What we don’t say in public bathrooms

Do you enjoy being in a public bathroom? This is what we asked students at the University of Toronto as part of the ‘Bathroom Research Project’ – an initiative piloted this spring with support from Recrear and the Pollination Project

Public bathrooms are not exactly places that get associated with inspired thoughts. Often we are just passing through them, quick pit stops between classes. As student leaders of gender and diversity associations on campus, we had an intuition that bathrooms influence how we think and feel about our genders, emotions, and bodies.

For us, the Bathroom Research Project was a way to spark conversations on our university campus about the intersection of public space and gender that happens everyday. We wanted to ask students to take a little time out of their bathroom routine to reflect and ask themselves: In what ways do public bathrooms limit or expand the way you behave and feel about yourself? To start off the conversation we held a workshop where students could share their bathroom stories and experiences, and set-up a “comment box” at the campus Women and Trans Centre. We put forth some general themes (genders, bodies, bathrooms), but they set the discussion questions.

The stories that came out were incredibly evocative. We heard about how sharing communal mirrors in public bathrooms shapes how they think and feel about their appearance and even changes their behavior. Some women glanced quickly away, trying to give others privacy, while others would compare themselves to others lined up in front of the mirror. Many women talked about how their bathroom rituals included efforts to pee and poop silently. Almost everyone related to these silent, ‘shameful’ sessions. One group at the workshop delved into great detail about the funny and sometimes painful experiences of their first period.

Through the comment box, folks who were trans shared how bathrooms can provoke anxiety and unease. Others took the prompts and discussions in other directions – reflecting on their private bathroom routines at home, and how bathrooms can be a place of refuge and confidence-boosting. By the end of the workshop we generated simple and provocative questions that would help guide our research. These questions surveyed the unspoken gendered rituals in public bathrooms. They were also geared to explore how different identities experience bathrooms and what are the narratives around sense of self that emerge in these spaces. As we went on to design our bathroom intervention, we knew we wanted to start this conversation. One that would be participatory and student-owned.

We settled on displaying body cut outs with an accompanying question in bathrooms across campus. The questions ranged from ‘what makes you powerful’, to ‘what do you wish someone could tell you right now’, to ‘what are your bathroom routines?’. Over the four days, the body cutouts would record a temporally broken up conversation, as students engaged with one another’s responses. We had no clue what answers we would receive by the end of the week. This was a bit nerve-wracking to us…

Then, almost magically, stories, drawings, poems, song lyrics, and statements started popping up. The creativity that started flourishing in response to the prompts on the cut-outs was amazing. The beauty of it was how the information that was gathered on the body cutouts was anonymous yet also visible to anyone who was using the space. In the most popular bathrooms, these life-sized body cutouts became hubs where people giggled over lewd graffiti, or expressed agreement over insightful comments.

Bathroom 1

Fig 1 Caption: Students, representing a diverse range of communities, volunteer to be outlined for the body cut-out silhouettes

So what did emerge from the bathroom intervention?

Seeing our university community documented on these cut-outs was eye-opening. Some things that we noticed at the end of the week were the different ways students used the body cut-outs as a platform for conversation, the encouragement of self-love, expressions of activism, and the gendered divisions in responses.

  1. Carving a space for conversation

There were a few cases of dialogue taking place on the cut-outs. Some students used arrows and other colors to emphasize or agree (circling statements that resonate, and writing “SAME!” underneath a comment), or disagreement (crossing out statements, writing insults).

Bathroom 2

Fig 2 Caption: Agreeing and dissenting responses to the question “What are your bathroom routines?”

Bathroom 3

Fig 3 Caption: Students disagree about Black Lives Matter and gendered wage politics on one body cut-out

People also introduced pop culture to the body cut-outs. Students drew upon poems and song lyrics (see if you can spot the Kanye lyric in Figure 2!). We even witnessed the use of memes (both drawings and phrases), especially in men’s bathrooms.

 

  1. Expressions of self-love

There were many words of encouragement on how we need to embrace ourselves, or even more self-loving versions of ourselves, inside and outside the bathroom. In women’s bathrooms, we found cut-outs packed with supportive messages.

bathroom 4

Fig 4: A body cut-out in a women’s bathroom that was filled with messages encouraging each other to be more self-loving

 

Our challenges and lessons to keep pushing forward

As much as the experience opened a door into taboo conversations, it also spotlighted what makes it so hard to talk about gender, sense-of-self and safe spaces in the first place. At the end of March, we had the opportunity to reflect about what came out of this intervention with a larger group of students. The more we think through it with others, the more we see the opportunity to improve interventions like this and even scale them up. So here are some observations about our own challenges and how we can turn them into lessons:

  • Gendered responses

Responses in men’s and women’s bathrooms, in terms of quantity and type, were very different. Many of the men’s body cut-outs were left almost blank, while women’s body cut-outs were filled. Men tended to not address the question prompts, often preferring to make jokes or comments deriding the question or project itself. Almost every single men’s body cut-out was also marked with different drawings of penises in creative ways. There were also stereotypically masculine responses. For example, on one body cut-out that asked what made men feel powerful, responses included “gainz” (referring to weightlifting), personal development, algorithms, or memes. All of this suggests that men might not want to participate in public conversations on topics around bodies and genders.

But, there’s undoubtedly a need to find ways to engage more cis-gendered men in these conversations. The interesting question is how. How to make the conversations more accessible? How to invoke their participation in a way that is more genuine and honest? This reflects not only as a lack of male participation but also their absence in the planning. With male input, how would the approach to the bathroom research in male bathrooms differ?

 

bathroom 5

Fig 5: Responses in men’s bathroom to the question “What makes your body powerful?”

This kind of project also challenges us to go beyond the gender binary and explore a universe of relationships to gender, public spaces and bodies. In both male and female bathrooms, bodies were often marked to appear gendered; adding bikinis or painted fingernails to women’s bodies, and penises and abs to cut-outs of male bodies. How do we interact with these stereotypes in a healthy way that doesn’t exclude others?

 

  • One size does not fit all

One of our major concerns when designing the body cutouts was how we wanted the bodies to look like. We wanted to debunk homogenous ‘ideal body’ images and make sure we celebrated all bodies of different shapes and sizes. We also wanted to ensure that students who saw the cutouts could identify themselves or their communities in the cutouts. Writing on a body silhouette that feels and looks more like “you” changes the experience.

This question of diversity and inclusion was more layered than we originally expected. What does it mean to draw a “racialized” Muslim body, or a silhouette of a lesbian or trans body? Does attempting to signal gender, religion, race, or sexual orientation in a single silhouette limit how we perceive the boundaries of different communities? How can an individual’s silhouette represent an incredibly varied group of people?

In the end, we decided that by asking students that represent different groups to model for the silhouettes, we could incorporate a diversity of sizes, shapes, races, gender identities, religions, ethnicities, and sexual orientations without reinforcing stereotypical ideas of what those bodies can look like. Students volunteered to lie down on the long roll of paper while we traced around them. The resulting cut-outs were representative of the student body, even if this was not immediately obvious.

 

  • Widening the conversation

Doing the pilot of bathroom research at the University of Toronto was powerful. The graffitied body cut outs generated an excited buzz that caught everyone’s attention. Even if for just a moment, students had a space to share and exchange difficult bathroom experiences. But it also permitted them to feel a sense of solidarity when those narratives aligned. For those of organizing the project, it sparked a reflection on what it means to create a more inclusive campus environment.

But it’s a conversation the wider public needs to have. What would it mean to take this project out the public bathrooms of cafés, libraries, restaurants of Toronto?

As we gear up for a follow up workshop, we’re inviting gender and sexuality groups, gender practitioners and others to attend an exploratory workshop in August. It will be an opportunity to experientially explore some of the key themes surrounding safe spaces and bathrooms. Interested in participating in the August workshop (TBD), write to (kcwilliams@recrear.info).

For more info check out the Bathroom Research tumblr page.

– Jessica Chan and Minushi Gomes
Former student leaders at the Equity and Diversity Office and Women and Trans Centre at the University of Toronto Scarborough

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