Toilet habits are something that few people seem to be willing to share in a public forum. Sort of the bathroom equivalent of ‘what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas’ I guess.
As adults, we may think of such discussions as being juvenile, remembering the ‘potty mouth’ jokes our mothers reprimanded us for telling at the dinner table when we were children.
Those of you who follow this blog are already aware that one of my main aims is to encourage readers to question cultural assumptions in an attempt to examine our own individual and collective behavior.
Of course, the habits we develop as children, based on our individual cultural conditioning, are usually those that we perceive as being ‘normal’ and therefore the habits we take for granted and practice most of our lives.
However, for the sake of personal and perhaps even wider social improvement, doesn’t it make sense to examine how those living in different cultures perform their daily rituals? And, personal hygiene is a notable part of those daily routines.
So, be warned; in this post your notions of what constitutes a clean ‘backside’ may be challenged. Plus, in an effort to accommodate my international readers and not take myself or this post too seriously, I will be using the terms ‘butt’ (North American), ‘bum’ (British), and ‘derrière’ (French), although the term ‘fanny’ is probably my favorite and comes with its own memorable connotations from my childhood, as in ‘I’ll spank your fanny’ if you do that again.
Introduction to different ways
As a long-term American expat, I’ve had the opportunity to experience living the life of an average teacher in many cultures from East Asia to the Middle East and for the past eighteen months in Latin America. Trust me, over the years I’ve squatted over an immense variety of receptacles, from the most basic hole dug into the soil to the fanciest of high-tech toilets in places like Japan. These experiences have caused me to seriously question my cultural upbringing regarding toilet hygiene.
When I was in grad school in Scotland, my eyes were first opened to the ritual cleanliness observed by Muslims. An uncharacteristically out-spoken male classmate from Oman would go into rants about the fact that Westerners merely use a piece of paper to wipe their derrière after defecating. As he bluntly put it, “You call that clean? All you’re doing is smearing it up your ass.”
This was the point when I learned that in the Middle East and other Muslim regions around the world, the locals use a water hose with a nozzle (think your typical kitchen sprayer) that’s attached to the toilet. Following defecation, they spray their bums clean before finally drying them with either a small bit of paper, a rag that’s provided for the purpose, or in the case of many Arabian Gulf men, with a cotton cloth that’s worn as a lower body wrap under their long white robes (dishdashi in Oman).
Wow, I thought, “This makes a lot of sense!” Why do many of us from Western cultures think we maintain superior personal hygiene to those who are poorer and live in the developing world? Yet, we wipe our butts in what others consider to be a primitive way!
While it’s true that the French have their bidets, most people in the Western world seem content to simply attempt to clean themselves with disposable paper.
Growing up in the American South, I often heard people say, ‘cleanliness is next to Godliness,’ but clearly my Omani friend in Edinburgh didn’t think we were behaving in such a way.
Hygiene and bum care
My first experience of having a sprayer beside my own toilet came when I moved to Bangkok to work in early 2005. All three of the apartments where I lived over the course of my time in Thailand came equipped with these gadgets hanging on a hook right beside the toilet. This experience opened my mind to the fact that people in some non-Muslim cultures were also concerned about posterior cleanliness.
Being diagnosed with Crohn’s disease while living in Thailand spurred me to do a great deal of research about keeping my bum properly clean and healthy. In case you’re not aware, Crohn’s disease can cause severe inflammation in any part of the digestive system, but is often characterized by bouts of diarrhea which can send an individual running for the toilet at the least opportune times.
In my research, I came across numerous Crohn’s sufferers who extolled the virtues of proper cleanliness for comfort and in an effort to prevent infection. I also read more generally applicable medical information that linked improperly cleaning one’s bottom to urinary tract infections, especially among females. Living with Crohn’s forced me to develop routines that helped me to maintain the best possible level of good health.
A gadget on every wall
When I moved to Oman in 2008, I received a more complete education on proper toilet hygiene. Being forever curious, I let Google lead the way and I discovered that Muslims are required to be ritually clean before praying, which they’re instructed to do five times per day. The details I read about the cultural importance of ritual cleanliness were later confirmed by close Omani friends.
After understanding the importance of this custom, I finally realized why my Omani friend back in Scotland had been so upset. For a Muslim, not having a sprayer provided beside a toilet is the equivalent of not having any toilet paper available for a Westerner. Muslim children are instructed in the proper way to clean themselves and this becomes a uniquely ingrained habit.
After living the new ‘clean’ way for 10 years, I vowed to never go back to toilet paper alone after leaving Oman. I mean, why would anyone when there is a simple, inexpensive and clearly better way?
Objections and accidents
I remember having conversations about the convenience of the sprayers with close American friends living back in the States. Two things they would inevitably bring up were their disgust at the idea of touching a sprayer that someone else had just had near their butt and the issue of having water splattered on the bathroom floor.
While I didn’t have a convincing argument to ease their fears of touching sprayers that had been used by many others in public toilets, I assured them there was always a drain in the main bathroom floor in all Arabian Gulf houses and apartments for those who weren’t blessed with the neat gene. The excess water that happened to splatter outside the toilet bowl area had a place to drain rather than becoming a hazard while going through the natural evaporation process on the tile floor.
Being a very tidy person (some would say meticulous—think shades of OCD here!)), I developed a technique that rarely placed any water on the floor. However, there were incidents…uhhhh…accidents.
While using a toilet on one of my many trips to shop at the Dubai Mall, the world’s largest and busiest shopping mall, I was trying to be a bit too careful about not touching the nozzle of the sprayer with my bare hand since I knew that hundreds of men had probably touched the sprayer on that day alone.
I had wrapped a piece of toilet paper around the nozzle and was carefully trying to manipulate it in my direction, remembering that high water pressure can cause a hose to be unpredictable and twist or jerk, when my grip slipped and the hose sprayed me in the face. I gasped in horror and then laughed hysterically at my silliness, vowing to never again repeat that mistake.
Western male reactions
While women I’ve talked with are generally very accepting of new ways to be more hygienic, some American men I’ve discussed this with have had a strangely negative response to the act of spraying water on this very private area of their bodies.
Dismissing the practice as soon as it was mentioned, they left no room for discussion, so I don’t have a full understanding of why they would object so strongly to such a practice. For some men, does the act of fully cleaning their hindquarters somehow make them feel less masculine?
Perhaps, as with so much of Americana, some men still identify with that wild frontier spirit back in the days when pioneers headed West and folks would have naturally used bits of anything that could be found along the way for cleaning up.
I’m a big fan of hiking and backpacking trips so I do understand what it’s like to exist for periods of time without our modern conveniences, but when we’re back in what we call ‘civilization’, then why not follow the best practices available?
American consumer habits
I remember all the memorable toilet paper ads while growing up, especially the ads for the brand known as Charmin and its proclamation that is was ‘squeezably soft’. I do recall it indeed being the softest of the major brands, but it also stuck to my butt—not really the most desirable outcome.
What is clear is that anyone who wants to change the toilet hygiene habits of a nation like the USA will certainly encounter lots of resistance and competition from the major corporations who manufacture the myriad brands of toilet paper that line the shelves of every local Walmart.
Yes, I know what a lot of you are thinking at this point. Why is he ranting on about this? After all, we wash our hands after using the toilet, and many of us even use antibacterial soap to boot so why do we really need to use a sprayer on our bottoms as well?
But, does everyone wash their hands after performing such bodily functions? According to my observations in locker rooms and public toilets over the years, I must tell you that some men do not wash up after they finish doing their business.
So, the next time you’re introduced to someone new and required to show respect by shaking their hand, consider this fact.
One thing I know for sure is that I’m not going back to business as usual in the Western sense of toilet hygiene.
I will never again walk down the street producing racing stripes on my tighty-whities!