystals. I know this because there is nothing more irritating than a not-very-clever portmanteau. As far as I can remember, I have never seen the word jazzle used, whereas the people who have coined “vajazzle” seem to think it’s the verb denoting the decoration of a Christmas tree. One salon offers a hibiscus-shaped “bling for your thing.” I have never been tempted by such services.
“You’ll feel like a baby,” E said of the bathhouse invitation, ostensibly with the intention of encouragement. But I didn’t want to feel like a baby. Sloughing is, for able-bodied people, possible autonomously, and so to outsource grooming seemed, at the time, like choosing infantilization. I believed if I was going to be a chump who to some degree bought into near-hegemonic beauty ideals, I should at least have some dignity and be a self-reliant chump.
Nevertheless, I had come to Istanbul to celebrate Fox and Bunny, and so I agreed to meet at the hammam the next day.
It is not that I never seek help for nonessential routines aimed at normative presentation. I avoid getting my hair cut, but it is a practice I submit to two or three times a year. Like most people, I both worry about someone poking around the back of my head with scissors and find hair beyond a certain length to be a hindrance to everyday activities. When I worked at a nightclub at which one of my duties was to light candles, I sometimes accidentally set my hair on fire leaning over cocktail tables. This was when I knew I needed to go to the salon.
But sitting in a high chair with a long bib, chatting with a stylist’s reflection in the mirror, I have never felt pleasure. To be groomed is to be acted upon, to become Play-Doh, and I do not otherwise allow my body to be someone else’s project. In Body Work: Beauty and Self Image in American Culture , Debra Gimlin observes a hairstylist who tells her, “You have to let your clients know that this is what you do and you know best, or at least better than they do, what looks best on them.” In other words, the aesthetician means to represent the client, to decide what is becoming. And if the adjective “becoming”— befitting, being suitable, or having graceful fitness—derives from the Old English “becuman”—to arrive, attain, or happen—there is an extent to which beauty workers determine how we occur socially. If you are not careful, a newspaper thinkpiece claims, you could end up with a soccer mom haircut, thus being made apparent as exactly who you already were.
Perhaps, however, it is exactly this—the abdication of personal accountability for one’s appearance—that appeals about outsourcing physio-aesthetic labor. In societies in which too often ethics are demarcated on the body, including in purportedly progressive circles, it is considered a valid criticism to note someone “doesn’t take care of himself” or “let herself go.” Often what might be disparaged are the visible results of poor nutrition or a sedentary lifestyle. When we eat the dollar fast-food burgers, get fat not SoulCycling, and take up swaths of subway cars with our big-ass, greasy selves, it’s seen as a quasi-moral failing.
Yet the demands of conventional beauty—or more insidiously, health—are not just commonsense demands; they’re a staking out of time, labor, and unevenly distributed resources. To imply that one has failed to “work on oneself” is to ignore the problem of food deserts, for example, and to disregard that the time to exercise or groom is a privilege often lost to the cobbling together of part-time, ill-compensated work. It can be to give flak for poverty.
Being groomed absolves those privileged enough to afford it from corporal auto-labor, even if the labor has only been displaced to man-hours funding the spa or salon services. It is an attenuated reprieve from the working ethos that extends from clocked hours to one’s body, from the toiling abs to latissimus dorsi posturing echelon. In Turkey I worried that going to the baths would be just another bougie way of subjecting low-wage workers to one’s own neglect, like hiring a maid for the body. You deal with my feet! it seemed to say.
But perhaps outsourcing grooming isn’t merely the delegation of inconvenient hygienic work. If that were the case, we might hear more of coworkers’ luxurious weekend retreats to the dentist.
“I decided to treat myself,” they would say, “to some periodontic prophylaxis.”
Audre Lorde discusses in A Burst of Light: Living with Cancer how she came to understand self-care as both a benefit of privilege and a political act. “For me, living and the use of that living are inseparable,” she writes, “and I have a responsibility to put that privilege and that life to use . . . Caring for myself is not a self-indulgence; it is a self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.” Not all forms of self-care are created equal, of course. A Brazilian isn’t going to save anyone’s life. But even as outsourcing grooming may rehearse disparities in biopower, it can create fissures in other inequalities.
The hammam, for example, performs beyond the physical content of its practices. In Health and Ritual in Morocco: Conceptions of the Body and Healing Practices, Josep Lluís Mateo Dieste describes it as an “ambivalent space” in which sexual taboos surrounding the visibility of the body are momentarily trumped by the religious requirement for physical and spiritual hygiene. Elif Ekin Aksit frames the bathhouse as a place where women negotiate security in changing urban geographies. And, too, I would later think, the hammam was a laboratory for social life.
On the afternoon of the bathhouse trip, we gathered in the lower level of a hotel. We were the friend who lived around the corner. We were the trapeze artist date from California. We were the mother of the bride and the mother of the groom and the old college roommates. We were women who loved two people making promises to each other, who believed celebrating was done by the body.
In the locker room, the experts stripped quickly, but because I was a neophyte, I drew out time with the folding of clothes, the organizing of items in my bag. It seemed all at once that several of us had discovered talents for the meticulous arrangement of objects in space. One of the mothers called to me, and I followed.
We sat in bathrobes for a while, drinking water. From a room I couldn’t see, someone began to play music, and soon Bunny appeared, dancing down a hallway in a gold lamé bikini, playing a tambourine, her arms pouring grace in the air and tossing with abandon. Our clapping hands corresponded with the movement of her hips; her chin hugged her shoulder. She turned, a golden circle, and though I didn’t know what exactly was being conveyed, it was the freest I’d ever seen her.
Maybe what she was free of that day was the bond that links touching the body to sex and death. Outside of grooming rituals, most often the adult body is touched by doctors or lovers. We get our pelvic exams and we get our pelvic exams. There are the hugs or handshakes indicating greeting and departure, but hands contact non-hand skin rarely, unless it is to fuck or ensure that the body is not fucked. There are hospitals, and there are bedrooms. But there is very little sanctioned space to touch for general pleasure or comfort. Grown people are supposed to attend to each other through language. The talking cure is our panacea. Save for a few designated roles, it is difficult to care for someone else’s body or to ask for it. If this claim seems tenuous, consider uttering to a new platonic friend the sentences, “Would you like me to stroke you?” and “Would you be willing to stroke me?”
Often the desire for physical boundaries is entirely rational. The threat of violence, sexual or otherwise, sends a current disrupting tactile sociality. That June at the hammam, I looked around at the women in the bridal party. Most of them I had only just met. Should any of them have offered to wash and exfoliate me, the answer would have been an unequivocal hell no . No one was wielding knives but somehow, the suggestion of stranger-touch would have appeared indictment enough without gesture.
When I ask my friends who have routinized beauty services why they do so, however, invariably they characterize their pleasure in terms of soothing. Rather than the putative aesthetic purposes, getting the hibiscus bling is more end than means. In adulthood, physical care—which the fortunate first experience in childhood as parents tend their fingernails or wash their hair—becomes largely proscribed outside pink-collar economies. In its absence, we turn sometimes to the braiding or pedicure, the facial or vajazzle. We are certain that the parameters of transaction will maintain the safety of our bodies in their soothing, and, generally, our predictions are correct, if built on false premises. Our trust may derive partly from the narcotic power of pissing away coin; but, too, sharing touch can be radical, as it makes viable alternative discourses. The massage or blowout may make us more willing to consider the possibilities of reorienting connection beyond chat.
Once Bunny ended her dance at the hammam, we pooled robes on benches. We reddened in steam, then went to a tiled room to have skin simplified. While waiting our turns, we could see women drifting out of the bath with dreamy faces. We knew better than to speak.
Later, after the pastries that cracked open like roses, following the sunset wedding, from an ocean away, it would seem unlikely, that small society of strangers. But that day, the woman with the water put her hands on me. Afterward, she waved, saying, güle güle , smiling smiling— go smiling—and I was very light, one layer less against the world.
Tracy O’Neill’s fiction-writing workshop, co-taught with Jonathan Lee, begins on August 16th. Apply now.