Considering the way 2020 has been going, perhaps it was inevitable that we'd end up here at some point: sitting at home, having watched all of Netflix, chatting about poop.
Unless you have a young child, your conversations about poop thus far are probably one of two types. First, there's the kind where you and your best friends drink too much wine and veer into horror story territory, from the time someone couldn't flush the loo at a date's house to the time a friend-of-a-friend-of-a-friend had a horrifying accident on a partner's bed after a vigorous sexual adventure. Then there's the kind of conversation about poop that you have when you absolutely have to — admitting to your boss that you need to go home because you've got an 'upset stomach', or confessing to your doctor that you've been unable to 'go' for longer than seems healthy.
Women are tied up in knots about poo, something that becomes clear with the torrent of lived experiences, internet facts and complicated feelings that come pouring out of our mouths when we feel like we've finally found a safe space to open up (sure, alcohol may be involved, but sometimes just the presence of your nearest and dearest is enough). But our relationship with bowel movements is so wrapped up in shame and embarrassment that many of us are unable to speak frankly about it when we actually need to.
A few years back, a study from Washington University and Loyola University Chicago found that women are most likely underreporting bowel issues. Of the 463 women seeking urogynaecologic care that they studied, just 3% reported bowel issues as their primary concern. However, when pressed, 76% admitted to at least one symptom. This is important. Inflammatory bowel diseases like Crohn's and colitis are on the rise and although the differences in gender diagnoses aren't significant, they do appear to affect women on a slightly higher scale. And these medical conditions are before we get to the under-discussed topic of faecal incontinence, an issue that is exactly as awful as it sounds and which is suffered by a reported 10% (more than asthma and diabetes) of women after childbirth. Doctors suspect that, due to the shame of talking about it, the real number might be as high as 25%.
That's not to say that people who've been brought up as male are shame-free when it comes to poop. Most men would of course be mortified to suffer a public bowel-related misadventure but the gendered conditioning of our childhoods has led to very different attitudes when it comes to talking about it as adults. I recall being fascinated by the boys at uni who kept a public blog documenting their poops – with pictures – which they readily shared, while I was running home between lectures to relieve my IBS — shower and bathroom tap firmly on to prevent any of my (all female) housemates from knowing that I'd been. I remember suffering severe stomach pains from being too scared to go to the bathroom at school. I remember popping Imodium at my first job in a bid to avoid the toilets while older male bosses sauntered to the loos, The Sun newspaper in hand, emerging smugly 45 minutes later for the whole open-plan office to see. My best friend once ran down the street to the bins at Sainsbury's in a T-shirt and no knickers, her unflushable poo in a plastic bag, desperate to stop her new boyfriend, who regularly texted pals pictures of his own poos, from finding out that she'd done one herself.
A study of children aged 7-17 with IBS found that the more 'matured' the girls were, the less pain and discomfort they were likely to report. The opposite was true when it came to the boys, although their symptoms remained the same. While one study proves little, it makes sense that older girls, those becoming more aware of their burgeoning sexuality, would minimise their symptoms. Women perform an exhausting multitude of roles but at the most base and traditional level they are expected to be both 'mother' and 'sexual being'. How incredibly unfair is it that these two roles, almost diametrically opposite in cultural ideology, are inextricably linked by the same area of the body? Even more unfair, then, that this area of the body also produces poo, something that hampers the clean and soft ideal of a 'mother' (unless you and your partner are into poo play/coprophilia) and pretty much destroys the sexy lady seductress role required of a 'sexual being'. Anatomy is a sick joke.
All of this is a very long way to say that this week at Refinery29 we're exploring the relationship between women and poop in our new series, Bathroom Break. We want to get people talking in a bid to normalise something that in Western culture (despite our childish obsession with toilet humour) is still a big taboo subject.
We'll be looking at all areas, from how the wellness industry is cashing in on the links between gut health and mental health (£355 stool test to be told you're depressed, anyone?) to how gendered socialisation has led to higher rates of parcopresis – that's pooping anxiety – in women. We'll spend a day with a woman who has an ileostomy bag to find out how she cleans it, how she changes it and what effect it has on things like eating and exercising (bonus: she's got a really cute dog). We'll talk to a young woman who, at 28, has been living with faecal incontinence for 10 years and find out what she's learned about owning the shame that comes along with it.
We'll be discussing poop and relationships: when does sharing become oversharing? And will it impact your sex life? Plus, is there such a thing as the perfect poo? From the optimum time, position and environment to go in, one woman goes on a quest to find poo nirvana. We also take a look at what the deal is with all the truly terrible smells your body starts emitting when you go vegan.
We'll even be looking at the lies Big Toilet Paper is peddling. Just how much planet-saving is 'recycled' toilet paper actually doing? And with just 30% of the world using toilet paper, we bravely ask, do we really even need it at all?
So there you have it, a content series that only 2020 could produce. Hopefully it provides some distraction from everything that's going on, hopefully you learn some things. But most of all, we hope it gives you the confidence to speak up if you're suffering in silence. After all, we all poop, we're just bad at talking about it.