Living and looking for Lavatories
2nd May 2017
It may be a turn of the stomach, a nervous flutter, a morning coffee or a sudden, unpredictable rush. You may look for a sign, if you are lucky enough to live in a society where they are readily available. There may or may not be a queue, often depending on the room of your gender. You may look for disabled access, whether you are in a wheelchair or have an invisible illness. You may select a space based on who is there, or your perception of its cleanliness. For some, it is an unwritten rule that one cannot go next to another person relieving themselves. What are you looking for?
Also known as a toilet, bog, ladies, gents, pisspot, restroom, dunny, convenience, powder room, and the WC, to name a few alternatives.
Toilets are mundane, an everyday space, a common fixture in the home and the workplace, a thing that we all use, in diverse ways. Toilets have historically been (and continue to be) shaped by our cultures, gender, social class and ethnicity with clear boundaries, distinctions and divisions imposed. This, in turn, shapes our social identities.
Toilets are a personal thing; a private side of life that is rarely discussed. If we do disclose our habits or toilet trips we do so with hesitation, euphemisms or a nervous giggle. However, toilets are a very public issue. They are in department stores, coffee shops, pubs, restaurants and on trains. There is a declining number of public toilets, now often vandalised and abandoned, perceived as unhygienic, or a place of illegal activity and other “hazards”.
Toilets are a source of interaction, of social structures, organisation, norms and values. So why aren’t sociologists discussing them more?
I have a bowel problem. I live with an unpredictable bowel, one that changes every day, with symptoms ranging from abdominal pain to bloating and urgency to find a toilet. Bowel conditions are not socially accepted and discussed conditions: a disclosure is often regarded as “too much information”. The anxiety of the symptoms and the urgent need to use toilets led me to toilet mapping: making mental notes of the nearest toilets, and the quickest way to get to them. Toilets became not just a functional space, but also a place of safety and relief, in more than one sense.
I am not alone. There are a variety of conditions for which knowledge of toilet locations are I am not alone. There are a variety of conditions for which knowledge of toilet locations are crucial for managing symptoms – conditions such as bladder incontinence, Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD) and Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS), for example. My PhD research is focusing on the common condition of IBS. According to NHS Choices, 20% of the UK population lives with IBS – arguably more, given the concealment of the condition. Despite this, bowel conditions and the symptoms of constipation, diarrhoea, flatulence, (in)continence and other activities that take place in the “private” realm of the toilets remain heavily taboo topics in contemporary western society.
My research explores the lived experience of managing symptoms of IBS, particularly in the spaces where symptoms are mostly managed: the bathroom.
My research examines how places such as toilets can be reflective of our practices of privacy and containment of our bodily excretions. We may divide ourselves and our relations to each other in such a way that makes life with conditions such as IBS incredibly isolating. This means that the coping strategies and challenges faced in the day-to-day life of people who live with these conditions are underappreciated, hidden and, crucially, misunderstood.
Some would argue that bathrooms and toilets are the backstage of social life. However, there are many performances still going on within the toilet cubicle: the holding on until another person has left the toilet; waiting until the hand dryer goes on; blaming the time spent in the toilet on a fictional queue. Whilst this may seem an obvious behaviour of privacy and dignity, the strategies of toilet mapping and negotiating toilet spaces to keep one’s IBS identity private question the boundaries of society, the public and the private, the clean and the dirty, self and other.
In discussing my research, I often face a reception of pure horror, a nervous laugh or a joke, but very rarely an open, honest, discussion of our own bowel habits and toilet behaviours. The awkwardness around the topic creates greater challenges for those living with bowel conditions, and reinforces stigma. Some may laugh at the fact I talk about poo and toilets in my academic life. There may be banter about bowels, a joke that I need a colon in my future research papers or conference presentations. But is the difficulty of living with an unpredictable bowel in an unaccommodating society really that funny? It’s time to talk shit.
Lauren White is a ESRC funded PhD Student at the University of Sheffield studying everyday life with Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS). You can find her at: https://www.sheffield.ac.uk/socstudies/postgraduate-research-students/lauren-white
Her piece was joint winner of this year’s Economic and Social Research Council writing competition, held in conjunction with Sage publishing. The other winning entries can be read on the Guardian’s Notes & Theories blog.