People’s neuroses truly reveal themselves in the bathroom. For such a dirty place, it is quite sacred. The bathroom is a temple where the walls have ears and people go for confession. They go to think, listen, talk—and if they cannot talk—write it down—on the walls, stalls and everywhere in between. The public bathroom is where neuroses go to live and privacy goes to die. Peeing in the potty is a marker for socialization when we are young, and talking by the potty is a tool for tolerating adulthood.
You might call me a water closet anthropologist. I am not sure if I am a pioneer in my field, but I have been contemplating WC’s for some time. I have always found them to be odd composites of social anxiety, yet refuges from all that is self-conscious—after all, we do do our business in there. Lately, I have been contemplating them because the women’s bathrooms in my office building are perplexing.
I have spent about a year observing the comings and goings of a dark-haired girl with too much perfume and her strange behaviors in her natural habitat, a.k.a. the bathroom. A trip to the women’s bathroom in our wing rarely failed to ignite a story about Dark Haired Girl. Before pushing the swinging door through a full rotation, one first acknowledged her presence through scent. Dark Haired Girl was often found either preparing food in the bathroom sink, or preparing herself. For what? We will never know, but imagined scandals ensued.
Dark Haired Girl works for a company in the office adjacent to ours. She often could be found draining tuna cans in the sink. She might otherwise be spotted with enough makeup and hair products laid out on the counter to supply a professional makeup artist, complete with a curling iron. Often, my co-workers and I observed her curling her hair and hair-spraying, applying perfume, applying a full face of makeup from foundation to mascara, or changing into booty clothes or booty gym clothes. The time of day and her actions rarely proved predictable, which left a few female officemates and I utterly confused—particularly because she works in a small office, which appears to consist mostly of pudgy, middle-aged men. For whom was she dressing? Why did she make lunch in the bathroom? The story of Dark Haired Girl became an ever-evolving, oral folklore, repeated each time with new conclusions drawn. Why is Dark Haired Girl putting on full makeup at 11 a.m.? She must be meeting her lover for lunch somewhere? Why is Dark Haired Girl curling her hair at 3 p.m.? Her secret lover-boss must be coming in.
Recently our company moved offices within the building to a different floor and we already miss Dark Haired Girl. She has been replaced in our new bathroom by a woman who repeatedly sprays the bathroom stall and wipes it down with Lysol before and after she sits down. It is just not the same. Toxic? Yes. One of the stalls also has a shady lock and more than one of us have had a traumatic moment when we could not exit the stall.
Now, I understand some level of germaphobia in the bathroom. You won’t find me preparing tuna sandwiches at the bathroom sink. I won’t touch the toilet brush in my apartment with a 10-foot pole—thankfully, my roommate will. I had a friend in college who would not keep her toothbrush in the bathroom because of its proximity to the toilet. We have all got our shtick.
I am amazed, however, at what people will do in public bathrooms, from stripping down their clothing in the common area and offering tampon instructions through the stalls, to revealing their deepest, darkest secrets and having a good cry, nervous breakdown or temper tantrum. The entire life cycle of a female-female relationship can be witnessed in a women’s bathroom, from inception over a lent tampon, to destruction over a drunken bar mistake revealed.
Due to gender restrictions and social mores, my knowledge of public bathrooms is almost completely confined to the female experience. My knowledge of men’s bathrooms is limited to what I see on television shows, to stories about politicians foot-tapping in airport bathrooms, to local anecdotes and my occasional sneak into men’s bathrooms when the women’s bathroom line is too long—an inevitability. (I could go into a diatribe about male foot-tapping as evidence that men don’t communicate as effectively in bathrooms as women do, but I digress.) My male coworker reported that men’s bathrooms tend to be dirtier, which I can confirm. He said he went through his boyhood with a fear (perpetrated and perpetuated by television) of having his head dunked in a school toilet. He also said men’s bathrooms are prone to their own share of awkward conversations, particularly when men try to talk to each other while at the stalls. For instance, he recalled entering a men’s bathroom at a Mexican restaurant and being grilled by his stall-mate about his Mexican heritage in Spanish. He’s Jewish.
However, I still believe women reveal more in the bathroom to strangers and to each other. Men, while they pee side by side, are afraid to really talk. For instance, this past weekend I went to a local bar to meet a friend and stepped into the women’s bathroom. As I walked the short distance to the stall, I witnessed one female bartender comforting another who had been wronged by her man. I listened to her tears as I entered the stall. When I returned to the then-vacant sink to fix my contact lens, a new drunk girl entered the bathroom. Without asking my name or what was wrong, she proceeded to lecture me on the benefits of Lasik surgery, which led to ramblings about her leg vein surgery. After emerging from the stall, swaying, she tapped me, and told me her male friend cheated on his girlfriend with one of her friends. “Can (I) believe it?” No, I cannot.
In junior high and high school, the girls’ bathroom is where you caught up on your vital news or became the subject of it. In adulthood, women share news with you that you wish they would keep to themselves.
Also in grade school, and in college, you could read the news on the walls and on the stalls. In high school, bathroom walls were Sharpie-scribbled with “Jenny *hearts* Bobby” and “Tina is a slut!” In college, my favorite stalls were in the library bathrooms. At the University of Wisconsin-Madison, the orientation tour guides touted our undergraduate library for its ranking as one of the best pick-up spots in the country by Rolling Stone magazine. As such, I used the ladies’ bathroom to touch up my makeup, fluff my hair and catch up on my reading in the stalls. The stalls produced the likes of 20-something Harlequin novels or Judy Blum books about girls losing their virginity, calling each other out for their wrong-doings and revealing sad details about their personal lives. Each visit to the girls’ bathroom felt like I had spent an hour on the Post Secret site.
Snarkiness aside, women need this space, this private time, this forum to vent their issues, let it all hang out, adjust their bras and Spanx and complain to their girlfriends. Sometimes you just need a mirror, a tissue and a friend. The women’s bathroom is the last frontier, the last public girls’ tree house with “no boys allowed.”