The Shirtless Shitters Among Us

If you aren’t one, you probably know one

Illustration: Gabrielle Williams

There are two types of people in this world: those who take their shirt off to shit and those who are now hearing about it for the first time. Last summer, I learned about shitting shirtless through a friend and reflexively I assumed I was being trolled with a Seinfeld reference. In one episode of season six George exits the bathroom at a party shirtless, inadvertently revealing his secret restroom ritual.

But a couple of weeks ago, reminded of my conversation with my friend, I began Googling,“is it normal to poop with your shirt off?”; “pros and cons of shitting without your shirt”; and “shirtless shitting, explained.” The first few pages were filled with discussions on various message boards. Closet shirtless shitters came out of the woodwork in predictable places like Reddit, IGN, and Newgrounds, but also on the forums of BodyBuilding.com and LipStickAlley.com. I reached to some of these Costanza-style shitters to find out more.

In a thread on Reddit titled, “Does anybody else take off their shirt when taking a real intense dump?,” Elchin Safarov, a long-time New York resident, replied, “I always take off my shirt, even in public restrooms. I don’t know why, but I just don’t feel good if i don’t.”

Over private messages, Safarov told me he’s been shitting shirtless for as long as he can remember. “Even when I was young I never particularly enjoyed the feeling of a shirt while I’m on the throne,” Safarov said. In describing the pleasures of shitting shirtless Safarov offered an analogy. “If you’re wearing flip flops or sandals or something and you’re walking in the park on some grass, you’ll probably take them off to enjoy.”

Although Safarov said he watched Seinfeld “pretty religiously” growing up, he couldn’t say if that’s where he got the inspiration. However, Safarov said, “That episode for sure reinforced and legitimized shirtless bathroom action.”

While the scene from Seinfeld may be the best known pop-culture reference to the act of shitting shirtless, it wasn’t the first. In Paul Theroux’s Millroy The Magician, a book published in 1993 about a traveling fair magician that gathers a cult like following for his opinions on food, a character named Dedrick extols the virtues of shitting au naturale.

“The best way is to get naked, no matter what anyone says,” Dedrick tells a gaggle of cackling children. “Always take your shoes off. Yo, even a shirt or a sweater can seriously inhibit your freedom of movement.” For Dedrick, shitting shirtless increases comfort and maximizes full range of motion, both of which Dedrick believes are necessary for a healthy bowel moment.

There aren’t official statistics on the number of people who shit shirtless. The best estimate so far may come from a Buzzfeed survey in 2014. After fielding responses from over 300,000 readers on their poop habits, Buzzfeed reported that nine percent of respondents said they removed their shirt while pooping at home. Even if the true population of shirtless shitters is a fraction of Buzzfeed’s estimate, we could be talking about millions, if not hundreds of millions, of people worldwide, which makes the lack of expert knowledge on the subject all the more noteworthy.

“In 25 years of full-time practice as a board-certified gastroenterologist,” said Dr. David Clarke, a Clinical Assistant Professor of Gastroenterology Emeritus at Oregon Health & Science University. “I never heard anyone mention that removing their shirt facilitated defecation.”

Admittedly, this did not surprise me. No one is talking to their physician about shitting shirtless. Questions about that are reserved for Dr. Google. Dr. Clarke did suggest that shitting shirtless could be linked to our “fight or flight” response. “Part of this response is to tighten the anorectal muscles since defecation is not something you want to be doing when fighting an adversary or running from danger,” said Dr. Clarke. He said it’s possible that for some people the act of removing their shirt reduces their stress levels, which in turn sends a signal to the anorectal muscles that conditions are safe for defecation. “Best I can do with this odd observation,” Dr. Clarke said.

“I have been studying coprolites (human crap) for over 50 years covering the habits of many cultures,” began an email from Vaughn Bryant, a professor of Anthropology at Texas A&M University. “Frankly I have never heard of this, but of course it could be possible.”

Although Professor Bryant couldn’t point to any cultural or historical references to the act of shitting shirtless, he was willing to offer a pair of hypotheses. “The only thing I could think is someone who either is afraid of messing up the tails of his shirt or has some type of cult belief in doing this,” Bryant said.

Elchin Safarov, the shirtless shitter I found via Reddit, rejected only the first of those two hypotheses. “Unless I’m taking a shit in a trench coat I just can’t possibly see a situation where I would shit on my shirt,” Safarov said. But at least one other person I spoke with said they shit shirtless out of fear of soiling their clothes.

Josh, who asked I only use his first name, started shitting shirtless after he had what he refereed to as an “incident” involving a greasy cheeseburger, a couple of Red Bulls, and a gas station bathroom. “It scarred me,” Josh said. “Ever since I haven’t been able to bring myself to dropping a deuce with clothes anywhere near me.”

The most pathological explanation for shitting shirtless I came across was on the website Post Grad Problems. In a blog post titled, “I Go Costanza Style In The Office Shitter, But Why?” Dillon Cheverere ran through a few possibilities:

“What’s the point of this? Am I afraid of getting shit on my shirt? Nah, that’s never happened to me before. Am I afraid my shirt will dip into the toilet water? No. That, too, has never occurred during my vast bathroom experience.”

Instead, Cheverere offered his own theory. Citing a desire to minimize contact with the germs from the strangers who have shit before him, Cheverere wrote, “I think I’ve turned to subconsciously removing the only detachable thing possible, ie. my shirt.” Cheverere believed that by removing his shirt he had reduced the threat of contaminating his clothes. “I’m a Costanza shitter,” Cheverere declared. “Not a proud one, but I’m pretty cool with it.”

In the end, the most plausible theory came from a French anthropologist and forensic pathologist. In 2012, Philippe Charlier and his colleagues published a paper in the British Medical Journal titled, “Toilet hygiene in the classical era,” which examined the techniques the Romans used to tidy up after themselves (one method involved affixing a sponge to the end of a stick). I reached out to Charlier to get his opinion on why someone might shit shirtless.

“Going to the toilet increases the heart rate, but also the temperature because there is an adrenaline discharge,” Charlier wrote to me in an email. “Especially when you push to expel the excrement.”

Charlier’s suggestion lined up perfectly with something Safarov, my Reddit contact, had mentioned to me. “I don’t enjoy being sweaty and bathrooms are tight crapped places that are rarely air conditioned directly,” Safarov explained. “I’m also a person who almost always runs hot so that surely must contribute.”

Let’s agree that there’s more than one reason for shitting shirtless. Still, a few questions remain. First, despite reading testimonies online from both men and women, I wonder if shitting shirtless skews one way or another, or if there’s any reporting bias. Second, is this ritual socially acquired or is it driven by a physical desire, like the need to regulate one’s body temperature? Lastly, and most importantly, where do you put your shirt if there isn’t a hook on the back of the stall door?