Photo: Philippe Gerber/Getty Image
It’s 9:30 p.m., and you’re standing at a counter somewhere, sipping espresso martinis while puffing your vape with devotion: the perfect boost to the number two you’ve been mulling over all day. It starts to rumble softly in your intestines and jump – with a rotten speed you go towards the toilet.
And then you see: they have the sparse toilet cubicles here, and a pair of big Salomon sneakers peek out from under the toilet door next to yours. What if they belong to the hottie you just exchanged seductive looks with? You can’t sit here dumping loud peats or worse, pumping aromas into the room, can you? You accept your fate and sit motionless on the toilet until the coast is clear, praying your friends haven’t gone home in the meantime.
Seriously, why is shit still so embarrassing? Like birth, death and the 24 hours in a day, it is one of the few certainties in life. At the time of writing, there are about 79 million people on it, according to Seed Health, a company specializing in microbial science. That’s a lot of crap.
But when it comes to recognition, people don’t like to talk about their own poop. It’s the ultimate conspiracy, as if all of humanity signed an NDA saying we will pee as secretly as possible.
Slowly, under the cover of anonymity, people tell me that they actually find pooping quite humiliating. I ask them why. “To poop is ego-destroying — it makes you feel naked,” says Jasper, 27, who, like the others in this piece, wishes to remain anonymous. “It’s disgusting, it smells and it’s unhygienic. You can be as charming as you want, but when people hear your shit, it’s all gone.”
Lottie (26) agrees. “It’s sticky, mushy and the smell can be horrible. You can hear the sounds of someone throwing big or small bombs if they haven’t eaten their vegetables. It’s just a little scary,’ she says.
The idea of others finding out we poop is apparently unbearable. Some use a method called New York Times “The Poop Dupe” mentions turning to the mirror to check your hair — instead of poop — when you bump into someone you know in the bathroom. Another proven method is “The Flush Hush”: continuously flushing the toilet to drown out any sound.
For times when the toilets are shockingly close to each other, Danni (26) has developed a method we call the poop pillow. She tells me that you wrap a bunch of toilet paper around your hand and hold it under your ass. “I catch the poop and slow down the water that hits so there’s no noise,” she says. When Danni needs to poop on her partner, she talks in a baby voice to make it sound sweet. “I’m like, ‘Leave it to me, I’m doing some shit,'” she lies on the phone.
The romance between true love and pooping never really took off. Research from Healthline shows that more than 28 percent of men and 22 percent of women wait between one and three months before having a bowel movement with their partner. “One of the worst things is having to screw up during a one-night stand. It’s hard to hide that you’re going to take a shit, so you have to keep it inside,’ says Jasper. “But it makes you fart again, it’s so uncomfortable – you can’t sleep, you can’t have sex, you just have to lie down.”
Some poopers are very furry. Just think of the viral story the BBC reported in 2017 about the girl who flipped a huge, unexplainable peat on a date and then threw it out the window. Naturally, her poo got stuck between two windows and she was stuck trying to retrieve her poo – her date even had to call the fire department.
What the hell is wrong with us? I put the question to Nick Haslam, professor of psychology at the University of Melbourne and author of Psychology in the bathroom. He explains that faecal-transmitted infections have been a major cause of death since time immemorial. “Contagion is a big problem, so there are very good reasons to keep feces out of sight and mind,” he says.
Our aversion to poop, he explains, doesn’t start at birth; we only get that when we become adults. “Part of potty training is to embarrass and shame kids who don’t put their things in the right place… to prevent contamination and illness,” he says. “There is shame associated with poo residue or the smell of poo hanging on or around you. It goes along with the other sense of disgust, which many believe evolved in part to protect us from rot, pollution and feces. We tend to be ashamed of what disgusts us, and feces is one of the prototypical disgusting stimuli.”
Poop is fun too. Think of men you see standing in line with a straight face to use a toilet cubicle instead of the urinals, making it abundantly clear that they need to pee. There’s no reason this should be funny, but it is. “It’s like when someone comes back to the table in the bar after being away for a long time,” says Liz, 26. “Everyone thinks, ‘He was about to screw up’.”
Liz remembers queuing to see a giant piece of shit blocking one of the boys’ toilets when she was at school. “Everyone wanted to see the big pile of shit, even some of the teachers,” she says. “It was huge and filled the entire toilet bowl. It’s still the biggest piece of crap I’ve ever seen.” No one has ever admitted responsibility for the monster turd, and the mystery remains: “A boy in my year claimed it was him because he wanted credit, but we never found out. who really did it.”
Which brings us to the gender politics of poop. Why would a man proudly declare that he has clogged a toilet, while Liz, a mere observer of the giant poo, hesitates to reveal her identity? In general, women seem to be more ashamed of peeing. In a national survey of more than 1,000 Canadian women, 71 percent said they are very serious about not pooping, especially in a public restroom. On the other hand, I’ve heard stories of guys sending their friends pictures of their best brews.
“The idea that femininity is incompatible with poop is very popular, and there’s no one-size-fits-all,” says Haslam. “You can see it as a double standard for hygiene, but there is probably also a difference in sensitivity.” You could also argue, he adds, that certain forms of masculinity involve “deliberate abuse of what is decent” — which might explain why teenage boys are more comfortable with things like toilet humor and farts.
For some people, shit-shaming becomes so intense that it develops into parkopresis or “shy gut syndrome.” This is a familiar story for Hannah (27), who is physically unable to defecate in public toilets. “My body can’t relax when I’m not at home. It’s 100 percent a mental thing, the embarrassment of someone hearing it scares me,” she says. Her longest bowel-free periods include six days at Glastonbury and four days on holiday. “I took many laxatives and it still didn’t work. Then I was super bloated, which wasn’t good for my confidence on the beach. I had to force my partner to go outside the apartment so I could pee,” she adds.
Where are the proud turd turners? Is anybody there? Can we assume that Gen Z talks freely about poop? In the name of investigative journalism, I scroll through #pootok, which has 10.4 million views, until I find the @postwhenwepoop page. The account features videos of people rating their poo on 10 points, with variables such as “stink content”, “liquidity”, “burn level”, “relief” and “duration”. One video reads: “I just had my first poo after a night of drinking and we all know that means I instantly felt a lot younger. The poo itself wasn’t even that good, but I feel incredible. 7 /10.”
The divine feeling after pooping is known as “poop-forie”. In the book What is your stool telling you? describe Josh Richman and Dr. Anish Sheth expresses it as “the sense of euphoria and ecstasy that you feel throughout your body when this kind of stool leaves your system…for some it feels like a religious experience, for others like an orgasm.” For Barney, 30, poop positivity is a more primal approach. “I’ve always been drawn to smells, and there’s something primal and instinctive about the smell of your own shit. This came from you, you gave birth to this, you made your own elixir,” he says.
There are a number of initiatives that are trying to break the big poop taboo. In 2019, Seed Health launched their #GiveAShit For Science campaign, encouraging people to upload a photo of their poo to their website to raise awareness of the link between poo and gut health.
“The response has been overwhelming. Just by taking a picture of your poo, you de-stigmatize it to some extent because it’s an uncomfortable thing to do – most people don’t even look at it,” says Ara Katz, co-founder of Seed Health . “The more we destigmatize it, the more it opens up discussion and education about why it’s such an important biomarker for our health.”
In the long term, Katz hopes that the database can train artificial intelligence to analyze the difference between healthy and unhealthy stools – because checking your stools (every now and then) could save your life. For example, blood in your stool can be a symptom of bowel cancer, according to the charity Bowel Cancer UK. Checking your stool can help you spot signs of IBS, constipation, ulcerative colitis, and more.
In their quest for poop positivity, Seed Health even created The Most Sh*ttiest NFT, the first NFT made from human feces. Inspired by the emergence of NFTs during the pandemic, Katz saw the opportunity to “talk about feces as something as valuable as art.”
Okay look, we’re not saying you should hang a framed picture of your poo on the wall. But perhaps we can all find solace in the universal nature of poop. Life is an absolute shitshow, so don’t be ashamed to sit back, relax and let things flow.
This piece was originally published on VICE UK.
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