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.”