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The Unbearable Weight of Restroom Sense and Sensibilities

When I first went off to boarding school at age 14, shared bathrooms was such an odd, culturally jarring experience. Taking shower in a shared stall was something that ran counter to the idea of Puerto Rican privacy. But I got used to it.  Thus, by college shared co-ed showers and bathrooms were not that much a shock to my Puerto Rican sensibilities. Although, by college one could argue that most of my so-called Puerto Rican sensibilities were long gone (me having been way acculturated at boarding school and ironically enough by having lived abroad). But for the sake of this blog, let’s stick with that original story.

What was interesting about college was that it took the bathroom experience to a whole other level. Along with safe sex parties and the “homo-hop; there was the goal that all restrooms be available to all regardless of gender etc. For the most people, people on campus were cool. But amazingly enough, whenever we went off-campus as a group our restroom habits were shunned. At a local art-house we all just lined up to use the restroom regardless of gender. So we all went into whichever one was available. Well, that sent the townspeople (the same town where Chelsea Clinton got married) into a tizzy.  Apparently we were really transgressing community norms by using the available restroom as opposed to using the gender assigned ones. Hmm, when you have to go don’t you have to go?  So, there are rules about which restroom to go to that are very much culturally ingrained.  What about other restroom duties such as cleaning up after oneself and maintaining decorum? Amazingly, some simple restroom rules that we learn as children seem to get phased out by a certain adulthood age.

How many workplaces have you gone to where there are signs in the restroom that state “please clean up after yourself” or “please flush after using the bathroom”. At this point I can’t even keep track of the number of signs that I have seen directing people on bathroom etiquette.  One college summer I did a research project on campus and I was housed along with several other summer research students in one of the quad dorms. We were all very collegial and earnest about our research projects. However, seems that not everyone had been properly potty trained.  We ended up having to put signs up asking people to wipe the toilet seats. Yup, we did. And, since then I have seen these type of seats in all types of offices, public spaces and restaurants.

Today, I went to the restroom in Grand Central and its actually normally not that bad of a public space.  But they have closed the larger women’s restroom for the last two weeks causing women in need of a restroom to use the smaller one. Thus, long long lines form. And apparently, decorum goes flushed down the drain as well.  I was overwhelmed, not by the long line of rude and spaced out females, but by the sheer number of directives plastered all over the restroom walls. There were about 12 different signs that were each repeated about three to four times. The signs asked women:

  1. to limit their mirror time to three minutes
  2. to wipe their seats after using them
  3. to flush
  4. to not use the handicapped stall unless they were handicapped
  5. to not dry their hair (just their hands) with the dryers
  6. to not block the storage room door
  7. to not brush their teeth
  8. to not throw non-paper items into the toilet
  9. to only use the changing tables for children
  10. to not crowd the mirrors
  11. to not loiter
  12. to follow various rules of conduct

Wow. These signs were not there two weeks ago. It seems that with the increased restroom traffic that there now had to be very clear directives on bathroom use.  What was going on? Are women so distraught at having to wait in a long line that they lose all common sense? Were people really just throwing things (anything) anywhere?  Who feels the need to engage in all these grooming actions at Grand Central station? Brushing one’s teeth-I kind of get-There is a food court right next to the restroom. So, What’s wrong with brushing one’s teeth?  So many rules with only so much time to process them.  What I really don’t get is the need to plaster the walls with all these directives and admonitions. How did we get to this point where what are ostensibly adult women need to be directed on how to use a restroom? Is this a sign of the times; and if so, a sign of what?  Is this a “first-world” problem? I have seen signs in restrooms in countries other than the US. I know, for example,that in the Caribbean many of the restroom signs serve to direct the patrons to palce toilet paper in the waste basket instead of flushing it down the toilet (as the plumbing is oftentimes suspect).


I’m wondering, if these signs are to continue into the future, should I start preparing my son now for the eventual barrage of bathroom signage and start plastering my home bathroom with signs that say “wash your hands”; “don’t throw the roll of toilet paper into the toilet” and “go thank your mommy for all that she has given you?”  However, he is a four-year old and he has a lot of pressure on him to get this potty thing right. Could signs just cause him more anxiety? What about us adults? Perhaps these signs, meant to provide some common sense and sensibilities around restroom use, are actually further exacerbating the pressure to perform correctly?  What an unbearable burden we must shoulder in this modern world. So, I leave you with these words of inspiration: Potty on and Potty Power!

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