The undoing: Toilet taboos

So here’s another post I don’t want to write, but we need to talk about this more openly. And if someone as ballsy and plain-speaking as me can’t do it, then there’s no hope for any of us.

So. Well.

I am someone who lives on a ‘loo leash’. Over the space of five years or so, I lost bowel control in public five times. Over a longer period, I wet myself so often, it became a normal part of the day. I hate to think how much money I have spent on piss pads over the years.

Hopefully nobody really noticed most times, and it was only me who got massively distressed and had to clean up the mess. You may even be reading this and thinking ‘that’s nothing’, which is why we should be more open about this kind of thing. Incontinence happens to so many people, but nobody talks about it. Certainly not in polite conversation.

Going to the toilet – or not – is a really complex neurological/physiological reflex. We have to learn how to not go! Women suffer often, due to the violent physical process that is giving birth. And it’s one of the first things to go wrong when you get old or very ill. I saw it when my dad was dying.

(The reasons why mine went so wrong are hopefully explained elsewhere in this series of posts: manual emptying with a catheter that led to some nasty infections, spinal cord and peripheral nerve irritation, accumulated lymph/fungal overgrowth in my pelvis, hypertonic pelvic floor, purging years of toxic waste…).

At some point, it goes wrong for everyone, surely. Temporarily, hopefully. Maybe you’ve eaten something dodgy and it’s given you the shits. If your body wants to get rid of something bad, it will do it, social acceptability be damned!

But the social shame attached when you can’t control it! Like it’s a personal failing. We’ve all been there, no? So why can’t we talk about it like normal people instead of castigating the unfortunate, turning away in disgust or teasing each other like school kids?

It seems to me that talking about peeing and pooing is less socially acceptable than talking about sex or menstruation. We have developed an idea of it as something not suitable for public discourse; a Victorian sensibility of unmentionable bodily functions.

We are pooing prudes. We pretend we don’t do it, and when we do, we pretend it smells of lavender or ocean breeze. In my experience, parents of babies or young children (or carers, or people with bowel problems) are least phased. Dealing with bodily waste is just a common part of their day.

Of course, generally, it’s not something to bring up at the dinner table or in small talk with colleagues, but I think this attitude of avoidance affects us all at a wider social level.

Public toilets are becoming less available, for example. The Covid shutdown has really highlighted this. Most of the toilets that you can use when you’re out and about are in private spaces – cafes, shopping centres, department stores. If you need to use the toilet, you’re made to feel a bit naughty: you should have gone at home, and you’re definitely going to have to pay (customers only). Like your mother is telling you off on a long car journey when you are 5.

But if your body decides it’s time to evacuate often or suddenly, you never want to be far away from an immediately accessible toilet. Welcome to the loo leash! I have planned my journey through the city shuttling between discreetly usable toilets. Some places I avoided because the toilet provision wasn’t good enough (forget the park or the beach). When it was really bad, being on the bus or metro was a bit risky. Going to an unfamiliar place and not knowing where the loos were was a nightmare. The anxiety it caused has hampered my life for years.


Notable toilets I have known and used

If there is a toilet available, I will find it. Clocking where the toilets are is one of the first things I do in a new place. I prefer larger facilities where you can just slip in fairly unnoticed. Here are some ones I remember from the last few years:

San Francisco Central Library
Typical US cubicles with short doors and gaps around the edge. A sign on the door advised against staying for more than 10 minutes. Used by many homeless people. Friendly cleaners. Never a queue. 4/5

San Francisco self-cleaning automatic public toilets
Wheelchair accessible and free. There was even an attendant outside! Super. Every city should have these. 4/5

Barcelona Museu del Disseny
Very handy, cleaned regularly, sometimes a queue but the Design Museum is so underused. Be careful! It has those toilet roll dispensers that you can’t get at if the sheets break off inside the dispenser. The nicely designed sinks actually splash water all over the place, so not so functional. 3/5
Covid update Now only available for use if you get the key from the cafe. Not so discreet. 2/5

Barcelona CCCB
Walls that go all the way up to the top and big massive heavy doors that shut so completely, you really are encased in a little private box for a few minutes. Jen graffitied on one when she came over. 4/5

Barcelona MACBA
Available on every floor. Small but well-designed and functional. Only available once you are actually inside the museum, so no good for popping in on your way past. 3/5

Barcelona Zumzeig Cine Cooperativa
The only thing not so good about my darling Zumzeig. There are only 2 – a ladies/disabled and a gents. As long as no-one is using the urinal in the gents, you can use the toilet, though the sliding door doesn’t lock. Because you almost always have to wait for the ladies. And then often there’s no paper, and the new hand-dryer is rubbish. 2/5

UK train stations
Generally basic and cold, but usually clean and mostly free, and reliably everywhere. They’ve been a very welcome sight on many occasions. 5/5

Trains and planes
I can never properly pee on moving transport. Don’t relax fully, I guess. Of course, these kind of toilets have variable states of cleanliness and accessibility, you likely have to wait, there’s often no paper… But aren’t we glad they’re there?! 3/5

Sheffield Millenium Galleries
A very handy location. Busy, but didn’t usually have to wait too long unless there was a big group of schoolkids in on a cultural trip. Clean. Paper. 4/5


On a side note, I very much welcome efforts to make toilets gender neutral. It just doesn’t make sense to me to separate the facilities for men and women. We can all just empty in a standard toilet, no?

Urinals are discriminatory and outdated. It may be much more convenient to just unzip your fly and whip it out (instead of getting half undressed like I have to), but it’s not actually good to empty the bladder in a standing position anyway. Men are used to it, but the pelvic floor can’t fully relax. Ideally, we all should be squatting.

I get especially perplexed at non-cubical toilets where it’s just a tiny room with a toilet in, one marked on the door as the gents’ and the other as the ladies’. They’re exactly the same, except the men’s room is generally more stinky, out of paper and with the seat left up. But I think us delicate ladies can take it. And if you’re not male or female, which one do you choose?

Perhaps we should be like the Romans, who used to toilet communally. We definitely should be less squeamish about what is, after all, a normal and healthy physiological process.

[There, Alison, that wasn’t so hard, was it?]

NEXT: Feelings

CHIN UP 11/14

Photo by Erik Mclean on Unsplash

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