Perfection is a moving target. This week, the Cut explores the allure of trying to achieve the impossible.
There are multiple ways to really get to know a city. You can see the historical landmarks, eat the carbs, and do the workouts. But on a recent trip to Paris for Fashion Week, I decided that the real way to understand a city and its locals is to get naked with them. Certainly you could achieve this by swiping right on any dating app of your choice, but I chose to do it at a steamy naked spa in the 5th arrondissement, surrounded by hundreds of nude Parisians, where I emerged with a further dismantling of French beauty myths, a new perspective on body acceptance achieved by secretly staring at naked people for three hours, and very, very soft skin.
Thanks to a substantial Turkish population in Paris, hammams are pretty common: There are the fancy hotel versions like the one in the Le Royal Monceau (where the Chanel team often stays) and several others in the pricey 1st arrondissement. But the cheapest and most authentic hammam is hidden inside La Grande Mosquée de Paris, one that “all the Parisian girls are crazy about,” said my friend Julie Levoyer, the beauty director of Stylist France. After French Julie told me that “it’s sad to go to the hammam alone,” I convinced American Julie Schott of Elle.com to come with me. Days at the hammam are designated as female-only or male-only, so we went on Saturday.
Things to know before visiting a hammam: Unlike the hot-tub level of Korean Spa Castle, this is not a full no-nudity zone — you need at least a bathing-suit bottom — but it is close. Ill-prepared for this, American Julie and I went to a local Etam (Paris’ version of Victoria’s Secret) to buy some microbriefs. A 15-minute Uber ride later, we found ourselves at the coed outdoor patio of the Mosquée de Paris, now packed with men and women sipping sweet mint tea and eating flaky rosewater-honey desserts. A sign above a pastry case directed us to the hammam on the left. After paying 78 euro for a package that included a gommage scrub, 30-minute massage, and entry fee, we walked directly into the main area, which had blue, yellow, and white Moroccan tiles from the 1920s, marble, and a red crystal fountain. Women were everywhere. They were on the massage tables spread out next to the fountain, where therapists slowly rubbed their legs, arms, back, shoulders, and breasts (yes, this is a thing in French massages) down with body oil. Groups of them — teenagers, 20-somethings, 40-somethings, 50-somethings — sat together on padded cushions, lounging, talking, and giggling, while waiting their turns to be rubbed down.
Walking further into the hammam, things got steamier and steamier. There were two steam rooms: The moderate one had a raised tile platform under a skylight where women lay, blissing out and sweating in the warm, wet air. The very steamy room next door had air so humid that it was almost hard to breathe. Half the room contained mats to lie down on, the other had a hot tub, where girls lay around the edges sweating. Julie and I started in the moderately steamy steam room. We sat down, clutching our bath towels and packets of savon noir, a black, vegetable-oil-based soap that gave us a Britney Spears in “I’m a Slave 4 U”–level glisten. Some girls even helped smear the savon noir on each other, getting hard-to-reach parts of their amies backs.
After about 15 to 30 minutes, the humidity mingled with the savon noir softened our skin, with bits of dry skin pilling in a delightfully gross way, reminiscent of an old winter sweater. Then it was time for the gommage, where women stood in line waiting to be scrubbed by strong-looking ladies in one-piece bathing suits.
“Is this going to hurt?” Julie asked, a little fearfully. “Yes,” the gommage lady said unapologetically, but not unkindly. She giggled as Julie exclaimed, “Ow, ow, ow,” and moved the mitt all over her body in sweeping motions. She cheerfully did a dead skin “show and tell” for me, revealing the slivers of pale, grey skin pills on Julie’s back as a result of her work. When it was my turn, it was worse, and when I got up, the table looked like I just did Baby Foot to my body. “Ewwwwww, gross,” I said, as the lady smiled with the gratification of performing a beauty treatment that worked. She instructed me to take a shower — twice because I have so much dead skin, and then to head to the main massage room.
One of the consequences of being in a largely nude group spa is that you see a lot of bodies: old ones, young ones, young-ish ones, bodies with cellulite, bodies with birthmarks, bodies with childbirth scars, soft bodies, and hard bodies. And contrary to French beauty myths, they do come in all sizes. Some French women are thin, some are curvy, some are Rubenesque, and some are average size — just as they are, all the world over.
Nudity is also the great equalizer. Seeing all these naked bodies together, I realized that for all we do to our bodies, whether it be punishing workouts, guzzling green juice, eating weird healthy powders, or indulging in profiteroles, we all basically look the same. If we’re lucky, we have two boobs, two legs, a butt, a midsection, and two arms. The differences between us are a matter of inches of flesh. Among the dozens of bodies at the hammam, no one looked like a Victoria’s Secret model. No one looked like they do on Instagram. The perfect bodies seen in glossies and from the blue light of our screens are the exception rather than the rule.
We fight with our bodies, using them as tools for revenge, or forcing them to “fit in” to seasons, clothes, events, our ideals, and other people’s expectations. Letting it all hang out at the hammam — literally — gave me the freedom to simply exist in my body. None of the women around us were self-conscious; they weren’t tugging at their swimsuits to hide their hip fat, or covering their breasts (apart from Julie and me, who clutched our bath towels like security blankets until the gommage lady yanked them away). My body was naked, but it didn’t feel exposed.
Three hours later, we left the hammam covered in fragrant neroli oil that served as a warm balm against the chilly Paris night. I felt a sense of peace, lulled by the heat, Turkish sweets, the delight over my super-soft skin, and the realization that we’re all the same.