During the winter lockdown, a young woman in her late twenties moved in with a man she'd dated from December. The coronavirus accelerated the development of their relationship enormously: It all began at Christmas time with drinks accompanied by their work colleagues and led to the fact that both were soon inseparable and continuously shared a tiny apartment for weeks. Isn't that exactly what all users of a dating app only dream of? Perhaps in itself, if this woman didn't have the huge (and very uncomfortable) problem of "suddenly not being able to poop".
This tricky situation is certainly familiar to many. I myself once used the toilet in the hotel lobby instead of the shared toilet on my first trip together with my new friend. I also know more than one woman who has never pooped at work or plans to do it.
Pooping is normal and a necessity for our body. The entire large intestine is about 150 cm long and is a tubular organ that winds around the small intestine. The large intestine extracts what we need from the partially digested food - nutrients and electrolytes - and transports the rest - waste materials, i.e. the feces - to the rectum before it leaves the body through the anus.
The intestinal tract is so efficient and so precise that we often go unnoticed until something goes wrong. "Our body could not be designed more optimally," says gastroenterologist and endoscopist Dr. Lisa Das. “The body is an amazing organism,” she says. Instead of being impressed with what we are inside, too many of us feel ashamed of this body function. We women in particular are so embarrassed that we delay pooping for as long as possible.
There is a technical term for this shame: "Parcopresis ", a syndrome also known as "shy bowel". Professor Nick Haslam, author of Psychology In The Bathroom, explains that this problem can arise when there is a lack of privacy. Defecating can be a pain when someone feels that there may be other people nearby. This can be the case at work or when roommates or partners are at home. “People with shy intestines are always afraid of doing their big business if another person happens to overhear or smell something. This fear creates such an inhibition that it makes it impossible to use public toilets. In extreme cases, people stay at home, ”he adds.
According to researchers, it is Parcopresis a psychological problem that falls into the social anxiety disorder category. It is believed that women are more likely to be affected than men. These, however, suffer more often from "Paruresis "what is also called the “shy bubble“ referred to as. But why is this syndrome so widespread among women?
According to Nick, there are two reasons for this: “First, we will Parcopresis mainly triggered by strong fears. Women are more prone to all anxiety disorders for reasons that are still somewhat unclear but likely to have social, psychological, and biological components. So this syndrome is by no means out of line. Second, there is a clear gender-specific double standard in the area of hygiene with which Parcopresis related. Women are socialized by society to be disgusted with excretions and excrement and to care more about the purity of their bodies and the elimination of body odors. "
Ah, of course, there they are again: patriarchal norms. This will hardly come as a surprise to anyone. Most of us certainly don't have to dig too deeply into our memories to unearth an incident in that direction. Sure, there are exceptions. By and large, boys fart one another, while girls are not supposed to admit that they poop or fart. Young men are praised for farting loudly. Young women, on the other hand, learn to hide their bodily functions from the world. I can still remember a moment in school when one of my classmates shouted loudly through the classroom during class: "Imagine you make out with a girl and then she FARTS." My 32-year-old thinks this story funny. My 13-year-old self was completely ashamed of being a stranger. "
As Nick notes, we have been socially socialized to view femininity and body waste as incompatible. “As a result,” he adds, “the idea of having witnesses defecate is on average more distressing for women than it is for men. That's why they suffer more often Parcopresis.“
Boys grow up to be men who spend all the time in the toilet, while the toilet is a real challenge for many girls: they have to hurry up and stuff the toilet bowl with toilet paper to muffle possible noises. They're trying to do their big business as fast as possible to make it look like they were just peeing.
Parcopresis may be a psychological problem, but it has a physical impact that is also costly. This syndrome leads to constipation, unplanned, avoidable emergency room visits, and prescription laxatives and pain relievers.
According to Lisa, we should take this issue seriously. “Going to the toilet is a taboo subject for women because they see the whole thing as disgusting or unclean. More and more people are learning to talk about their body functions, however, because bowel movements play such a big role in our health. "
She adds: “The intestine has a diurnal rhythm. He contracts the most in the morning and after dinner. It is completely normal. If you ignore your signals or try to suppress them, you are seriously messing up the rhythm. In one experiment, medical students were asked to delay going to the toilet for seven days. For some of the participants, it actually took six to eight months for their bowel motility to return to normal. "
There are also medical complications associated with suppressing or delaying bowel movements. Lisa explains, “The more you refuse to go to the bathroom, the more fluid your bowel absorbs from the feces. This then gets harder and harder and harder as a result. Ultimately, going to the toilet becomes such a painful experience that you want to go even less. This creates a vicious circle. ”This can lead to overloads that“ can tear the tissue in the anus, which can also cause hemorrhoids to multiply ”.
Lisa emphasizes, however, that delaying going to the toilet does not cause worrying, permanent problems. For example, it does not increase the risk of colon cancer. However, it should not be taken lightly, as it can lead to dysregulation of the intestine and you can cause serious discomfort to yourself.
Poop creates endless confusion. On the one hand, it represents a necessary body function. On the other hand, it causes disgust. While it is taboo to talk about going to the toilet, historically the subject is often treated with humor in literature (Shakespeare is a good example). We could learn a slice of that. We often make fun of things that we are afraid of and are ashamed of. This is why the comedy world reflects so many social fears.
“Feces are a source of contamination and disease. Fecal-borne diseases still kill large numbers of children around the world, ”notes Nick. “It is therefore a logical reaction to be averse to the topic, to reject it and to make it taboo. Disgust and shame often go hand in hand. For most of us, bowel movements are still ashamed and associated with a certain reluctance. In case of Parcopresis this shame is simply stronger and more inhibiting. ”However, we have to find a solution to overcome these feelings of shame, to regard bowel movements as one of many bodily functions and to normalize them. Perhaps we can even learn to appreciate our chair and recognize it as a sign of a functioning body. Anyone with a condition like Crohn's disease, ulcerative colitis, or irritable bowel syndrome who longs for a regular, healthy trip to the bathroom could tell you a song about it.
Nick explains that “severe cases may require behavioral intervention as part of this Parcopresis how to treat an anxiety disorder ”. During these sessions the patient is interviewed. Distorted beliefs are highlighted and challenged by questions. One possible of these could be how bad it would be for you, for example, if someone happened to hear you poop? Would that person really have a negative impression of you? This intervention also teaches you to dare to go to public toilets more and more often and to use relaxation exercises in order to be less cramped in the toilet.
Too many toilets are anything but privacy. Isn't there then some responsibility for solving this problem in the hands of society? “We can make public facilities feel safe,” says Nick, but adds that “we can also deal with the issue of bowel movements in a more factual manner in order to make it more socially acceptable (e.g. use fewer euphemisms). We can also question and challenge the gender double standards that are responsible for the tabooing and encouraging women to pretend they have no digestive tract. "
For women, life is hard enough without having to be ashamed of their digestive system, so as not to be perceived as unattractive. So there is no getting around it: we have to work to remove taboos. We need public toilets that provide enough privacy. And above all, we have to teach young women that going to the toilet is something completely normal. By suppressing and procrastinating, you risk causing serious health problems for yourself.