Perhaps one of the most common mistakes people make about religion is that it has to do primarily with other-worldly things.
My students, all of whom are undergrads and most of whom are not majoring in religion, are among those who tend to assume that spiritual traditions come from on high and have little to do with the mundane realities of embodied life. To challenge this assumption, every year when I return from the American Academy of Religion’s annual conference, I share with them some of the more down-to-earth questions, conundrums, and insights I’ve absorbed from this prestigious gathering of scholars. Imagine their surprise this year when I informed them that one of the most fascinating sessions I attended focused on the politics of peeing and pooping!
The session, now published as a symposium entitled “Toilet Justice,” explored questions like: Who gets to enjoy safe and easy access to the relief of urinating and excreting? What pervasive ideologies and concrete structures inhibit members of vulnerable communities from being able to use the toilet? How do religious norms and narratives contribute to—or challenge—the systemic injustices and sense of shame surrounding the necessity of emptying one’s bowels and bladder? What attitudes toward physicality do these norms and narratives generate and presume? How might an affirmation of somatic diversity, vulnerability, and interdependence generate an alternative vision and reality of human health, healing, and flourishing—a this-worldly vision/reality that everybody can access?
Co-sponsored by the Status of LGBTQI Persons in the Profession Committee and the Status of Persons with Disabilities in the Profession Committee, the Toilet Justice panel discussed the experiences of people who are especially susceptible to being denied dependable access to using the toilet: people with disabilities; members of the LGBTQI community; people who do not have enough money to buy a latte so they can use the public restroom at Starbucks; undocumented immigrants who risk deportation if they are caught and arrested for peeing in public because they have nowhere else to relieve themselves. In various ways, the discussion revealed that the shame associated with the anatomical parts involved in getting rid of what our bodies no longer need is the same shame the dominant culture assigns to members of these marginalized communities—members of the social body who are often seen with disgust and therefore excluded: those who are systematically viewed and treated like crap.
As I listened to the Toilet Justice panelists, I found myself asking: whose shame is this really? And where does it come from? What role does religion play in producing—and possibly transforming—such shame and the exclusions it generates?
To interrogate the politics of body shame—the shame assigned both to physical processes like pooping and peeing and to minoritized members of the social body—is to interrupt dominant cultural narratives that encourage us to believe that disdain and disgust are natural/God-given responses to unruly flesh and to nonconforming people. Investigating body shame reveals how experiences of embarrassment, inadequacy, and vulnerability surrounding certain bodily processes—and certain bodies—are the product of specific cultural norms, policies, and stories that dictate how our flesh is supposed to look, function, and feel. Ultimately, such interrogation suggests that these painful and potentially hazardous shaming experiences are the consequence of a particular social/symbolic system that privileges some bodies at the expense of others.
This hierarchical/exclusionary system is why some of us rarely have to worry about finding a safe and accessible bathroom, while for others, the prospect of peeing and pooping pose considerable obstacles and even risks. Within this system, toilets are a site where widespread and intersecting social injustices are played out—and resisted.
As the Toilet Justice panelists suggested, it behooves religion scholars to consider the ways dominant spiritual traditions have been complicit with the material injustices this system perpetuates. It seems to me that the shame that’s simultaneously directed at physical needs like going to the bathroom and at people who are targeted for expulsion draws on a specific mix of dominant religious and philosophical traditions that have been repurposed and deployed in American culture.
In particular, traditional Christian moralizing narratives that associate bodily control with virtue seem to have merged with modern Cartesian understandings of the self as an autonomous individual to create the belief that we not only should—but can—control our flesh.
This belief circulates widely in American discourses on health and beauty. It underwrites our culture’s fantasy of physical perfection, epitomized in commercial images of bodies that are young, white, lean, affluent, cisgender/hetero, pain/sickness-free, and non-disabled. Such bodies appear to be unencumbered and independent, manifesting a self that is in control. I’m guessing you’ve seen the images I’m talking about. How do they relate to toilet justice?
The message that ubiquitous images of the “good” body convey—that you should and can master your flesh—quietly implies that physical urges like the need to urinate or excrete, or even the need to eat, are problematic, if not shameful. The corresponding notion that certain bodily functions ought to be monitored and mastered lends itself to the idea that certain people need to be supervised, controlled, and maybe even eliminated.
In the lively audience conversation that followed the Toilet Justice panelists’ remarks, someone astutely observed that fat bodies are also the targets of disdain, ridicule, and social annihilation—punishment for their refusal to obey prominent codes for health, beauty, and virtue. The same could be said of elderly bodies in the U.S., which are encouraged by our youth-worshipping culture to erase any evidence of aging (especially in women). Not only do older physiques have the audacity to remind us (with their graying hair, wrinkles, and so forth) that nobody lives forever, but they may even have the nerve to need help with basic bodily functions—like pooping and peeing.
That requiring assistance with such physical needs is often seen (and/or felt) as shameful tells us something important about the society Americans inhabit, particularly about some of its quintessentially “American” values. Not only do dominant cultural norms, narratives, and images associate virtue with bodily control, but they promise a kind of salvation through independence and self-sufficiency. According to this storyline, transcending your body’s intractable needs and disorderly urges is not enough; in order to be truly happy, healthy, and fulfilled, you must rise above the necessity to rely on others.
Like the sovereign and autonomous God of patriarchal religion, your will must be all-powerful and controlling; you must exist above the rebellious realm of the flesh; and you must be free of the disgrace of needing others.
One of my favorite critiques of the salvation myth of self-sufficiency comes from the late Harriet McBryde Johnson, a disability rights lawyer and activist whose book, Too Late to Die Young, challenges stereotypical views of disability as an inherently undesirable, tragic, and miserable condition characterized by pitiable dependence. McBryde Johnson was born with a muscle-wasting disease that left her adult body, in her words, “a jumble of bones in a sloppy bag of skin” (1-2). Reflecting on her experience in/as this extraordinary body, she explains: “Throughout my life I have needed help from other people to bathe, dress, and get out of bed in the morning.” While the prospect of having to rely so heavily on assistance from others would horrify many able-bodied people, McBryde Johnson ponders “how strange it would be to do these morning things in solitude as nondisabled people do…it is so natural to feel the touch of washcloth-covered hands on the flesh that is glad to be flesh, to rejoice that other hands are here to do what I’d do for myself if I could” (179, 251).
Rather than view her body as “flawed” and her life as “dreadful and unnatural,” McBryde Johnson welcomes and embraces “the corruption that comes from interconnectedness,” honoring “the muck and mess and undeniable reality of disabled lives well lived” (228).
McBryde Johnson was a self-described atheist. Even so, I propose that her affirmation of the “corruption of interconnection” articulates a theological-ethical vision that supports the practical politics of toilet justice advocates. For the energy of the interdependence McBryde Johnson shamelessly embraces, along with the “muck and mess” to which she gladly bears witness, can be seen as holy and redemptive.
Perhaps the redemptive “corruption of interconnection” is precisely what able-bodied people like myself need to liberate/save us from the imprisoning habit of body shame and the soul-killing ideology of individualism. Whereas the prison of body shame narrows our moral universe to the project of creating a “better” body (i.e., one that displays our supposedly virtuous self-control), the ideology of individualism convinces us that as long as we are not actively or intentionally blocking queer, trans, immigrant, and/or disabled people from using the bathroom, toilet justice is not our issue.
Fortunately, the power of the redemptive corruption of interdependence is energizing the coalition of trans, queer, immigrant, and disability voices (and their allies) to transform that shame, challenge exclusion, and embody the sacred with their spirited practices/politics of toilet justice. Returning to my students’ bewilderment that some of the world’s finest religion scholars would devote their intelligence to exploring matters as mundane as going to the bathroom, their astonishment reveals the very assumptions that made the Toilet Justice session so fascinating—assumptions about the profane nature of the body and its most basic functions, compared to the sacred quality of presumably more holy things. By interrogating this supposedly foundational distinction, the conversation about religion, peeing, and pooping opened the door to deconstructing various other binaries—e.g., spirit/body, male/female, public/private, citizen/alien, etc.)—that prevent us from seeing the saving power of interdependence. May that conversation continue!