physically clean yet culturally dirty
At the same time the most private, but public space within the home. Situated as a site of purity, inherently linked to ritualistic practices, scientific studies, and societal pressures.
On a material level, most bathrooms in the west conform to more or less the same blueprint, a three piece suite, toilet, sink, and bath/shower. Often in a white porcelain or pvc, with glazed tiles on the wall, stone or laminate flooring, and a small fan located somewhere vaguely out of site. All material choices made as a way to confront dirt, to clean easily, and to eradicate both visual and olfactory traces.
Behind the tiles, as Penner points out, “the interior of our house meets the complex networks of pipes, pumps and treatment plants. Much of this infrastructure, of course, is only semi-visible: much of it is underground or peripheral, relegated to the edgelands of towns and cities”.
The bathroom is a site of modernity, linking us up to infrastructure systems put in place over the past 100 or so years, attempting to add ease to our lives, although moving what was one a social act, into something embarrassing and private. The design of the bathroom has been seen to be much more based around industrial design and the convenience of linking all plumbed spaces as close together as possible, rather than looking at the impact of these spaces on the people that use them. Penner notes that the Economist uses the amount of flushable toilets as a measure of progress in developing countries.
Throughout history, bathing in particular has been a communal, social activity, with bath houses being prominent in roman culture, as well as Finnish, Turkish and Japanese traditions. Across Glasgow we can see the presence of bathhouses, whether they are still used for the intended purposes, or not.
It feels as though the bathroom is an artefact of neoliberalism’s increased importance on individualisation. The idea of something private is analogous to something exclusive, so the private bathroom became originally a status symbol. It also becomes linked in the west to Christian ideas of purity, chasteness, and decency — “as privacy and related concerns about decency began to shape [bathhouses]…; communal privies were downsized and public baths were more rigorously subdivided to ensure the segregation of men from women, and, with partitions and cubicles, men from other men and women from other women.” (2 mins ish)
It is a space of personal care, maybe in an increasingly atheistic West, a continued site of ritual. The bathroom becomes an identity forming and affirming space. We can think of remarks like “I feel like a new person” after washing, or a sense of washing away the day, to return to yourself. It can be both a place of preparation for the day, and of unwinding after, whether it be the quick morning shower to refresh, or the long sprawling bath, to recoup ‘me time’, Alexander Kira in his monograph the bathroom discusses the ways in which the bathroom supersedes just a hygienic space,
“This category comprises those personal and individual activities essentially unrelated to hygiene activities but often engaged in incidentally while one is in the bathroom for other purposes, such as smoking, eating, drinking, reading, watching television, listening to the radio, telephoning, playing, masturbating, and so forth. The distinction between what is a primary and what is a secondary activity is sometimes blurred by motivations. In the case of a mother with several small children who takes her favorite magazine with her to read while taking a bath, it cannot be said with any certainty what is primary. Both may be of equal importance to the individual who, in many such instances, is using bathing simply as a vehicle to satisfy other personal needs.”
When looking at the way in which bathrooms function, our toilet habits can be described as “Flush and forget”, removing ourselves from our waste as quickly as possible. Perhaps these instances of our waste can be, as Kristeva points out, reminders of our own mortality, a lack of bodily inefficiency. She describes the notion of abjection as “the repugnance, the retching that thrusts me to the side and turns me away from defilement, sewage, and muck”, this dirt and filth because synonymous with the purity/impurity discourse, she again states, “excrement and its equivalents (decay, infection, disease, corpse, etc.) stand for the danger to identity that comes from without’”
The bathroom and how we use it and think of it is informed by multiple structures both personal and societal. While it is a personal haven, how we utilise that haven can either be as a means to escape the pressures of the external world, or to attempt to tow the line of what is considered as acceptable social practice. Looking particularly at an Anglo-American engagement with the bathroom (which probably has also become more widespread), the aim is not only to be clean, but to be neutral and sterile, like the space you perform these acts in.
- Robbie Duschinsky, Abjection and self-identity: towards a revised account of purity and impurity, in The Sociological Review, Vol. 61, 709–727 (2013)
- Barbara Penner, ““We shall deal here with humble things”,” Places Journal, November 2012. Accessed 04 Feb 2020. https://doi.org/10.22269/121113
- Harvey Molotch, Bathroom by Barbara Penner (Review), in Technology and Culture, Volume 56, Number 3, July 2015
- Alexander Kira, The Bathroom, Viking Press: New York (1976)
- Julia Kristeva, Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection, Columbia University Press: New York (1982)
- Nick Haslam, Toilet Psychology, in The Psychologist, Vol. 25 no 6 June 2012
- Lloyd Alter, History of the Bathroom, on Treehugger, [https://www.treehugger.com/bathroom-design/history-of-the-bathroom-part-4-the-perils-of-prefabrication.html]
- Wikipedia, Security, Territory, and Population, lecture by Michel Foucault, [https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Security,_Territory,_Population]
- Ellen Lupton and J. Albert Miller, The Bathroom, The Kitchen and the Aesthetics of Waste: