Inter feces ed urinam—the last feminist frontier?

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Take One


Another Problem With No Name: Gals in Public Stalls //•\ ||

There’s no doubt that the bad-ass, brazen Betty Friedan and her 1963 declaration of women’s independence, The Feminine Mystique, helped galvanize the modern-day feminist movement. But the other night, fact-checking a tribute to this grand dame at the glossy women’s magazine where I’m employed, it hit me that Friedan and her successors failed to address an ever-present problem in women’s lives: the excruciating anxiety we experience when “nature calls” in bathrooms where we work.

Nowhere is this daily drama more evident than at my particular monthly, where paragons of femininity and beauty daintily breeze through the halls in the latest feminine fashions.

Recently, after gulping down a liter of trendy bottled water and feeling my bladder balloon, I rushed to the bathroom for the inevitable. As soon as I squatted four inches from the open toilet bowl, I realized there was someone else in the bathroom. Stage fright struck. Agonizing silence filled the air until the woman a few stalls down from me started pounding the toilet-paper dispenser—protesting my presence, I assume. She tried, desperately, to drown out the aural evidence of what she was doing by coughing, clearing her throat and flushing unnecessarily. The tension was mounting. The other woman clearly wanted to strangle me, the witness to her most undignified acts, but she couldn’t … not at that moment anyway. I took care of my business quickly—lucky me, just had to pee—and flushed the toilet twice to help her drown out the telltale sounds. The woman sighed relief. She was done. She flushed. I left before she had to face me. I’m sure she was thankful.

One might wonder whence my well of empathy springs. The fact is that, just last week, I was that woman. It was 1:30 p.m., a little less than an hour after eating lunch. My stomach grumbled. “Not now,” I begged it. The urge passed, then returned. Frantically, I scanned my surroundings, then sprung to my feet, ignoring a phone call.

I walked in careful, steady steps toward the nearest bathroom, then busted through the door like a paramedic.

A woman in tall heels was gazing in the mirror, applying lipstick. She smiled and said hello, and I hated her—a perfect portrait of femininity and a potential attester to my most unsavory deeds. I strained my lips into a reciprocal smile and began aggressively washing my hands, pretending that I’d hurried into the bathroom just to clean an unidentifiable sticky substance off my hands. (Another woman was in a stall, doing the easy thing: peeing. I hated her too.) Full of loathing as well as merde, I left and sped toward the next nearest washroom.

Coast was clear. I stumbled into the closest stall, but before unzipping my pants, I did what I always do in seemingly empty chambers of this sort: I bent down and looked to the left and the right to make sure that the only set of shoes was mine. But, alas, there was another! I booked out of there and lingered outside the door like I was looking for something in my wallet, waiting for the lone pee-er to exit, eyeing her evilly as she came out.

At last: a bathroom for me, and me alone! Quickly, quickly, so no one would come in before I was finished, I laid the protective paper over the toilet seat, pulled down my pants and plugged my ears, so as not to hear the nastiness of it all. Sweet relief.

Most men, it turns out, suffer little or none of this anxiety and embarrassment. And I wonder why. Why do guys get to crap with dignity in public stalls? In fact, I know men who take a certain pride in their waste. They comment on its length and width, its punishing smell. They barrel over in laughter, amused by their excrement, like children. Perhaps this has something to do with the process being the closest they’ll come to experiencing a kind of birth. Or it may have something to do with the cultural license afforded men to be gross and ever the more masculine for it.

It seems that while a woman’s femininity is endangered the moment she unleashes “No. 2,” a man’s masculinity isn’t threatened at all. In fact, his display of macho chic is sometimes enhanced by doing anything that makes teenage girls squeal, “Ewwww, boys are soooo grossss!”

What is it about public bathrooms exactly that constipates women’s ability to freely “let go,” with dignity, like men?

“Well, there’s nothing chic, polished, pretty, hip about shitting,” said a female freelance writer who works for a trendy interior-design magazine (none of my friends wished to be identified by name discussing this indelicate subject). “Plus,” she added, “there’s this vulnerability thing—you’re rarely more physically vulnerable than when you’re taking a dump. As women, we’re physically vulnerable enough every day; this just adds to it, uncomfortably.”

Another lass, who describes herself as a “cougher and flusher,” has worked at various women’s fashion magazines for 10 years; she suggests that going to the bathroom interrupts and challenges the authenticity and believability of the finely crafted phenomenon of femininity. “I think women get anxious,” she said, “because they fear the inevitable moment when they really let loose, only to find some prissy girl at a faucet staring at them like they just stepped out of the Cro-Magnon era.”

So are we vainly unable to admit to each other that our bodies are capable of producing poop? Yes, according to one lady editor at a well-known shopping magazine, whose strategies include “feet-lifting” so no one knows she’s in the bathroom while she’s … you know … and “flushing immediately after the dirty deed so as to avoid a lingering smell.

“Though it’s a totally natural act, it’s completely humiliating at work,” she added, “especially at a competitive fashion magazine. With everyone always trying to outdo everyone else in levels of sophistication, having to take a crap becomes akin to being a filthy, low-class animal.”

Maybe it also has something to do with the crazed cultural demand for us to be starving thin, waste being an admission of having consumed too much food—enough to make us eliminate some of its byproducts? Or an excessive need to accommodate and comfort others at all costs (the sight, sound and smell being a sure discomfort to those around us), even at the expense of our own comfort?

Will we ever be free from the shackles of self-conscious shitting?!

Though I don’t imagine picket signs, protests and chants to liberate women from their angst on public toilets, I am convinced that the real feminist revolution will begin the moment women stop caring who hears and smells them “go.”

This article was published in the March 5, 2006, edition of The New York Observer

Take Two

Public enemy number one. And two. The Office Annoyance No One Really Talks About

Forbes has a piece up today about the office habits of the clueless
and the obnoxious, and the story started off with an anecdote about a young Wisconsin woman whose female coworker yaps too much on her cellphone, unwittingly sharing such intimacies as the status of her menstrual cycles, her relationships, and her problems getting
pregnant. (Apparently, cell phones are not only an annoyance outside of the office, but in it as well! Where did we hear this before?).

Forbes went on to list other office pet peeves like using a
speakerphone with the office door open; smelly food; unkempt communal kitchens; and intrusive instant messaging alerts. But strangely, (suspiciously!) there was nary a mention of bathrooms.

Which is funny because, as many know, there’s almost nothing more disgusting than a workplace restroom, particularly one shared by women. In fact, for a gender that’s notorious for fastidiousness and cleanliness, many women are almost as disgusting — if not more than — men when they’re at work. But why? And who are they?

Back when we worked at one particular ladymag for a particular
company notorious for its high-gloss sheen (and hatred of garlic), we
routinely encountered things like vomit, leftover cocaine lines and
unflushed toilets… sometimes with no toilet paper in them. (Yeah,
we don’t really want to know either). Professional positions
elsewhere yielded similar (though not so raunchy) results: Blood
splatters on floors, paper strewn this way and that, and, that old
standby: Urine all over the toilet seat. All of it was enough to make
us want to call the company’s corporate office managers and demand they give the after-hours cleaning crew big raises. It was also enough to make us take a closer look at just who the hell we were working with, and wonder if the mousy, quiet assistant down the hall was in reality public restroom offender Number One. We never figured out who was doing what, but we did collect some theories!

One friend says she thinks women trash office bathrooms because it’s one of the only ways for them to express their anger or assert their power in the workplace. Another (a philosophy major, she!) wonders if it isn’t the The Tragedy Of The Commons, where, when something “belongs” to everyone, everyone treats it like, uh, shit.

We wonder if it has something to do with former NYC mayor Rudy Giuliani’s belief about graffiti (that the messier the environment, the higher the crime-rate) or contemporary corporate arrogance, i.e. the fact that there’s always someone lower on the food chain whose job it is to clean up after you, no matter how minor or major the mess. But maybe, as a certain other Jezebel puts it, it’s simply about female bonding: That is, women leave messes in order to encourage conversation with other women. After all, who hasn’t run into a colleague in the bathroom, seen or smelled something disgusting, and (assuming the co-worker was not the culprit) began bitching and moaning about everyone else she works with? “The bonding process is that much quicker and more intense when another woman’s stuff is there messing up the place,” explains the Jezebel. “Bonding in the bathroom is just about having a convenient common female enemy, like an olfactory version of Ann Coulter.”


4 comments on “Inter feces ed urinam—the last feminist frontier?
  1. Maybe the reason for so many accidents in the stalls is the frantic pace of so many offices. I have no doubt that some –maybe all of the motives—adduced in the article play a role, even a major role, but having to go in ahurry and getting out of there in a dash surely have something to do with the sloppiness, carelessness, and bad aim reported…After all, if men who have a better tool to aim the flow can leave so many signatures in public (and family) toilets, surely our much more rudimentary design can scarcely be expected to do much better.

  2. A brave article! Thanks for publishing this kind of stuff. Your topical range is certainly amazing. As a woman I can sign off on just about everything said here—it happens. And yes, we’re always uncomfortable with our biological necessities. Some women even suffer constipation due to the efforts they make to cotrol the gut and its proclivities…My first husband was a royal farter, stinky, too, and I for one never liked it. He always asked me to just let go and fire away. Never could. It would have shatter some illusion I carried (and still carry) about myself, even now middle aged and middleweight…alas, vanity rules.

  3. Is this a women’s problem, or is this a fashion world problem? Is this, i.e., the problem of women who devote their lives to selling other women’s subjectivity to capital, and ending up, somewhat literally, eating their own shit?

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