It was a sunny London day in February 2014. I'd just started my first job in the music industry as a publicist's assistant, and I was halfway through a day of press with a producer-cum-R&B-artist who'd featured on a number-one single and doesn't often wear socks. We'd hired a penthouse suite at a plush hotel where every piece of fruit in the bowl beside the bed was individually plastic-wrapped. There was a TV set on the wall above the bathtub. The terrace offered a view of the City, its glass monoliths glinting in the sunlight. While the A-lister was downstairs wearing a big hat and being interrogated by a queue of journalists, his record label team and I had been herded into the bedroom. There was nowhere to sit except the bed; it felt like a really awkward sleepover that nobody wanted to be having. I helped myself to a can of Red Bull from the immaculately laid snacks table, and another about half an hour later. I should have known better.
Marble bathrooms in £6,000-per-night penthouse suites aren't designed for taking loud, explosive dumps in. They're for sipping champagne in a bath full of bubbles while the wall TV plays a Bond film. They're for floating around in your complimentary fluffy robe, which you slide slowly and alluringly out of for your romantic partner, who is, of course, reclining on the bed, unwrapping an individually plastic-wrapped slice of dragon fruit. I knew that caffeine was a trigger for my irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), but it had been a long day, and what harm could two cans of Red Bull do?
If you want an answer to that question, ask the five record label execs who sat on the bed making small talk while my insides growled, my stomach cramped, and my backside forcibly expelled those two harmless cans of Red Bull in the restroom. There was no way they didn't hear. Only a thin wall separated the cavernous tiled bathroom from the bedroom—there was no door—and the toilet itself was behind a pane of frosted glass in the corner. I doubt it was soundproof.
Irritable bowel syndrome doesn't care how glamorous your surroundings are, or that you might be in the same room as famous people. As my guts went wild in [redacted]'s penthouse suite, I realized that my reality was never going to match the fantasy identity I'd created in my head of a well-groomed sidekick to the stars. Can you imagine Beyoncé's publicist taking a half-hour-long poop?
Truthfully, the job was never right for me.Hanging out with A-listers is really just a lot of being sent back and forth to Starbucks for obscure drinks that don't actually exist and working with some staggeringly unpleasant people. The thing about IBS is that it's completely unpredictable; I can have painful constipation and bloating for two weeks, and then suddenly, without warning, sweating and nausea will descend, signaling that everything has loosened up. Sometimes it's triggered by eating chillies or starchy foods, but sometimes it isn't.Freelance rock journalism, which could be done from the comfort of my own home—even while on the toilet if necessary (and it has been necessary a number of times)—seemed like a better option. Attacks come out of nowhere, but working from home made it easier to manage. Nobody needed to know how gross and unwomanly me and my bowels were.
Can you imagine Beyoncé's publicist taking a half-hour-long poop?
When my IBS leaves me alone for a few weeks, I feel well enough to make an effort. Putting on makeup and nice clothes and leaving the house is a lot easier when you're not scared of the very real possibility of pooping your pants on public transport. This sometimes tricks you into letting your guard down. When I gave up drinking about six months ago, my symptoms noticeably improved—until I reasoned it would be fine to break my teetotal run while I was on a working holiday in LA. I met a musician friend at the Rainbow for its 44th anniversary party and sipped a bottle of Blue Moon as I looked around at the clientele and wondered how many bottles of hairspray they'd gone through in the last four-and-a-half decades.
If you're reading this, clutching your temples in exasperation and wondering how I could have forgotten the Red Bull Penthouse Incident of 2014, I hear you. I got lost on the way to the bathroom and found myself awkwardly loitering beside Ron Jeremy, desperately clenching my buttocks, as I waited for a gap in the crowd. He was cramming pizza into his mouth and talking. I made it to the restroom with my mind replaying the image of Ron Jeremy slowly masticating chunks of chorizo.
A few days later, I went to meet a producer who'd worked on one of my favorite albums. I'd eaten at Wendy's beforehand, and I could feel my stomach reacting to the grease. He wanted to buy me lunch; I apologized and said I'd already eaten. He offered me some salad. I knew forcing more food into my already-unstable stomach was a bad idea, but I'm British, and we don't like to be rude. I ate the salad. The stabbing pains in my abdomen increased. He took me to Starbucks and bought coffee and cakes. I was sweating a little as I forced down a vanilla bean scone. We went back to the studio. My stomach was visibly inflating, and I felt ready to burst. He told me about a band who ate so many burritos while they were recording with him that they gave themselves chronic wind, and he recorded their farts onto a tape. If this guy was chill about burrito farts, I thought to myself, he won't mind if I use his bathroom. He's not one of those bros who insists that girls don't poop. I used the bathroom. I pressed the handle.
It didn't flush.
If there had been a window, I would have had trouble deciding whether to open it and make my escape or to scoop up the errant turds from the toilet bowl and fling them out of it. There was no window, so I desperately pumped the handle, hoping that if God existed, he wouldn't deem flushing a malfunctioning toilet by way of a miracle too small a job. The breasts on the cover of a nearby porn mag glinted at me; another reminder of the glamorous femininity that would elude me as long as I was ruled by my bowels. After what seemed like an eternity, the damn thing flushed, and I emerged. "Yeah, I forgot to tell you—it sticks," laughed the producer, as I insisted that flushing was all I'd been doing.
The world knows that everybody has always, and will always, poop, even if we don't want to admit it. Japanese author Tarō Gomi wrote the aptly named children's book Everyone Poops in 1977; Benjamin Franklin was writing essays about ass gas as far back as 1781 (he wrote to the Royal Academy for Science in Brussels suggesting they researched ways to make farts smell better). The ancient Greek playwright Aristophanes chortled about turds in his comedies in 425 BC. But instead of building on these progressive foundations, we've gone backwards, retreating into a shell of embarrassment when it comes to this quintessential bodily function.
There are coffee table books about how to poop at work; women's websites are full of articles about how to navigate pooping in the vicinity of your boyfriend for the first time; even the good folks here at Broadly aren't immune to feeling timid about their turds. Imagine if it wasn't open-bathroom-door-enthusiast Doug in Sex and the City who was doing the pooping, but Miranda. Would it have still been funny? Would the story of the band's chronic burrito wind have been an anecdote worth telling if the band had been female? Somehow, I doubt it would have happened in the first place. As epiphanies go, I didn't think mine would involve a story of a band farting into a microphone, but it made me realize that nobody who heard that tale would think the men involved were less attractive, less talented, or less worthy of their celebrity status.
I know the situations my IBS has gotten me into are funny. I can still be a glamorous, attractive woman even if I do need to poop a bit more than most people, but I have to own it. I tell the penthouse story on dates. When people ask me how my trip to LA was, it's the studio bathroom mishap they hear first. And they laugh, because I'm laughing.
H. Peter Steeves is a philosophy professor at DePaul University in Chicago who regularly teaches a course looking at the relationship between comedy and philosophy. I emailed him and asked him to talk to me about bathroom humor and gender, and it turns out there's a reason I felt my pooping was at odds with my femininity: The patriarchy wants to police our damn bowel movements.
"There are two options for women, and neither is a person with full subjectivity," Steeves said. "Chivalry (which is a form of torturing women, really) puts women on a pedestal and worships them. No real love is possible there, though our cultural notion of romantic love is based on this pretty messed-up model. It requires that a woman's body be pure, innocent, virginal, and clean. So the Madonna doesn't poop.
"On the other end of the dualism is the whore," Steeves continued. "Although this is a 'dirtier' conception of the body, it is so only in the sense that the body is a thing to please a man. It is always to be passive and available for sex. It cannot have needs of its own. So again: no pooping, because that serves no purpose for a man, and in fact can only really get in the way. On the one hand, pooping ruins the pure virginal vision of women; on the other hand, it stands as testament to the fact that the body has its own needs and is not just there for a man to use as he wills. It's a lose-lose situation, as a woman is always in a patriarchy."
According to Professor Steeves, my shit is spearheading a feminist revolution, though I wouldn't go that far—I just recognize that almost crapping my pants while standing next to Ron Jeremy is funny because it won't happen to most people; for that reason, I think it's a story worth sharing. "'Bathroom laughter' can specifically be empowering since it's a reminder that women cannot be kept under male conceptions of 'the feminine'," Steeves says. "It's hard being a woman in this messed-up culture. Being a woman with IBS who has to work in a man's world, who might even joke about it? The person deserves a medal."