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Why do public bathrooms make us so anxious, and why aren’t we doing anything about it?

The treacherous toilet. Rebecca Boyd/flickr, CC BY-NC

Why do public bathrooms make us so anxious, and why aren’t we doing anything about it?

The treacherous toilet. Rebecca Boyd/flickr, CC BY-NC

“Public” and “toilet” don’t go together, except when they must. And that “must” is the moment we’re not home – when we need to go and can’t hold it in any longer.

Only then do we face the predicament of having to perform a deeply private act in the presence of others.

Yet for one reason or another, American public bathrooms are often designed to make the experience exceedingly uncomfortable. Silence about the issue persists, largely because of cultural taboos that discourage any discussion about alleviating design flaws.

No room for “rest”

Our lives are ordinarily carried out through careful – indeed, exquisite – impression management. We adhere to a delicate etiquette of gesture, sound and scent, all so we can display ourselves as dignified, civilized human beings.

Enter: the toilet, which blunders in with sounds, smells and strangers. Hovering above it all is the deepest of pollutants, human waste – often in places where it’s not supposed to be.

From earliest childhood (thank you, Professor Freud) we participate in the game of excrement as taboo. Any talk is handled through binary code: “Number One,” “Number Two” or the likes of pee and poo. And as children we learn the shrieks of horror that can arise when things go awry.

We bear the burden of all this – and more – when we enter the so-called “restroom.” It’s no wonder we look for an escape. One solution is to just not go at all: we hold it in until we get home or at least to a more opportune setting.

Another strategy is to manipulate intake – eating and drinking – to align elimination with being home. For me, it’s akin to the Japanese art of bonsai: trimming a plant’s roots to shape what comes out the other end. It is a difficult skill to master, for which few of us have had proper instruction.

Privacy discouraged, by design

According to one survey, over 60% of respondents reported that they would delay using a public restroom if they felt like they didn’t have enough privacy.

The design of American public bathrooms can complicate the struggle for a modicum of privacy. In the US, stall enclosures typically have large bottom (and top) openings, along with peek-a-boo gaps at panel seams. The US is a distinctly open society; in virtually every country which has them, toilets have more solid enclosures, with stalls going closer to the ground and ceiling,

The US features probably arose from authorities’ concern, way back when, over what people might do if they had more privacy – specifically, drugs or sex (especially homosexual male sex).

Either way, it’s now expected that when we sit on a public toilet, we expose our feet to the occupant next door. Among other effects, this allows those who know us to make positive and precise identifications based on shoes: another blow to anonymity. Who hasn’t experienced the dread of a boss or colleague plopping down in an adjacent stall?

Anonymity, compromised. 'Feet' via www.shutterstock.com

There can be strategies. Some choose restrooms where a colleague or classmate will less likely be present. That might mean going to a different building, floor or division. Others try to time visits for when nobody else will be around (although if everyone selects the same time, there could be comedic bathroom jams instead of circumvention). Of course, openly coordinating among one another to prevent such an outcome would be out of the question: your self-consciousness would be exposed.

Simple fixes like unisex bathrooms met with silence

Why haven’t industrial designers and architects stepped in to address some of these issues?

From knowing many of them, I believe they’d be eager to facilitate change: many would gladly make stall walls more substantial, while acoustic specialists would delight in muffling unpleasant sounds with the white noise of running water or music (why not opera, a la the fountains of Las Vegas’ Bellagio Hotel?)

Sinks and toilets could be combined into a single unit (such models exist in both Japan and Spain) so that the water from the sink enters into the toilet tank, where it is stored for the next flush. This lowers water use and yields hands that are clean before they touch the hardware of the stall exit. (No more opening locks with scrunches of toilet paper!)

Insulin users need a shelf to rest their syringe. Indeed, so do all intravenous drug users. And they need good enough lighting to both see their veins and avoid bloodying things up.

People from Middle Eastern cultures are accustomed to cleansing after defecation with water, often with a spray hose fixed to a wall adjacent to the toilet. (For them, wiping with paper disgusts.) Such preferences should be accommodated; given a chance, it may catch on with the wider public.

Public toilets invite recycling of all waste. And larger facilities, especially, should invite on-site recycling, with user-friendly displays of the process (show the plumbing, digesters and fittings through transparent pipes and walls). Use the toilet to press a wider public agenda.

And that goes for gender too. Gender segregation continues to deliver injustice. Women need more opportunities to go, a fact increasingly being reflected in changing building codes in the US and other countries. Now starting to appear on public policy agendas are the difficulties of people who are transgender or gender-nonconforming. Some people are actually forced to use a bathroom designated for the opposite sex due to their situation: women caring for men (and vice versa), fathers for girls and other variations.

So why not open it up and let all genders share the same zone? It would yield a huge increase in space efficiency, while alleviating the long lines at the women’s rooms, which often occur as stalls remain empty in the men’s room. Integration might also enhance safety: more people would be on hand to act in case of emergency. Hanging a “women” sign over a door only keeps out men with good intentions. (After all, those with bad intentions won’t be impeded by a sign.)

Making change requires making talk. Unfortunately, “the talk” can be rather awkward – awkward for politicians to introduce change or for architects to convince clients to depart from custom. Having sat on many university building committees, I can report that not much time is devoted to the arrangements of restrooms; when it comes to the toilet and its surroundings, silence is business as usual.

Deprivations, some of them unspeakable, fill the void.

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