There once was a woman who walked regularly from her office in Midtown Manhattan to a hotel across the street in order to use the restroom, and that woman may have been one of us.
That woman had a friend, at another office job, who carried a book of matches and a can of air freshener in her purse — more willing to set off the office fire alarm than leave any hint of odor in a public lavatory.
That friend had another friend, at another office job, who repeatedly forced her body to do the deed so quickly — racing from cubicle to bathroom and back, in an effort to deflect attention from what she might be doing in there — that it led to a semi-serious hemorrhoid problem.
As her former colleague put it: “She was pooping at the speed of pee.”
Remember the children’s book, “Everyone Poops”? It is meant to teach kids that defecating is a natural, healthy part of digestion, and it does so by illustrating a wide variety of creatures — dogs, cats, snakes, whales, hippos, little boys — happily defecating.
But you know who you won’t see defecating in that book, happily or unhappily? Women.
We may be living in an age where certain pockets of the corporate world are breathlessly adapting to women’s needs — company-subsidized tampons, salary workshops, lactation rooms. But even in the world’s most progressive workplace, it’s not a stretch to think that you might have an empowered female executive leading a meeting at one moment, then sneaking off to another floor to relieve herself the next.
Poop shame is real — and it disproportionately affects women, who suffer from higher rates of irritable bowel syndrome and inflammatory bowel disease. In other words, the patriarchy has seeped into women’s intestinal tracts.
Let’s call it the pootriarchy.
Girls aren’t born with poo shame — it’s something they’re taught.
In “Psychology in the Bathroom,” psychologist Nicholas Haslam wrote that girls tend to be toilet-trained earlier than boys, learning at a young age to neatly keep their bodily functions contained (our words, not his).
When those girls get a bit older, they learn to pass gas silently — while boys do it loudly, and think it’s hilarious. (Yes, there is a kind of Kinsey scale to gas-passing and it goes like this: According to a study called “Fecal Matters” that was published in a journal called “Social Problems,” adult heterosexual men are far more likely to engage in scatological humor than heterosexual women and are more likely to report intentionally passing gas. Gay men are less likely to intentionally pass gas than heterosexual women, and lesbian women are somewhere in between.)
“If a boy farts, everyone laughs, including the boy,” said Sarah Albee, author of “Poop Happened!: A History of the World from the Bottom Up.” “If a girl farts, she is mortified.”
But while boys and men are more likely to develop “paruresis,” the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders-recognized medical term for pee-shyness — theorized by some to stem, in part, from the pressure of standing next to each other at open urinals — it is women who are more likely to have “parcopresis,” the corresponding bowel movement anxiety, which is not in the DSM, according to a variety of fecal scholars.
“The bathroom is saturated with gender in fascinating ways,” said Haslam, a professor of psychology at the University of Melbourne, who noted that women’s aversion, particularly at work, is not entirely unfounded: One unpublished study he mentions in his book found that a woman who excused herself to go to the bathroom was evaluated more negatively than one who excused herself to tend to “paperwork” — while there was no difference in the way participants viewed the men.
“At one level it’s an association of women with purity,” said Haslam, referring to the double standard. “At another it’s a double standard applied to hygiene and civility, where the weight falls disproportionately on women to be clean, odorless and groomed.”
For most of history, it would seem, they have fallen in line — adopting all sorts of creative ways to avoid mention, inference, acknowledgment, or God forbid, smell, even when inside the bathroom.
According to Albee, in the Gold Rush days, while the men on the open range would simply find a shrub or pop a squat, prairie women would form elaborate protective circles to shield one another. “They’d all stand in a circle, facing out, holding their skirts out to the side to form a ‘wall,’ ” she said. “Then one at a time, they’d take turns.”
These days, bathroom camouflage antics look far less sisterly.
There are those who engage in the Flush Hush, which involves flushing the toilet over and over again to drown out any sound. There is the Scatological Standoff, in which two or more women sit silently in stalls next to one another, waiting for one to break the silence and have a bowel movement first — or simply give up and retreat back to their cubicle, only to begin the same standoff an hour later.
And then there’s the Poop Dupe — when you walk into the bathroom, see a co-worker you know, and immediately beeline to the mirror to check your hair. (Because you’d rather be known as superficial than defecating, obviously.)
Is it any surprise to hear that women are more constipated than men?
Historians have long noted that public facilities were created for — and built by — men, and bathrooms are no exception. Most architects are men, most plumbers are men, and early public facilities were tailored to white men — and then later, white women — who were engaging in public life enough to use them.
Which might help explain why nobody stopped to think that just because the square footage of a bathroom facility may be equal, that doesn’t mean you can necessarily fit an equal number of stalls. Men’s room users have the luxury of urinals and speed, while women take longer to use the restroom, while doing so with less real estate.
In Congress, women didn’t have their own bathrooms on the House floor until 2011 (When there were 76 of them serving!). Those in the Senate got theirs off the Senate floor in 1993.
Previously, female House members had to trek out of chambers and fight off tourists in another hall — a scene that reminded us of “Hidden Figures,” the film about the early black women scientists of NASA, who had to hike half a mile to the closest segregated women’s restroom to relieve themselves. The scene may have been fictional, but suffice to say, women of color have had to endure much worse.
And then there are biological factors at play.
According to the work of Dr. Robynne Chutkan, an integrative gastroenterologist and author of “Gutbliss,” women’s poop anxiety might not simply be cultural or even psychological. It could be physical, as there are actually some profound differences between female and male digestive tracts, beginning with the length of the colon, which is longer in women (Chutkan called it the “voluptuous Venus”).
“What that extra length in the colon does is create this redundancy, these sort of extra twists and turns,” she said. “Think of the male colon as kind of a gentle horseshoe, and the female colon as being a tangled-up Slinky.”
As it turns out, the ideal position for a person to comfortably relieve their bowels — at least according to gastroenterologists — is a lot like a squat, with the knees at a 90-degree angle to the waist, and not a seated position. Which means that perhaps all of us should be investing in a squatty potty to prop up our feet, but particularly those of us with a tangled-up Slinky for a colon, sitting on a toilet in an office building that was built for the height of men.
Or, a better idea: We could invest in educating girls to accept their bodies as they are, along with all the smells and sounds that come with it. Because, quite frankly, women have enough crap to deal with.
Jessica Bennett is gender editor for the New York Times. Amanda McCall is a writer, producer and co-author of the book “Grandma’s Dead: Breaking Bad News With Baby Animals.” They wrote this article for the Times.