That Sweet Spray
Once stigmatized for its relationship to our intimate parts, the bidet has reconquered hearts and backsides, flying off the shelves almost as quickly as toilet paper in March 2020. Once we rid ourselves of the taboos, it proves a true ally of the environment and our bodies.
Have you ever used a bidet? If you were born in North America, there’s a strong chance you haven’t. At most, you may have come across one while travelling. The uninitiated will find them either intimidating or intriguing, and always exotic. And yet, given how common they are on nearly every continent, our culture’s ignorance of these objects is the real story.
To the great surprise of manufacturers, the COVID-19 pandemic created the perfect context for bidets to fly off the shelves; one company reported sales increasing tenfold during the first months of the crisis. “Bidet” was even among the top 20 search terms on Amazon for March 2020. This sudden popularity is attributable to the scarcity of toilet paper in stores at the time, pushing some to search for other solutions. The health crisis likely also prompted some to optimize their hygienic practices. While a 2013 study found that after going to the bathroom, only five per cent of people wash their hands long enough to kill infectious germs, we can likely assume that this percentage has risen over the last few years. But finding a way to avoid these germs might be simpler than we realize.
Under the umbrella term “bidet” lies a panoply of toilet accessories — from “bidet showers” found beside the toilet to the high-tech seats popularized in Japan. What they all have in common is that they help to clean the most intimate areas of our bodies with water.
Beyond the technological novelty, what the bidet proposes is a new way of interacting with our bodies.
The tickle of the spray cleans an area we rarely even think about, let alone discuss. Is it possible that bidets might help us become more comfortable in our skin?
Going green in the washroom
Later, when they knew, they tried
it tentatively; the dwarf-like
jet of water sprang ceilingward
and surprised their secret regions.
— Amit Chaudhuri
When we had a bidet installed, my roommate Alain’s first impulse was to turn it on to see how it worked. I heard yelps of surprise from the bathroom — and rushed in to find a splotch of water on the opposite wall. My roommate, still laughing, offered to demonstrate for me. We quickly learned that a bidet only works when you’re sitting on it.
Our bidet is one of the modern kind that you can buy for about a hundred dollars, and is installed between the toilet bowl and the seat. It arrived by mail the same day we ordered it, in March 2020 when people were frantically buying up rolls of toilet paper from Costco. We chose the warm-water model, a luxury that seems rather useless to me now that I’ve had some experience.
Statistics on the environmental impact of toilet paper were what convinced me to try it. Over a lifetime, humans wipe themselves with the equivalent of three trees, which corresponds to an average of two rolls per week per person in Canada (Americans use closer to three rolls per week). Four billion rolls make their way, annually, into Canadian sewers.
For the moment, there are only a few studies that compare the life cycle of a bidet to that of toilet paper.
The results are unequivocal: bidets are less harmful for the environment and allow us to replace a disposable product with a reusable one.
We might be tempted to defend our familiar soft little squares, noting that they are generally produced from surplus material from the logging industry, offcuts from the transformation of round tree trunks into rectangular planks. Also, we might add that recycled paper has 30 to 60 per cent less of an environmental impact. But the alternative speaks for itself: the best waste is that which is never created.
And it’s not just the raw material that counts toward toilet paper’s environmental footprint. We must also account for the quantity of chlorine used to bleach the paper (why does it have to be white, again?), as well as the electricity used in the whole manufacturing process, the gas guzzled by the transport truck from the factory to my local supermarket, the plastic wrapping that holds the rolls together in a pack… the list goes on.
As for the bidet, once it’s been built and shipped to us, its track record is much more positive. Even though it depends entirely on water for its task, it allows us to save our blue gold. The production of a roll of T.P. requires 170 litres, while each spray on my behind uses a half litre at most, according to a manufacturer quoted in Scientific American. The only strikes against the bidet are the luxury electrical components that are sometimes added: a heater for the seat or a fan to dry our fannies.
The bidet is not the only thing that’s enjoyed a recent surge in popularity: sales for “flushable” wipes exploded at the same time. These wipes weigh heavily on our cities’ water systems and exact an environmental toll. Experts are speaking out against the misleading or deceptive marketing used to promote these products. Combined with cooking fats, they create what are called “fatbergs,” which clog sewers, sometimes causing overflows and requiring complex operations to remove them. With the rising popularity of wipes, “fatbergs” are multiplying across the world and causing the release of contaminants into bodies of water. “People think once they’ve flushed the toilet, it’s not their problem anymore — but it becomes a major environmental problem,” explains the operations manager at a British water treatment plant in a 2019 interview with the Guardian.
A culture of shame
Something I quickly learned was that I use my bidet less to clean my bottom and more — to borrow the term used in the description of certain models — the “front.” This makes sense: we urinate far more often than we defecate. And in fact, the device was originally designed for this part of the body. This, taken alongside prevailing sexist attitudes about genitals, helps to explain why the bidet has been a shameful object for so long.
The term “bidet” originally meant a small horse, but sometime in the 16th century, the word became associated with our genitals.
Although it’s difficult to give a precise date for the first appearance of a bidet in France, we know that it was primarily used by women. “It relates to secret matters, protected from indiscreet curiosity, and to the most hidden parts of the body, to the most carnal, most organic aspects of private life,” according to Le Confident des Dames, a book dedicated to the history of this unloved object.
The bidet was historically popular among sex workers, owing to a prevailing belief that its use could prevent sexually transmitted illness and pregnancy. “For a long time, the bidet was associated with promiscuity and the degenerate lives of women of ill repute,” write Fanny Beaupré and Roger-Henri Guerrand. Bidets were often found in the pornography of the time.
In spite of prejudices, the European bidet spread from France to Italy, Greece, and Spain, and then more widely across the world beginning in the early 19th century, as technology allowed more houses to be hooked up to water systems.
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It was in European brothels during the Second World War that American soldiers discovered the bidet. Four hundred years after its invention, its association with sex, as well as a lingering discomfort around our relationship to our bodies, are the major factors delaying the bidet’s arrival in North America. And we continue to pay the price, as we wipe our private parts with trees from the boreal forest. What a powerful hold Puritanism has on us.
This collective cultural block is all the more distressing because the bidet is particularly nice when menstruating. There’s nothing better than a cool stream to help with ablutions at this particularly messy time of month. Women of “ill repute” probably knew this long before everyone else; I imagine them mocking the taboos that prevent the rest of us from taking advantage of it.
One place where bodily waste never received such a terrible reputation, even in the 16th century, is Japan.
It was customary there to preserve one’s excrement and sell it to a farmer who would use it to fertilize the soil. Differing social norms dictated the choice of where to put it: “Some could be generous. They would take a dump at their in-laws’ house while visiting for dinner. Others could be tacky and miserly, and keep it all to themselves,” writes Lina Zeldovich in her book The Other Dark Matter. The practice even led to what the author calls “poop wars.” In 1724 two neighbouring villages fought over the right to gather excrement from a certain area of the city of Osaka. It was as valuable and sought-after as gold.
It may be because of this historical comfort with bodily waste that the bidet was so easily adopted in the Land of the Rising Sun. It’s from here that a large number of related innovations come today — heated seats, drying fans, and even music to camouflage sounds. But the idea of integrating a water jet into the seat actually came from an American company — the American Bidet Company — whose founder hoped to help his father, who suffered from hemorrhoids. The American public proved unreceptive to his arguments, but the invention found a buyer on the other side of the Pacific. Today, you can find Toto brand bidets, models inspired by the American invention, in nearly 80 per cent of Japanese homes.
For the love of shit
The Japanese of the 16th century had figured out something essential: excrement can be very useful. Today, a South Korean university pays those who defecate there in cryptocurrency: excrement is transformed into biogas, which is used to heat the buildings. It can also be used as fertilizer, and it gives us indications as to our state of health. A change in texture, colour, or shape can be the first sign of a disease that should be reported to a doctor as quickly as possible. Not paying attention to our poop can have grave consequences for our health.
We still have a long way to go before we reach the same level of comfort in relation to elimination as Japan or South Korea. In 2021 an article in Urbania examined the issue of “poop shaming”: the social anxiety that goes along with defecating in public bathrooms. This affects women in particular — “76 per cent of women are ashamed to poop [in public].” It would be a mistake to assume that this is because women are simply more modest than men; another study has shown that a woman will be negatively judged if she excuses herself to go to the bathroom, which is not the case for men. It’s no surprise, then, that women prefer to hide their excursions to the loo.
Our disdain for this most natural of activities also leads us to neglect significant societal problems. In particular, access to bathroom facilities remains a luxury reserved for the most privileged.
Across the world, 673 million people defecate in the open air, according to the UN. They list access to toilets as one of the goals of sustainable development.
In September 2021, an editorial in the magazine Nature denounced the negative effects of our squeamishness, which prevents us from investing as we should in the development of sanitary technologies that could save lives.
Now that the bidet has been part of my life for two years, my anus has become capricious. I balk every time I have to use a roll of toilet paper — and I use the occasion to complain about the nonsense of sanitary facilities that require me to wipe my excrement with bleached paper rather than simply washing it away with a jet.
As you might surmise from the empty store shelves of spring 2020, I’m not the only convert. But it’s hard to say whether the rebirth of the bidet is just a passing fad or the beginning of a long-term trend. In the coming years, will we see public toilets equipped with small jets? I’m practically dreaming of it.
Gabrielle Anctil is an independent columnist and researcher who specializes in technology, science, and urban planning. The rest of the time, she writes for various media, including the magazine Continuité. Winter or summer, she can be found, rosy-cheeked, riding her bicycle.