Scene: An anonymous bathroom, in some random building, in some random city. Feeling overworked, you almost *will* your bladder to swell enough to provide you the legit excuse of ‘needing a break’. You enter the room with the little “Dress” sign on the door. It’s desolate, tomb quiet. Fancying yourself more clever than the typical visitor, you pick the farthest stall, figuring that it is the least likely one to be utilized. (A-ha! Those psychology courses will not have been in vain!) You enter the carefully selected stall; do a sniff test. You are not-so-clever, it turns out. You grumble, but prepare for business anyway. Then you hear one of Them enter. They are everywhere, in random stalls, in Anytown, BC…happening onto innocent by-sitters everywhere. That’s right. I am talking about “Women Who Don’t Pee”.
If you should ever meet stall-to-stall with a WWDP, you may possibly understand why I behold their behaviour with a mix of amusement and mild annoyance. I usually feel a bit bad for them too (ie. empathy bladder pains). This WWDP enters the stall normally, but gets silent as soon as she becomes aware of my presence. As in, “It’s like I am not even here” silent. As in, “If-I’m-quiet-enough-maybe-my-bladder-will-seize-and-reverse-it’s-calling-and-defy-gravity-so-I-may-not-have-to-pee-anymore” silent. Ouch. Then it gets awkward, as I start to feel mildly responsible. “If I don’t hurry up with my business, this woman will not be able to relieve herself! She’ll get purple bladder! I’d better get my ass in gear!” I entertain impulses to playfully tap on the wall to ease the tension, “C’mon, girl, let it out! You’re among friends! Besides, it’s nothing I ain’t heard before!” (Reader: I’ve heard more in this young life than I care to recall, but we shan’t go there.) But time’s a’ ticking, so I prep for my business. While I take care of my needs, without too much assault on the senses, my stall friend is busy wadding up great rolls of paper to (presumably) muffle sounds. It is painstaking to listen to the preparation…and even more painstaking to feel her embarrassment through the thin wall between us.
Ah, the body politik.
I’m efficient, so I try to make use of my ‘down time’ and start to ponder on the insistence of performing said rituals. Let’s face it, they don’t fool anyone. It’s the pretend-cough after the fart. No one raises an eyebrow, but we all know what happened. It seems counter-intuitive to apply such self-censorship, to go to this great an effort to disguise a bodily process – even in a place designated for such a purpose. During my philosophising, I hear bouts of furious trickling, abrupt stop, furious trickling, abrupt stop. This goes on for a bit. Finally, in what must be an act of bladder salvation, I hear the toilet flush to grant her precious seconds of relief. (Thank you, Sir John Harrington¹). It gives pause to consider that should a stigma around ‘toitie’ behaviour be strong enough, the option of purple bladder might be a viable option for some!
So why this disguising? Of course, one must look beyond the septic tank and take into account several interloping factors: cultural background, religious beliefs, gendered behaviour expectations, socialization, social class structures, normative beliefs, perceptions around personal ‘space’, perceptions about public vs. private spheres, an individual’s personality, medical issues, and onwards. In spite of intellectually considering all these tropes, I am irked that it is still socially unacceptable (ie. shameful, embarrassing) for some women to let a natural function occur, especially in a place where it is deemed acceptable to do so (ie. the modern ‘water closet’). Her silence speaks volumes. Her behaviour provides insight around the perception of bodies, and, specifically, the policing of women’s bodies. Some pretty strong, socially sanctioned norms are still floating around, somehow instructing the masses that women are not supposed to partake in certain ‘base’ behaviours. A huge can o’worms.
To be concise, I would offer that, by and large, Western societal norms still hold to the construct that women be beautiful, pristine – almost other-worldly – superlative creatures. Culturally-set templates are only as potent as they are sustained, reinforced and reified into our frontal lobes via powerful institutions (media, church, etc.). These pristine creatures – who, (according to most TV commercials), awaken naturally curly-lashed, fresh-breathed, silky-haired, patchouli-scented, green apple shampooed, slim-waisted, doe-eyed maidens – are by-and-large posited as objects of desire. They are illustrated, even literally painted as ethereal, and now ‘enhanced’ with digital paintbrushes like PhotoShop. Any mainstream magazine will tell you that. “A picture…1000 words” – that sort of thing.
So, if women are portrayed to us as being superlative to human – as an ideal – this Ideal Woman would be expected to not behave too ‘human-like’, (at least publically), which may include not partaking in supposedly base (read: primal) behaviours like eating, sleeping, copulating, defecating, etc (um…urinating in a public bathroom, anyone?). To partake in said behaviours, would to be render the woman as being base too, and therefore ‘flawed’ as superlative entities. It would also render her no longer pristine, desirable, perfect – no longer the “Love Goddess.”… the Rita Hayworth who tosses her long, soft mane back with a mixture of innocence and sultriness to coyly ask, “Who me?” Partaking in ‘base’ behaviours means the “Love Goddess” gets kicked off the throne (ha) and ‘to the curb’. Meaning that despite feminism’s great strides with respect to ideologically redefining traditional gender roles, certain gender ideals – like those established by Victorian culture – remain deeply entrenched.
“We interrupt this diatribe, to bring you this inane commercial.”
Cut to a generic TV commercial with an ever-jovial, slim-waisted mom who has to clean up after her kid, dog AND grinning husband. They all have terribly white teeth, Mom especially. She does all this work with a smile on her face, a cute figure and glossy hair (because “She’s worth it!”). The Ideal Woman has it all, and DOES it all (and simultaneously, apparently)! The most she can complain about is “that stubborn grease!” After all, what else IS there to complain about? Being beautiful and darn near perfect, is all part of being an Ideal Woman! In fact, she is so efficient and shiny, that she can jump around and even do cartwheels in white pants while menstruating! Wow-wee! “Hey, I want THAT toothpaste!” “I’ll have that car!” “I’ll have what SHE’S having!” She sure is busy, but she looks GRRREAT.
Perhaps she is too busy. Perhaps she looks a little too great. Heck, we’re all pretty busy. It’s a lot of damn work keeping female bodies tucked, lifted, plucked, shaven, smooth, waxed, shiny, injected, and sucked out! You name it, we’ll try it (and there is definitely an ad for it). We’ll especially try it if we think the “it” will help bring us closer to being the Ideal Woman. It is a LOT of work, this upkeep, this correction of being a Real Woman (RW). RW’s are messy, smelly, awkward creatures who need constant repair, maintenance and correction! (“Douche with this, wipe this on, spray this on, stick this up your-know-where, during-your-you-know-what.”) Is the stifling of bodily processes – this muffling of the “P’s”, (yes, I made a pun) – an exception to the rule, or more common than we would care to admit?
There is an episode of the-now-defunct, but once wildly popular, “Sex and the City”² where the sexy, sophisticated lead (“Carrie”) is over at her boyfriend’s place. As they are making cutesy talk in bed, a toot escapes her pilates’ed, loofah-scrubbed tush. While he teases her playfully, she is mortified, hiding her head in shame. Later, she meets her friend “Miranda” to discuss it, and she expresses her real issue:
Miranda: You farted. You’re human.
Carrie Bradshaw: I don’t want him to know that.
“Carrie” has a dilemma: How does one navigate from being attainable and “real” enough (to presumably attract potential suitors), while also being a “clean, mean, pristine machine” – the sexualized ideal, as a superlative being and object of desire? Enter the erasure of female bodily machinations.
If certain functions are signs of ‘realness’, then these are perceived as a threat, as they can shake the sexualized ideal. These supposedly ‘base’ behaviours can take this Ideal Woman from being pristine, into being real (ie. non-pristine, ‘messy’). To be a Real Woman, Man – a Real Anyone – necessitates that one accept one’s very real body and its machinations. This acceptance may be where the problem lies for some, as in doing so, it shatters the illusion of being the Ideal Woman, and their striving to remain the shiny Love Goddess.
I propose that many women (and men), perhaps do not know how to personify other gendered identities, beyond what has been subscribed to them. (“Are there other ways to be feminine?”). They look for answers in their world, but what of those answers – whose are they? Who prescribed them and why? The bottom line is (again, another bad pun), that it is ALL about ideas. It is all a carefully-constructed illusion. We are, (perhaps unwittingly), maintaining and reinforcing this illusion, these expectations, through our own behaviours and attitudes.
To be clear, I am not attempting to paint everyone with a broad brush, nor assume “all” Western women have similar dilemmas, perceptions and/or experiences. The examples I paint here are, to me, points of conversation to add to an already existing discourse. If you have been fortunate enough to have been spared such a socially sanctioned mind-(rhymes with “truck”), and are relaxed, accepting and in reverence of your body – with all its bells and whistles – my hat it off to you. I mean that. Very few women I know can honestly and wholeheartedly attest to this. That’s just my view from where I stand. But these ideals are certainly not restricted to Western society. Some people may have it tougher. Case in point:
- This “Japanese Women’s Toilet” webpage³, which states: For some reason or another, some ladies in Japan are rather shy when it comes to jettisoning human waste. For this reason, bathroom appliance maker TOTO invented the Otohime [音姫] which literally means “princess of sound.” Otohime is a device that emits the sound of water to disguise the real sound of the trickle of pee or the kerplonk of 1 kg of poo hitting the waters surface. The video below is an example of the device in action.
- Check this wonderful ad for a “Courtesy Flush”: http://www.mommatoldmeblog.com/2010/07/courtesy-flush-ladys-best-friend.html
I’ll admit, I am tickled pink when I have the public toity all to myself (what a rare and beautiful thing! I am the Queen of the Throne!). Although I may not go to (what my Western brain considers) such extremes to ‘stifle’ my body, I still have my own cross (your-heart-bra) to bear! I’m determined to change the world around me, by first changing myself, and challenging stifling ideas or expectations, yet am also guilty of conforming to most of gender norms – but not at every turn. To wear and personify one’s dissension in public is a brave and bold act, and one I commend. I reserve my boldness for the stage, a place I feel safe enough to make my points heard, and if you play your cards right, possibly even ‘seen’. As for the “unconditional love of body” thing – I’m working on it.
But the sky is now looming a darker blue. I’m a messy mortal, a fleshy flaw, a harried human who needs her sleep to recuperate body and mind and let those sexy cells do as they will. But come first thing in the morning…well, let’s just say you wouldn’t want to play ‘tent’ with me. Just sayin’.
- The first patent for a flushing water closet was issued to Alexander Cummings in 1775, sixty years before Thomas Crapper was born. : About.com www.Urbanlegends.com, http://paruresis.org/evolution.htm, and Victorian Constructions of Gender in Aurora Leigh Timothy Farrell ’97 (English 168 Sec. 2, 1996)
- “Sex and the City: The Drought (#1.11)” (1998) http://www.imdb.com/character/ch0018417/quotes
- “Women were supposed to always be graceful and even something as enjoyable as dancing had to look effortless, and the woman always had to make sure that she appeared elegant and refined. It also has a reference to the fact that when dancing, the goal of the woman’s etiquette was to please the man.” Source: http://www.clas.ufl.edu/users/agunn/teaching/enl3251/vf/pres/barrera.htm