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Learning to be ladylike

Wednesday January 10, 2007

Erica Kaya

Part two

In America, my remedy to avoid being a maladjusted, preening princess was to look and act more like a man, confident and strong, refusing to do anything but my own will. But the tactic didn?t compute here, if in fact it had ever worked. In contrast with Lale?s refined courteousness, my tough act was bellicose and ugly, and my manly looks needlessly defensive. I felt winded. My whole philosophy of life was shallow and selfish.

?I want to be like you,? I sighed, imploring Lale to initiate me into the feminine rituals of the modern Turkish woman. Up to that point she hadn?t tried to change me, noting how the advice of others had often hurt me. But she was thrilled at the invitation to make me over. A consummate girlie girl, she knew just what I needed.

I had already made appreciable progress on what I privately called lesson one, re-evaluating my comfort zones. Over the past eight months I?d had no choice but to acclimatise to the physical openness of the women in our family, much more intimate than my own. With two older brothers and no sisters, personal privacy was a given in my childhood, but such privacy was irrelevant with Lale, who, if the men were out, would walk around only in underwear. My mother-in-law Demet, a vibrant multimedia artist, was one of six sisters and equally unabashed at a nude body. When the three of us came home from clothes shopping, we would model outfits for each other, modesty unnecessary as we shed each new purchase to don the next. This gave me a level of intimacy I?d never had with other women, not even my mother.

In the ensuing month after asking Lale?s help, she and her mother began by influencing my clothing purchases. Convincing me that overt femininity did not equal availability or a quest for a man, only pride in one?s appearance, was lesson two and the largest leap for me to make.

I was amazed at the paradoxes in our opposing views. While I considered premarital sex and the right to birth control as a modern woman?s prerogative, I nevertheless condemned women who ?advertised? their womanliness. I?d always misinterpreted physical effeminacy as weak or wanton, for those requiring approval or seeking sexual attention. Conversely, Lale and her friends lauded extensive grooming and chose fashions to accentuate their voluptuousness, yet their attitudes towards sex were remarkably chaste. Casual sex was considered repulsive, even talking to men who tried to catch their attention was reviled as cheap. How men ever got dates with these beautiful young women I didn?t know. Both of our stances were weakened by irreconcilable contradictions, but it was to Lale?s standard I wanted to comply.

Modifying my attitude didn?t prove easy. To create my new image Lale tried to make me follow the fashions, something I abhorred. Preferring my own look, all May long I refused Lale?s attempts to convert me into a fashion victim, trying to dress me in jeans with eight-inch cuffs and high-heel vinyl wrestling boots. I conceded only to styles that would last longer than Istanbul?s three-month cycle of couture. I wanted to change - have a trendier image, let go of my assumptions, feel free to be womanly - but completely dropping the armour of my masculine facade made me feel too vulnerable. So I bought more form-fitting outfits as per Lale?s insistence, but stuck to dark colours, ankle-length skirts, and avoided lace, frills and flowery patterns, showing as little skin as possible. The effect was probably more vampish for its severity, but I decided being thought a predator better than prey.

One sweltering day in June, with our apartment?s water main turned off due to road construction and feeling desperate for a bath, I finally let her talk me into a trip to the hamam, the public Turkish bath, which Lale saw as a major triumph over what remained of my stubborn modesty.

On the cab ride there she didn?t waste any time indoctrinating me into the high-maintenance beauty routine she wanted me to adopt. ?If you?re really going to change your image, it?s more than just clothes. Start with the basics,? Lale explained. ?Be bak?ml?, well groomed: beauty salon once a week, hamam twice a month.? Apparently fastidious grooming was lesson three.

?There?s nothing I need done to my hair that often!? I protested, pointing to my mousy shoulder-length bob, the lowest-maintenance hairstyle possible.

?Not just for your hair! For manicure, pedicure, eyebrows, sometimes a?da?? she trailed off, taking my hand to examine the deplorable condition of my nails.

?What?s a?da??

?Taking off the hair,? she said, rubbing her calf to indicate epilation. That seemed a bit drastic for someone who only occasionally shaved, and then only to up to the knee. I never shaved my underarms since I rarely wore tank tops and I wasn?t hairy enough to require any bikini-region depilation. ?When you do a?da less hair grows back and it doesn?t come back dark.? Lale was what Turks called esmer, with a deep olive complexion and naturally black hair. Like many esmer women, via dyed blonde tresses she yearned for the opposite: to be sar???n and fair.

The cab rambled over cobbled roads through the historic district of Sultanahmet,  past the Covered Bazaar, Istanbul?s 15th century marketplace, to Çemberlita? Hamam?.

?A neighbourhood hamam is much cheaper, but since this is your first time, you should see a historic one,? she explained. A sign indicated its 1584 construction by Turkey?s acclaimed architect Mimar Sinan. The lobby opened to an impressive atrium with marble floors and three tiers of anterooms ornately latticed in dark wood under a smooth white dome and a wrought-iron chandelier.

The clammy women?s locker room was plain and functional. Lale fetched some pe?temal and terlik for us, plaid cotton towels and wooden sandals for our feet. ?Don?t step on the cold marble with bare feet. You?ll get diarrhoea or won?t have babies or something. Or that?s what my mum always says.? I peeled off my jeans and placed them with my shoes in the locker. Lale pointed to the sign on the wall in Turkish, German, and English: Nudity is strictly forbidden. Wear towel at all times! ?You?ll see inside, no one pays attention.?

That worried me. ?I don?t know about streaking in front of a bunch of anonymous women.? I wrapped my towel around me tightly and planned to keep it that way. Unlike her, I kept my underwear on as well.

?If they?re anonymous, why should they care about you?? Unable to answer, I shuffled along behind her with my hamam clogs into the main room, mentally noting her complete absence of body hair and looking down at my own hairy legs. I was intensely aware of my lack of self-maintenance.

We were hit by a wall of steam as we entered the sweltering domed room. Every breath I drew was heavy, wet and burning. Lit from above by fanus skylights, cup-shaped glass covers over the light holes in the cupola, morning sunlight sliced through the haze, alive in the swirling vapour. Gray and white marble covered the floors and wainscoted the twelve sides of the polygonal room while naked bodies basked on the raised marble platform in the middle, a heated slab thirty feet in diameter. The women?s chatter became muted murmurs diffused by the steam, reverberating through the domed room.

?See what I mean? Everyone naked,? Lale whispered as she whipped off her towel, dropped it on the göbek ta??, centre stone, and walked over to the wall. On every other side of the room, kurna, (carved marble basins) were filled with hot water running from elaborate verdigris faucets. Lale palmed two crudely hammered metal bowls from the stack beside a basin and handed me one as she filled the other and poured it over herself, the water splashing to the floor towards grooves in the marble leading to drains. ?Make yourself sweat first,? she explained flopping down on the marble. I poured a few bowls of steaming water over myself and decided to investigate the chamber first instead of lying down. Alternating with the kurna were elegantly carved archways on four sides of the room leading to havlet, hidden cubicles with three basins and faucets. In the semi-privacy one woman was washing her hair, another her privates. No one minded me as I peeked in. I joined Lale on the göbek ta??. My towel, though soaked, remained tightly wrapped.

Laying on that hot rock I felt the heat penetrate through my bones. I drifted away to the sound of murmuring water, softly echoing voices. If this was a girlie routine, it was well worth adopting. All my stress was poached away. Eventually I did remove my pe?temal, feeling awkward as the only person refusing to disrobe and also wanting to cushion my head. I turned onto my stomach to avoid attention, but no one noticed anyway. Dozing on my belly, I only grunted in response twenty minutes later when Lale said the attendant would start scrubbing me. Rough raw silk kese cloth in hand, the attendant lathered and scoured, rubbing off layers of skin like peeling a faded sunburn. When the attendant asked me to turn over, I was nervous about exposing my breasts, but my worry was overcome by the surprise of seeing a thin toothless woman in her seventies standing over me in nothing but a cotton headscarf and black lace panties. Her pendulous breasts repeatedly brushed my stomach as she reached across me to scrub my legs. Her constant conversation kept me from bolting; this was an intimacy boundary breached.

She asked Lale ?Yabanc?, de?il mi?? She?s a foreigner, isn?t she?

?Evet. Gelinimiz. Abimin kar?s?.? Yes. Our bride. My brother?s wife.

?Ma?allah. Çok güzel fakat biraz erkeksi. Alman m???

?Did she just call me sexy? I heard some word like that.? I sat up. Maybe her physical contact was intentional!

Lale laughed, ?No! Erkeksi. She said you?re pretty but boyish. She thinks you?re German because you don?t shave.?

The woman grinned and pointed to my fuzzy armpits. I managed a weak smile and clapped my arms to my sides. I covered myself with my wet towel as soon as the scrub had finished, retreating to the havlet to wash my hair while Lale got scrubbed. Sitting on the edge of the kurna I started to cry. I was so tired of being different. The ruggedness that I still clung to was keeping me an ugly duckling. Worse, it branded me an outsider, traitor to my gender.

Back to part one.

On to part three.

Tale Copyright 2005 by Erica Kaya, excerpted with permission from Tales From The Expat Harem: Foreign Women in Modern Turkey, Copyright 2005 by Anastasia M. Ashman and Jennifer Eaton Gökmen. Published in English in Turkey (Dogan Kitap, 2005) and North America (Seal Press, 2006).This nonfiction anthology by expatriate women from 5 nations spans the entire country and the last four decades as scholars, artists, missionaries, journalists, entrepreneurs and Peace Corps volunteers assimilate into Turkish friendship, neighbourhood, wifehood, and motherhood. For additional information, reviews and worldwide purchasing details visit


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