Why We Fear Poop


Shawn 1


Shawn “The Puru” Shafner is a New York based artist, theatre-maker and educator who started The People’s Own Organic Power Project in April 2010 to generate public conversations about our often private business, and encourage people to re-examine their relationship to the bodily function that “dare not speak its name”. Shawn and The POOP Project team break through thick walls of euphemism, utilizing public performances and art exhibitions, educational workshops, advocacy and community projects to create “poop positive” space. Their work promotes critical conversations about sustainable sanitation for the person, planet and world community. It’s “a social movement pushing for change from the bottom up”!  

The human relationship to the body and its fluids changes throughout time and culture. The touchstone to this work is probably Mary Douglas’ theory on dirt, defined as “matter out of place.” Every society maintains structures and hierarchies, often held in place simply by the power of common belief and understanding. We endow certain matters and places with high, positive status (i.e. holy objects/words and places/contexts) while investing others with low, negative status (i.e. dirt–unclean objects/words and places/contexts). While everything in the world may have been created equal, the presence of “dirt” indicates an imposed system at work. Thinking makes it so.

Both sides of the equation possess a property called “magical contagion.” That is, their energy rubs off on those things they come into contact with it. Touch the holy water and you are blessed. Touch the dead rodent and you are gross. The balance is not equal, however; the high is more easily contaminated by the low.

William Ian Miller, in “The Anatomy of Disgust,” gives an example that I love. You have a table full of people eating soup in a refined, polite manner. It only takes one person’s slurping to disrupt the meal. But in a room full of slurpers, a silent soup eater will seldom offend. At most they’ll be accused of being affected–which is exactly right.

The Threat of Dirt

Civil order and social norms depend on matter being in its proper place along the continuum from most positive (“cleanest”) to most negative (“dirtiest”). The more threatening the dirt, the harder society works to control and contain it–whether through physical structures (buildings, infrastructure) or social conventions (euphemism, shaming). Freud, in his foreword to John G. Bourke’s Scatalogic Rites of All Nations, writes that modern Western civilization is constructed around the desire to, “so far as possible deny the very existence of this inconvenient ‘trace of the earth’.” Of course, he means our poop, but his word choice, a quote from the angels in Faust, reveals a deeper fear: we don’t want to admit that we’re from the earth. We don’t want to have a fallible body, to make the mortal journey from dust to dust, or be compared with the other creatures that share the planet with us. We elevate the mind and suppress the body, promoting desk jobs over physical labor. We prefer a solid body that is smooth, young, beautiful, well-mannered and always in control, as opposed to the porous body that is emotional, gets old, has blemishes, leaks, excretes or smells. We all have to have that body, but since it’s “socially unacceptable,” we banish it from public view and try to eke out private space for it.

Shit is the ultimate dirt, and being associated with it–or even a word that references it, a toilet paper square, or a brown chocolate smear–transgresses critical social rules. To some extent, that’s the way it’s always been. Poop is stinky, brown and it comes out of our butts, so it’s had a hard time climbing the social ladder. But there have been many periods throughout history where it’s also been valued for its qualities as a fertilizer, medicinal healing properties and ritual uses (see Bourke’s compendium above). What’s more, throughout most of history the high wasn’t quite so high, and so the low wasn’t quite so low. People lived closer to the ground, were more dependent on the earth and could readily acknowledge their relationship to it. There was no shame in being dirty or smelly because no one had indoor plumbing, and people didn’t feel the need to poop in private.

A Poop Sensitive World

It’s been a long journey from the time when shit was omnipresent in the sewer-less streets to a culture in which our urban infrastructure, flush toilet design, bathroom rituals, language, theology, all work to make poop unseen, unheard, untouched and unsmelt. We had to learn to feel shame over having a body–and all the shit, snot, blood, pus, hair, nails and frailty that come with it. Now for the good news: this is a constructed reality that we have been taught to accept, but it’s not the way things have to be.

We begin to create a poop-positive world that is hospitable to our bodies the second we decide to change our attitude. When we mention poop in a serious way–generating discussions about equal access to toilets, fecal transplants, or the international sanitation crisis that kills a child every 20 seconds–we create space for conversations that lead to solutions. When we refuse to hold back our gas–especially if we’ve already excused ourselves to the one tiny room in which farting is allowed–we acknowledge the reality of digestion and inspire others to own their shit, too. When we celebrate our shit and our role in the regenerative cycle of our earth, we take more responsibility for the ways in which we consume and give back.

I think it would be a pretty cool place :)

Visit the Poop Project.

Read why Shawn became a poop activist

See more of Shawn on video.

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