Deeper Read: Toby Halligan Asks, ‘Are You Pooing “Wrong”?’

6 March 2019
Squat Toilet

A traditional toilet at Hamarikyu Gardens in Tokyo, Japan.

Photo by Steven L Johnson. Source: WikiMedia Commons.

By Toby Halligan, who delivers the politics wrap on Breakfasters

Does the kind of toilet you use say something about your character or culture?

I was forced to think about this after a friend who’d returned from working in Bangladesh said the following to me: ‘Toby – did you know, you’ve been pooing wrong this whole time?’

She was talking about squat toilets, which are the norm throughout much of China, India, South-East Asia, the Middle East, North Africa, and sections of Europe and Japan.

Long legs, poor coordination and the natural anxiety that comes with doing anything new, especially while naked, meant I’d found them a horror to use wherever I’d encountered them. That horror is widely shared among westerners experiencing squat toilets for the first time (the peak horror award goes, I think, to those who experience their first squat toilets on high-speed trains in China).

But there’s plenty of science that suggests squat toilets are, in fact, better. You’re less likely to get constipation or hemorrhoids from using them because of the shape the body makes (let’s not unpack that too much) when using them. They’re very easy to clean, cheaper to make, consume less water per flush and, due to the lack of direct contact with the seat, some people claim that they are more hygienic.

Sitting is, of course, more comfortable – but that in and of itself could be a problem. The average man apparently spends one hour and 45 minutes on the toilet every week. That’s enough time to read all 560,000 words of Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace, twice, in a year. Given squat toilets take half as long to use, maybe we could use that time to read Tolstoy while not sitting on the toilet?

Or perhaps not – given 42 per cent of those same men report that the main reason they go to the bathroom is it’s the only time they get a moment of peace to themselves.

So, are we all pooing wrong? What drives changes to things as fundamental as what we do with our fundament? Is there even a way to wrongly poop?

Yes. Yes, there is. The fact that the phrase ‘poo jogger’ exists suggests there is, indeed, a wrong way. It almost inevitably seems to involve high-flying business people who can’t even be bothered finding a squat or sitting toilet on their morning jogs.

It’s also worth acknowledging that the circumstances in which we poo has changed drastically. Before the industrial revolution we were all crammed into houses with chamber pots, and privacy was non-existent. Even the ancient Romans, with their sophisticated plumbing, had communal toilets. Those with the resources and power to choose often had an audience. The Palace of Versaille was famous for both its lack of plumbing and, with 10,000 people wandering around, the thus very public nature of the excretions that occurred there. The English Kings even employed a ‘Groom of the Stool’ whose job it was to ‘assist’.

I imagine we’re all pretty happy at the advent of privacy, and you can see why once humans had learned about germs, sanitation, and, well, cholera, we decided it was a good idea to make the activity more solitary.

Though some are less enthusiastic than others. President Lyndon Johnson delighted in holding staff meetings while he did his business and would often insist staff brief him while he sat on the loo.

But it also seems like many of us do poo incorrectly when we’re confronted with a new style of thunderbox. Signs demonstrating how to use sitting toilets made headlines when they were discovered by The Daily Telegraph at Macquarie University.

Of course, the signs that hang in Japanese toilets suggest that westerners are even more confused.

Japanese Toilet Instructions

Faced with anything new most humans are quick to label the ‘other’ as weird. Religion, culture, language, music, film – it doesn’t matter. There’s something deeply ingrained in us that makes us reflexifly presume that our civilisation’s way of doing things is the right one and everyone else is wrong and weird and probably poops in their shoes.

When the Australian Taxation Office installed two squat toilets at one office, Pauline Hanson condemned them in a video (that has over 9,000 shares on Facebook) and she made this point: ‘If they don’t know how to use our toilets… then what the hell is going on? Because I know what’s more confusing, and it’s definitely not using the squat toilet. It’s doing our tax.’

Yes, indeed. To paraphrase Dorothea Mackellar:

I love a sunburnt country,

A land of sweeping plains,

Of sweeping skies so blue,

Where we all sit down to poo.

But just how fragile is your national identity when you have to cling to toilet design? Are we all so afraid of the new? I decided I wasn’t, so I purchased a squatty potty online.

It seemed like the perfect combination, allowing one to experience all the benefits of the squat, with the dignity of the sit-down.

The result?

I hate it. Whatever the benefits of it, it feels like I need to spend a solid three weeks working out my core before I’d feel comfortable using it. Maybe it is more efficient; I certainly want the experience to be over much more quickly than when I’m sitting down.

I feel like in the era of globalisation and the internet and self-help and wellness, we’re constantly being told about new and exciting ways to improve ourselves. Most of it is, of course, just marketing, taking advantage of westerners with too much money who are keen to buy into the latest fad.

But even with something like the squat toilet, where there’s evidence that it actually is better, how much better does something have to be to encourage people to change such a basic habit?

I suspect that if it was the difference between getting cholera or not, I might think about it. It’s not that the sitting toilet is better or worse. While it can be good to push yourself to change and to grow, I feel like there’s enough change happening that adding in the extra worry of falling into, or just onto, the toilet just isn’t worth whatever marginal gains I’d get. Besides, how else am I gonna get through Tolstoy?

Toby Halligan presents the politics wrap on Monday Breakfasters. He’s also contributed to the likes of The Weekly, Hard Quiz, Legally Brown, Mad as Hell and The Project.