It’s funny how reluctant we can be to talk about poop, especially when most of us are probably reading these words while sitting on the pot doing our morning job.
We are happy to talk about our inoffensive bodily functions (“let me tell you about what giving up sugar did to me!” or “I had the weirdest dream the other night…”) but to discuss a home remedy that made our pee smell better? Or share the joy of a fantastic dump? God forbid.
I get it, poop is gross, so why would we want to bring it up in polite conversation? But what about with people you are close to — especially the ones you share a bathroom with — surely, we let our guard down then?
I, for one, grew up in a family where talking about poop was normal. So, this easily translated into being comfortable talking about my poop with my husband. But a dinner table conversation with a few friends on the topic quickly showed that the room was more divided. We had a married couple that refused to acknowledge that the other ever pooped and a new couple that was skirting around the issue by buying scented candles for the bathroom.
So, what explains our skittish relationship with this mundane topic of shit?
If we look at the biological side of things, we’re genetically wired to dislike our poop to avoid accidentally eating it.
We have a disgust response to things that may contain harmful microorganisms, like feces, decayed meat, and vomit, to prevent us from ingesting them. This behavior is true for other animals as well: cows, sheep, horses, reindeer all avoid grazing where they’ve pooped.
So, our disgust when we encounter our (or someone else’s!) poop is natural. But what explains our social inhibitions around talking about poop?
As always, we may have the Victorians to thank for this.* When the flush toilet was invented, it first caught on with the Victorian elite, creating an unfortunate classist “poop divide” and a subsequent set of sticky gender norms around poop.
The elite began to differentiate themselves from the poor based on hygiene, creating a stigma around poop and the notion that only the poor defecated. Moreover, Victorian obsession with women’s modesty and purity led to the belief that women don’t poop. It sounds crazy! But, then again, it’s still something some women let men believe today, so it seems to have stuck.
I swear I wasn’t looking to make this about gender equality but turns out poop today is still a gendered issue.
A New York Times article on the topic calls it the “pootriarchy” and links the higher rates of irritable bowel syndrome and inflammatory bowel disease we see among women to the disproportionate “poop shame” they face.
We see this in indicators throughout a woman’s life: she tends to be toilet trained sooner than her male counterparts, she learns to pass gas silently (unlike her male peers that are more prone to a loud fart and subsequent loud laughter), and is more likely to develop “parcopresis,” i.e., an anxiety of defecating when other people are perceived to be around.
Is it any surprise then that we’re especially reluctant to discuss poop in a new relationship?
According to a Healthline survey, both men and women are more comfortable pooping at a friend’s home than their significant other’s home and only a third of men and women would feel comfortable pooping at their partner’s house at the beginning of a relationship. About a third of them think you should wait 1–3 months before doing so.
So, it seems like while our general disgust with poop is natural, we’ve been socially conditioned to see it as unattractive and thus, something we keep quiet, especially around people we’d like to impress.
My research on poop also revealed a few hidden gems that I can’t help but share.
During my dinner table conversation with friends, one of the gay men at the table shared that poop and sex are more intertwined for the gay community than you’d think — your partner taking a dump may signal that they want to have sex with you!
And then there’s some conjecture around elite cyclists having a certain microbiome living in
their intestines that enables their high performance — leading to one cyclist trying to “poop dope” by getting a fecal transplant.
And lastly, there’s an ancient art of fortune telling called “scatomancy” wherein a scatomancer supposedly sees into your future by examining the size, shape and consistency of your poop.
That was possibly way more than you wanted to learn about the human relationship with poop but if you found yourself recoiling as you read parts of it, it may be worth taking a moment to think about why.
What social biases against poop might you be holding onto that make you feel ashamed or disgusted to talk about this universal process?
*Honestly, I need to do a whole other piece on the number of social norms that trace back to this era and seem to have happily been exported through British world dominance at the time.