Earlier this week, my colleague John McDermott wrote about “polished anus syndrome,” or how the process most Americans (and Brits) use to clean their butts using rough, dry toilet paper wasn’t just useless at cleaning poop, it was also damaging the skin around the anus and making it more more sensitive and prone to bleeding. As an alternative (imperative?), the article suggests people should invest in bidets, a sink-like fixture designed to wash genitalia, that tend to be used across mainland Europe, the Middle East and Southeast Asia. (Failing that, they should try wiping with a damp paper towel.)
The piece, however, spoke to a much wider problem inherent in Western masculinity, best highlighted last year when film producer Keith Calder tweeted: “A weird part of toxic masculinity is not knowing how to poop properly.” It was inspired by a number of Reddit posts from wives and girlfriends complaining about their partners’ skid marks, their inability to use a toilet seat when pooping and the guy who told his wife, “A real man doesn’t go in between his cheeks or spread them for anything.”
The correct way to clean your ass might seem like a mundane subject, but for me — someone growing up in a predominantly white area, with a South Asian Muslim background — cultural and identity crises were inevitably linked to the practice of anal cleanliness. At home, we used an lota, a vessel that was more often than not, a watering can, always located next to the toilet. The majority of Islamic traditions follow Qadaa’ al-Haajah, a religious code around physical purification, in which you would hold the lota with your right hand, while washing with your left. But at school, where lotas weren’t around, I’d have to make due with the rough, sharp bright blue paper that was the standard of the British education system. Meanwhile, when friends came over to my house, I’d hide our lota in case anyone asked why a watering can was in our bathroom — a conversation, I worried could be misinterpreted as a “culturally backward” means of wiping directly with my hands.
Yet more than a decade on from those fears, conversations around how one should correctly clean their ass still rage on, particularly on the internet. The question frequently pops up on sites like Quora, devolving into fights over which method is cleaner, or indeed, more “civilized.” Over on YouTube, the act of switching from toilet paper to water-based cleaning methods has become embraced by the platforms’ “minimalist” community, often consisting of white YouTubers who believe the key to self-fulfillment is to give up their possessions while documenting it for their channels.
More largely, there’s a growing number of people across the U.S. who are becoming more conscious about the way they wipe and the state of their anuses. “I started using a bottle of water to wash myself a few months ago,” Mike, a 34-year-old sales manager from Pittsburgh, tells me over Facebook Messenger. “I always had problems cleaning myself because I’d use a lot of toilet paper, and it would irritate me the whole day. Basically, it would itch and hurt until I got home and showered.”
He started washing himself using a bottle of water after watching YouTube tutorials on preventing irritation — when, of course, his girlfriend was asleep. Even today, Mike hasn’t told any of his friends or coworkers about his new bathroom routine. In fact, he usually hides his bottle of water when going to the bathroom. “I almost got caught once,” he says. “One of my coworkers bumped into me as I was going to the men’s room and looked at the bottle in a weird way — only for a few seconds, but I guess he thought I was planning to drink from it while I was on the can, which is actually much weirder.”
Peter, 29, from New York, doesn’t just use water to clean himself, but also Aveeno, a gentle oatmeal-based soap, during the washing process. Like many Western guys, he was only taught how to wipe using toilet paper. But a low-paying job forced him to buy “cheap toilet paper.” It was, as you’d imagine, rough, with the texture of newspaper. “It hurt when I wiped, and I ended up getting these bumps on the inside of my buttcheeks that made it hard to walk, too.”
He found the soap recommendation when looking for a way to lessen the pain. Like Mike, though, he keeps his new knowledge private. He insists he’s not embarrassed by it, but rather, that there’s still taboos around men talking about genital cleanliness. “I’d always grown up assuming that as long as there weren’t any weird bumps or green marks then it’d be fine,” he explains. “You’re taught to deal with it quietly if there’s any itching or small pain — to just tolerate it. But that’s unhealthy and also means that men don’t think about their hygiene until it’s too late.”
“I don’t know if any of my friends are doing it,” he adds with a laugh. “I’m sure if they are, though, they definitely wouldn’t tell me. I mean guys are just getting around to talking about skin care. Just wait until they find out what’s happening to areas of their body they’ve paid no attention to.”