As a freelance writer, unbound by a company clock, I’m at liberty to establish my own routine. I wake up at the same time (my dog is my boss), fix my breakfast, knock back three espressos and go about my business. And eventually, I do my business. It’s a fairly copacetic start to the day. At least it was until my last boyfriend came on the scene. Although my heart would sag when he left in the morning, my bowels would nearly emit an audible sigh of relief. I marvelled at his ability to saunter to the bathroom, iPad in hand, and emerge unapologetically 10 minutes later, while I sat rigidly on my couch reading the paper as a film of sweat developed on my upper lip. The idea of doing the same—with little more than a plywood door and a sputtering fan between us—made me want to spit out my coffee and swear off flaxseed toast forever. To this day I question if my rapid recovery from our breakup wasn’t largely due to the fact that I could once again poop in peace.
Fear or shame about taking an extended bathroom break in the presence of others, or in a public place, is one that many women share. If Jonathan Swift’s 1732 poem, “The Lady’s Dressing Room,” in which a man balks upon discovering his lover’s soiled chamber pot—“Oh! Celia, Celia, Celia shits!”—is any indication, it’s a taboo as old as time. And one that continues today. As 30 Rock’s lovable narcissist, Jenna Maroney, quipped: “Love is wearing makeup to bed and going downstairs to the Burger King to poop.” But while the act seems inherently unladylike, regularly refusing the call of nature is decidedly against nature—with physical and psychological ramifications ranging from bowel dysfunction to social anxiety/phobia.
One popular theory considers the shame a side effect of toilet training, which ingrains early that what we expel is disgusting and should be hidden. Indeed the toilet was invented by “elite Victorians because they wanted to differentiate themselves from the masses who went to communal privies,” says Dave Praeger, author of Poop culture: how America Is Shaped By Its Grossest National Product and founder of the humour website PoopReport.com. “They wanted to do it indoors and not have to look at it after it was done.” For women raised by the gender stereotype that we must always be chaste and clean, it creates a cognitive dissonance. How can we be pure and perfect creatures if we do this?
But according to David Waltner-Toews, author of the upcoming book The Origin of Feces (in bookstores this May) and professor emeritus in the department of population medicine at the University of Guelph, the roots of our anxieties may date back to our pre-human origins. We may have an instinctive need for privacy while pooping because the act itself makes us feel open to attack. “My experience is that women in particular feel more vulnerable to things like assault by men, who think that, whatever the reason given for a woman pulling down her pants, she is somehow acting seductively—disgusting, I know, but there you go,” explains Waltner-Toews. “There is a very long history of this vulnerability.”
We still carry all this baggage in our modern lives, he believes. And although pop culture has tried to debunk the myth that women don’t shit—who could forget the wedding boutique scene in Bridesmaids?—the topic still remains largely the domain of low-brow, gross-out comedy, and the fears and shame persist. On xoJane.com, executive editor Emily McCombs sparked a nearly 600-comment discussion when she confessed to accidentally fouling her pants. “One time a boyfriend walked into the bathroom while I was still in mid-flush and I basically threw my body over the toilet so he wouldn’t actually see my poop, but I knew he did a little and I cried,” wrote McCombs, who couldn’t do it in the same house as her fiancé for a year. Waltner-Toews says the handling of this topic in pop culture is “funny in part because it breaks so many taboos—which acknowledges that the taboos are still there.”
But as scientists begin to understand how central our digestive system is to our overall well-being, becoming more straightforward about our bodies seems like a crucial move. Not going right when you need to is the first problem, and stressing about this only makes the health fallout worse. Gastrointestinal issues are almost as much a result of psychology as genetics and diet. “The hormones we produce in response to stress [such as cortisol, adrenaline and dopamine] can create IBS- type symptoms like gas, bloating, constipation and diarrhea, which are nerve disorders,” says Dr. Sapna Makhija, gastroenterologist at the GI Health Centre in Burlington, Ont. “Anything that affects your nerves will affect your bowels.”
It doesn’t help that women’s hormonal cycles can trigger gastro- intestinal upset—constipation and diarrhea, for instance, are classic PMS. Irritable bowel syndrome also affects more than twice as many women as men and is most common in people under 45, reports a 2010 study in the Journal of Gastroenterology and Hepatology. It’s thought that ups and downs in estrogen and progesterone may affect how muscles in the digestive tract work, causing poop problems to flare up near your period. Learning how your system waxes and wanes, feeling secure about it with your partner, and adjusting your diet could help steady your mood and energy throughout the month.
But even if you don’t suffer sick-to-your-stomach monthly cycles, and simply grapple with poo hang-ups, procrastinating when the urge strikes can lead to a host of physical issues—hemorrhoids, IBS-type symptoms, as well as increased inflammation. “Most of your immune system is in your digestive system, and when you aren’t moving the toxins out of there, inflammation increases,” says Peter Bongiorno, a naturopathic doctor at Inner Source Health in New York who has written about gut health for PsychologyToday.com.
Our bodies aren’t the only parts that stand to suffer from poor pooping practices; our minds and moods are vulnerable, too. Our digestive system (or enteric nervous system) actually has a complex network of neurons that influence our everyday emotional state, according to Dr. Michael D. Gershon, chairman of the faculty of anatomy and cell biology at Columbia University in New York. These gut nerves can generate feel-good neurotransmitters. Indeed, over 95 percent of our serotonin is made in the gut, he explains in his book The Second Brain. Dr. Gershon theorizes that our gut actually acts as an independent brain, but it must work happily with the brain in our head—or else physical and psychological mischief can ensue.
For instance, a 2001 study published in the journal Gut found that low rectal blood flow, a sign of constipation, was associated with anxiety, depression and impaired social skills. “Rectal blood flow reflects the function of nerve pathways from the brain to the gut,” and these pathways are susceptible to stress, says Bongiorno. “When the blood flow and nerve energy are decreased, our mood starts to suffer and we are more inclined toward depression and anxiety.”
But don’t think that running out and getting cleanses or colonics will fix things. “There’s no medical evidence to date to suggest that colon cleansing is a benefit,” Dr. Makhija says. “Your bowels need a multitude of bacteria present in order to metabolize your food.” Yet despite this being a common refrain among medical doctors, such treatments remain popular—a phenomenon that Nick Haslam, a University of Melbourne psychology professor and author of Psychology in the Bathroom, attributes to our inherent revulsion at bodily waste.
“People are faced with the unpleasant truth that something they see as contaminating is inside their bodies, and one way to rid themselves of that feeling is to cleanse,” Haslam says. “A hundred years ago many people were obsessed by the idea of ‘autointoxication,’ the belief that if the gut’s contents aren’t moved along swiftly, they will poison us and cause disease and psychological distress— hence providing a strong motive for the development of treatments, including drugs and enemas, to prevent constipation. Even if this is nonsense as science, it resonates with people because of the disgust they feel toward their waste products.”
As a counterpoint, Waltner-Toews says, one modern-day medical treatment for killer C. difficile infections in hospitals is a kind of reverse cleanse. The infection can be caused by intense courses of antibiotics, which destroy good bowel bacteria and allow toxin-producing Clostridia to flourish unchecked, resulting in diarrhea, colitis or worse. So an emerging remedy involves “taking poop from the intestines of healthy donors, which is then infused through enemas or nasogastric tubes into the patient. This replenishes their healthy gut flora, which then out-compete the disease-causing Clostridia [bacteria].”
And while typical cleanses promise to detox your system, Dr. Makhija warns that due to lax regulations, you don’t really know what’s in them or how your body will react. “I had a patient who bought a three-day cleanse because it claimed she would lose weight, and she suffered from chronic diarrhea for two months afterward,” she recalls. Her simple solution for a healthy colon and, by extension, a healthier mind: Don’t wait; go when you have to go. Take a fibre supplement, since the average North American diet is roughage- deficient, and get on a routine.
Unlike the study of sex, it’s doubtful the stigma attached to this human behaviour will be dispelled. Despite the spate of shit-talking comediennes and personalities
in recent years (even Oprah has confessed to fear of pooping in a public loo), Waltner-Toews says that until we find an appropriate lexicon for it, the subject will remain taboo. “When we talk about poop, it’s either locker-room lingo or technical jargon about recycling and biosolids. It hasn’t lost its edge,” he says. “And using in-your-face humour isn’t helpful one way or another.”
While Praeger doesn’t see a need to embrace the act in an attempt to render it less unsavoury, he believes reshaping the way we think about it will help alleviate a lot of the shame association. “There’s a metaphor between the way we treat bodily waste and how we treat the environment, because we believe that once something is flushed or thrown away, it’s gone forever,” he says. “But our bodily matter would work really well as fertilizer if there was a correct way of using it as such. I think that would change attitudes toward it.”
I admit I’m guilty of bowing down to the pressure to portray myself as perfectly inhuman with every flaw-masking resource available— concealer for spots, hair dye for greys, Spanx for bulges. But I won’t risk my health in order to spare myself the humiliation of admitting to my inherent being. While it’s going to take discipline to face down my mortification, my next boyfriend may just have to know, and maybe even hear and smell, what I do in the bathroom when I’m in there for 10 minutes or more. Because it’s true what they say: Everyone poops.