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Melting machismo

Friday January 26, 2007

Erica Kaya

Part three

I slowly washed my hair and lathered my body over and over, thinking. It wasn?t going to be enough to go through the motions; I would have to start loving being a woman. According to Lale and my mother-in-law, allowing myself to be feminine didn?t mean doing so for the benefit of others, or for garnering amorous attention. In this culture, being the strong woman I wanted to be, didn?t require negating my softer side, it insisted I use the softer me. But not knowing how to access that side of myself, I could only start from the outside, ?looking the part? to change the way people responded to me. And from there I could alter my own responses.

Taking a deep breath, I resolved to go all out. My skin, now pink and tender, was new skin, a new me. I would stop resisting Lale. I would learn to be ladylike, try anything she suggested. I walked back to the main chamber where she was pouring bowls of water over her head.

?You?re taking me to the salon,? I said, leading her by the elbow back towards the locker room.

?We just got here!?

?This is your chance to make me over. Old women shouldn?t be telling me I?m masculine!?

Half an hour later we arrived at Lale?s kuaför, a salon in upscale Etiler near our home, our plans for my complete overhaul thoroughly detailed. The approximated cost of turning me from glum to glam was only fifty dollars. Labour being cheap in Turkey, I had three girls working on me, one doing my feet, one my hands, and the other plucking my eyebrows into shape. When my eyebrows were suitably refined, the stylist started coloring my hair while girl number one pumiced my soles and girl number two cut away my cuticles. An hour and a half later I had a French manicure on hands and feet and golden highlights in my espresso-brown hair. We weren?t even done yet, but I felt the chip on my tomboy shoulder start to melt.

?Look at me! I?m gorgeous!? I yelled into the mirror. I had no idea it required so little time to make me look great. I had never thought much about my ?wash and wear? looks, chastising myself for vanity if I spent more than twenty minutes getting ready for any occasion, reminding myself what such mirror-gazing would lead to. Now that I was supposed to care more about my appearance, I studied my reflection carefully: still the strong features and unfussy hair, but quietly sophisticated and polished. Somehow more mature. Still me, but so much better. 

?Just wait until after the a?da,? Lale winked at me while waving her hands dry, her painted nails now a subtle tan.
My nerves returned. I knew the a?da  would be the most painful element of my makeover, mentally and physically. Challenging my intimacy boundaries most explicitly, it wouldn?t be a matter of being naked in a room of other bathers like the hamam, but naked in front of one fully-clothed person who would be removing all my body hair from the neck down. I was going for the full wax.

Girl number two, Petek, had been making conversation with me from the start of my manicure telling me about a?da, aware it was my first time, with Lale interjecting her own wisdom. ?Sometimes we use wax, but the traditional kind is just caramelised sugar and lemon juice,? said Petek.

?Do most Turkish women wax their pubic hair?? I asked Lale.

?Our customers do. The girls on staff also,? Petek interrupted, thinking nothing of divulging this intimate information.

?My friends do,? Lale said. ?I think I was twelve the first time and my mother and aunts made a big deal about it, like a rite of passage.?

 ?Unmarried girls? Why?? I asked, sounding like the WHO woman, still thinking all grooming was for the benefit of men.

 ?It has no relation to intercourse,? Lale said to me quietly in English, realising the intent of my question but sparing Petek my insinuation. ?It just feels more comfortable.? I remained dubious.

 ?Günahkar. They used to think so, anyway,? added Petek.

?Sinful?? I asked. ?To have body hair??

?In the old days. Now it?s more of a hygiene thing,? corrected Lale.

The back room Petek led me to somewhat resembled a doctor?s office with a cushioned table. She locked the door to ensure our privacy and pulled a wide parchment roll to cover the surface of the table. Starting with my arms, she slathered on hot, sticky orange liquid in thin layers with a metal butterknife, covering the area with a strip of white paper, then quickly ripping it off. I flinched. My arms weren?t particularly hairy but it was a shock.

?Did it hurt?? Petek asked, concerned.

?More than the eyebrow plucking, but less than a tattoo,? I smiled. I had a few tattoos, macho beautification, my only affected vanity. I examined the paper strip covered with fine hairs pulled out by their tiny bulbous roots. I felt my arm. ?Ooh. ?pek gibi.? I marvelled at the sensual feeling. It was like sandwashed silk. Petek had to wait while I admired my bare arm, stroking it, exploring the new sensation. This was womanly, and I loved it.

 ?Ready for your legs? Take off your pants and hop up on the table.? She repeated the process from my hip to toe, which didn?t hurt at all. Then she did my underarms, the soft flesh pulling and smarting. This didn?t bode well for my pubic area. She asked me to remove my underwear and lay down on the table with my legs in the air. I did so, my heart pounding, exposed spread eagle with a stranger touching me between the legs. My eyes firmly shut and my hands squeezing the table to brace myself, I jumped when Petek touched my inner thigh. ?This is just talcum powder to keep the wax from sticking to your skin.? I unclenched. Petek?s earnest demeanour made me realise how routine this was. For her, a full wax was all part of feeling female. Perhaps for me in Turkey, it would also become mundane.

She tore off the first strip of paper and I yelped. Well, perhaps not mundane...

I did relax, though, allowing the intimate ministrations. Blasé, Petek talked as she worked, asking me about life in America, about Hollywood stars and rap music as she depilated all the hair from my pubic mound up past my perianal area. Contrary to my expectations, it was as generic and impersonal an episode as the manicure had been.

Afterwards, Petek squirted into my palm some oil to soothe the skin. As I rubbed it in, my hairless body now responded to the slightest sensation, even wafts of air. The satiny friction of my shirt and even my heavy jeans on my smooth body made me want to remain in motion.

Finally I understood why Lale and Petek said they did this for their own comfort. Unlike my Knoxville neighbour who suffocated her face with cosmetics all night, this was a beauty regimen that, though far more radical than my preening teen peers?, was obviously benefitting me more than anyone else. Every surface of my body now responding to the merest physical contact, this was a regimen certainly worth the effort, though it deepened the contradiction between the chaste but sensuous Turkish girl.

As I stroked myself lovingly, my ashamed and boyish modesty was replaced with a refined body confidence. Far from feeling weak for looking so lovely, I felt flooded with a sophisticated feline strength and grace I hoped would dictate subtler actions and gentler style.

Enamored of my new reflection and unable to stop stroking my arms, I hugged myself, imagining my jeans and t-shirt exchanged for a swishing dress and summer sandals. I wanted to tell Lale that I felt so sensual I couldn?t wait to get home to Bar?? and make use of the WHO?s contributions, but I thought better of it. Such ribaldry didn?t jibe with the exquisite woman in the mirror, the one Lale had fostered. Instead, I hugged her, thanking her for everything she had done to reunite me with my womanhood.

My beauty routine was for me, to nurture and soften me, to help me tread more gently through human interactions. This final lesson, when I eventually manage to internalise it, will ultimately complete my induction into the chic, feminine and self-assured Istanbul sisterhood.

For Part one, click here. For two, click here.

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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