The Way We Talk About Poop Matters More Than You Think

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Without language that normalizes discussion of poop, people with digestive and bowel disorders suffer.

There are few things I love more than a good fart or poop joke. In this way, I’m not alone; many people consider poop inordinately funny (see: every Judd Apatow movie ever), and it’s not hard to discern why — it’s uncomfortable to talk about, gross and taboo.

But outside of joking, we don’t really have the language to comfortably talk about (sh)it. And this is a problem.

Without language that makes talking about poop normalized, people with digestive and bowel disorders can’t discuss their symptoms — their lives — in a way that elicits understanding.

We don’t really have the language to comfortably talk about (sh)it.

In a piece for New York Magazine, Mary Roach, author of Stiff, Gulp, Bonk, and several other books that bravely discuss every aspect of human bodily functions, discussed the difficulty of approaching soldiers for her piece on the prevalence of diarrhea in wartime situations. She says, “I convinced the droll and adorable Camp Lemonnier public affairs officer, Lieutenant Seamus Nelson, to put a request in the daily email feed that goes out to everyone on base. (‘…Mary is looking for individuals who would be willing to share a story about how a case of diarrhea has impacted them while engaged in operations…’) Because really, how do you step into that conversation?”

I don’t know how to step into that conversation. But I know we need to start doing it. And we need to start by addressing the problematic ways we talk about shit.

Ladies Don’t Sweat, They Glow

It’s not just that we’re uncomfortable talking about poop; we’re specifically uncomfortable talking about ladies pooping.

In 2011, social media was abuzz with news of Bridesmaids, the bonafide Feminist Hollywood Blockbuster. LAYDEEZ were going to be in a movie! In some respects, the buzz was warranted. Bridesmaids had a delightful cast of hilarious women. But for all the hype, I was left feeling a little disappointed. The movie wasn’t really the subversive comedy I had been led to expect. In fact, there was only one scene in the entire film where I thought, this is awesome. I’m so happy they’re showing this. It was, perhaps unsurprisingly, the one scene that most critics reviled.

We’re specifically uncomfortable talking about ladies pooping.

The scene involves poop. Vomit too, but it’s the fuselage of dookie that I was so happy to see portrayed by women. The bride and bridesmaids have just eaten a lunch that produces in them…well, a poop volcano. And it’s really funny.

If scatelogical humor isn’t your bag, that’s fine. But that’s not the problem that Peter Travers of Rolling Stone and numerous other critics had with the scene. Travers wrote:

“Frankly, the only time Bridesmaids loses its footing is when it acts like The Hangover in drag. Guys and gross make a better fit. Who needs to see bridesmaids puking up lunch and shitting their pants?”

Well, I do. I need to see bridesmaids shitting their pretty bridesmaids dresses, because there’s nothing gendered about pooping. But even most of the feminist female critics whose reviews of the movie I otherwise agree with nodded to the scene’s supposed maleness.

Michelle Dean wrote, “We’re expected to laugh instead at the spectacle of Maya Rudolph shitting in the street, a scene that was apparently the brainchild of Apatow himself.” If that was the sum total of the commentary on that scene, we could chalk it up to the author not finding scatalogical humor funny — a perfectly acceptable conclusion. But Dean then goes further: “The problem with that intervention isn’t just that it was made by a guy who, prior to this film, seemed afraid to admit that women might shit at all. (Such are the scraps you learn to accept from the big boys’ table, I suppose.)”

The assessment she goes on to make is a valid one — the scene isn’t crucial to the storyline and is one element in a thread of frayed and questionable plot choices. But it’s the way she dismisses the scene that strikes me as particularly revealing. She brushes right up against the problem itself — that Judd Apatow and others of his ilk might be “afraid to admit that women might shit at all” — and then proceeds to dismiss the importance of that very visible change in attitude. (A notable exception to the bevvy of grossed-out reviews is this Salon review from Mary Elizabeth Williams.)

There’s nothing gendered about pooping.

Anti-poop sentiment isn’t just a thing in Hollywood. The message that talking about shitting is an exclusively male endeavor is reinforced in myriad ways. Take the otherwise excellent and brilliantly titled book The Origin of Feces. In it, author David Waltner-Toews recounts the very real challenge of finding a socially acceptable term for which to talk about poop. Yet his otherwise important point is marred by the gendered way he explains this problem: “Little boys can joke about cowpies, cow pats, road apples, or turds, but what happens when they grow up?” he writes.

And what of little girls? Can they talk about poop ever?

Why Shit Matters

There’s a very legitimate reason we should counter these damaging stigmas, and learn to talk about poop more freely. Millions of people all over the country are suffering from Crohn’s, Colitis, and other bowel abnormalities. Many of us are women. And if there’s anything we digestively challenged know, it’s that bowel abnormalities mean pooping abnormalities.

If we can’t talk about poop, we can’t reduce the stigma and shame that many with bowel disorders feel. While it’s challenging for anyone to deal with the day to day pains and surprises that come with Funky Colon, there’s even more stigma and shame for women with these disorders. If women aren’t even supposed to joke about normal pooping, how are we supposed to talk seriously about abnormal pooping?

If we can’t talk about poop, we can’t reduce the stigma and shame that many with bowel disorders feel.

I’ve been writing a young adult novel for the past two years, and when someone asks me what it’s about, I always tell them: It’s about pooping. I’m only sort of kidding. The protagonist of the novel is a teenage girl who struggles with acting and feeling normal after having part of her colon removed. As I finish off the last edits before I send it to agents, I find myself wondering: Did I just waste two years of my life? What are the odds that anyone is going to touch a book that talks candidly about poop?

The Heroines Who Are Changing the Narrative

Happily, our discourse around poop seems to be evolving, thanks in no small part to those working to demystify and destigmatize the workings of their bowels.

When Ally Bain was 14 years old, she went shopping with her mother at a Chicago retail store. Ally had been diagnosed with Crohn’s Disease a few years earlier and, as anyone with Crohn’s can attest, sometimes needing to go to the bathroom means needing to go to the bathroom now. Unfortunately for Ally, due to a combination of “employee only bathrooms,” a general ignorance about bowel disorders, and (I’m assuming here) employees being real assholes, no one would let her use the bathroom. So, through no fault of her own, she was forced to have a very public, very humiliating accident.

Because Ally is a goddamn hero and had more strength as a 14-year-old than I do as a fully grown adult, she decided to take action. She began the campaign for Ally’s Law — a law that makes it illegal for an employee of an establishment to deny bathroom use to someone with a bowel disease. The law has been passed in 16 states. Ally’s crusade demands that individuals show basic human decency and compassion toward others (because sadly, that’s often something that needs to be legislated in order to happen).

But her efforts also highlight some of the sociological problems underpinning how we talk about poop. Imagine you are a 14-year-old girl and you have to use the bathroom immediately. How do you convey to an employee who knows nothing about digestive disorders what you are going through? What language do you use? And, knowing how people sometimes look at women who dare to have bodily functions, how does her gender affect her having to approach that employee?

Ally isn’t the only brave pioneer in the fight for better poop talk. Aimee Rouski, a 19-year-old, also with Crohn’s, took the internet by storm when she posted pictures of herself on the internet. These selfies, however, were not your standard Facebook fare. These were pictures of Aimee and her colostomy bag. Her Crohn’s disease necessitated the removal of her large intestine, colon, rectum, and anus. In her post, which went viral, she says, “I’ve wanted to do this for a while because I always see body posi[tive] posts for weight, but not many for disabilities/invisible illnesses.”

It is difficult to explain the reaction that I had to seeing Aimee’s pictures, reading Ally’s story, or even seeing Abby and Ilana talk about poop on Broad City (one of the few shows that allows women to shit).

Here is the truth: I am moved by bowel movements. Those of us who have had colon surgeries and/or bowel disorders do not think of poop as something “icky” that all people do but should never be talked about, unless in a joking manner. We know that sometimes, or maybe all the time, our health depends on being able to talk about what’s happening with our bodies, and that life and death bowel obstructions leave no room for the squeamish.

Here is the truth: I am moved by bowel movements.

Our society is becoming increasingly understanding about folks having disabilities and physical challenges. It has always seemed obvious and unfortunate to me that bowel disorders would be among the last of these to be comfortably discussed (and therefore understood) by the general public.

Thanks to brave young women like Ally and Aimee, however, I might well be proven wrong.