My heartbeat accelerated, nerves tightened and palms sweated as I fought back a sudden onset of flatulence. I had become victim to the horrendous symptoms of food poisoning.
I always thought I knew my body, but it wasn’t until it turned against me that I realized otherwise.
As an anxious public bathroom-user, I feel self-conscious when other people are aware of any business I must attend to behind the stall doors — even more so when I’m vulnerable to uncontrollable bodily functions. If given the choice, I avoid relieving myself in any public facility.
Sometimes, however, you just can’t wait for the comfort and privacy of your own home. So was the case when I was hit with a case of food poisoning.
I know it’s ridiculous to hide this behavior because pooping is a natural bodily function. We all do it. But when the situation calls, I nervously wait for the tap or blow dryer to turn on. I even rattle the metal tampon-disposal box all in attempts to drown the sounds of my bowels and to conceal the fact that, like animals, humans excrete and defecate.
The bathroom is a place, unlike anywhere else, where the public collides uncomfortably with the private. In turn, the dominant ideology of poop is normally considered a taboo subject. But this attitude can lead people to believe that what happens in the bathroom is disgusting, shameful or even abnormal.
It all boils down to the nature of the topic — no one wants to talk about it and no one, most certainly, wants to hear about it. What happens in the bathroom, stays in the bathroom.
Despite Monica Canario’s initial hesitation to be interviewed, the topic’s unorthodox nature convinced the sociology major to see what others had to say about poop and how they related or differed in comparison to her own responses.
According to Canario, ArtsSci ’15, “[Public washrooms] essentially challenge the whole notion of being private, because you are removing that repression and putting it out in the open.”
“When you go from being in a private sphere to being in a public kind of space, doing private things, there is no way to cope with that unfamiliarity,” she explained. “That’s why I don’t … do it in public …”
Part of this avoidance behavior can be attributed to the fact that we are socialized from an early age to control excretion and taught that our failures to control it are embarrassing and humiliating, she added, this young age we also learn that excretion is something you do alone and behind closed doors. Therefore, it seems logical that there will always be some negative connotations, such as anxiety and disgust, associated to excretion.
“That’s shame when a kid defecates himself in public and obviously it’s an accident, a natural body habit, that they’re already ashamed of,” she said. “Then the negative reinforcement or connotation carries with them through their lives.”
It’s not just bodily functions and excretion we consider taboo, but also subjects such as sex, sexuality and gender. In turn, the lack of open discussion regarding our bodily habits can translate to other dimensions of our lives and mute those conversations as well.
“It’s because there’s that parallel between your sex organs, gender and bodily habits,” Canario explained. “You translate the negative connotations from that one sector to the other.”
By saying that women can only do their business in a women’s washroom, for example, while men have to urinate standing up washroom not only puts restrictions on how one controls their bodily functions, but it also highlights how gender is viewed in the public sphere.
This shame or nervousness of taking an extended bathroom break in a public facility, especially in the presence of others, is more popular among women than men.
“It’s really awkward. People just don’t want to be gross in public places, and so the anxiety develops — especially for girls,” said Laura Blair. “It’s the whole notion that girls don’t poop, but guys do.”
According to Blair, ArtsSci ’15, nobody talks about poop and, as a result, ‘pooping’ in public has become a social pressure, rather than one we put on ourselves.
So how can we then dump these negative connotations?
Alexandrina Pinheiro, a third-year sociology student, doesn’t think we can. She believes the connotations around ‘going poop’, though a normal bodily habit, will be challenging to change as they are socially constructed and ingrained in our upbringing.
Consequently, people fear being shamed and stigmatized for an already traumatizing experience.
“Everyone is so scared of being different that they will go along with a lot of what the majority says, no matter how stupid it might seem,” she told the Journal via email.
In contrast, author of Psychology in the Bathroom and professor of Psychology at the University of Melbourne, Nick Haslam explains that some of the shame we attach to the bathroom is evolutionary.
“There are some good reasons why societies have standards surrounding cleanliness and sanitation, and excretion is associated with communicable disease. So it does make sense for there to be standards surrounding how, when and where you excrete,” he told the Journal via email.
“There is a kernel of good sense in looking negatively on something that can cause disease, so it’s not surprising that the activity that produces it are also seen somewhat negatively,” Haslam added.
Professor Haslam also noted, however, that talking about bathroom issue wasn’t always so off-limits. Psychoanalysts, in particular, devoted a lot of time to defecation.
“These days, also, psychologists tend to study particular processes rather than particular activities or settings, so we know a lot about shame in the abstract but not much about excretion or toilets,” he said.
If we’ve talked about it before, we can talk about it again. This means discovering new ways to ease the anxieties people feel in public bathrooms and reducing the need to police our natural bodily habits.
After all, everybody poops.
For more information about Nick Haslam’s book, Psychology in the Bathroom, click here.
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