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Why Is Bar Bathroom Lighting So Bad?

Darkness and drinking go hand-in-hand. The last thing I want to know when I’m drinking at a bar is what anyone in that place really looks like. Yet it also holds true that the only thing I want to know when I go into the bathroom and look in the mirror is what I really look like, albeit a very pleasant version of it. This should not be a difficult thing for designers of bars to sort out: Make the bar very dark, and the bathroom flatteringly lit. And yet there is a scourge upon us: Many bar bathrooms are too dark to even know if you have wiped your ass well, much less if you have any food sticking out of your teeth. But why?

There are some bar bathrooms in MEL’s Venice neighborhood so pitch-black that the women inside routinely have to act as human mirrors for each other’s hair and makeup checks. This nonexistent lighting is what I’m talking about. To be clear, I’m not talking about great dive bar lighting, which is phenomenal:

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Instagram filters WISH they were dive bar lighting

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So I started asking around about bad, impossible-to-see-yourself bathroom bar lighting and I gathered some theories from colleagues and friends, all intriguing theories in their own right — let’s take them one at a time.

It’s so you can have sex. Having sex in bars is definitely a thing people do, and most of us, barring the true exhibitionists among us, have no desire whatsoever to do so in fluorescent light. The best bar bathrooms for sex are obviously dark with some degree of privacy. But it’s a pretty safe bet that’s not an intentional pro-sex design choice, but rather a convenient byproduct of darkness. Everywhere dark is technically a good sex place, but no one thinks the space behind a dumpster was created for that purpose.

Maybe it’s so you can do illegal drugs.
Sure. If you’re going to sneak off to the bathroom to do a bump or some Molly, a dark bathroom offers some cover. But again, highly unlikely any bar bathroom light is “cocaine wattage” on purpose; that’s just what happens in the darkness.

It’s because there’s a lotta poo everywhere.
Indeed.

It’s so you don’t see how fucked-up you look drunk.
A friend on Facebook offered the most logical and intriguing theory as to why so much bathroom lighting in bars is basically zero: “So your alcohol-induced illusion of how sexy you are isn’t shattered.” Drinking is about a lot of things — cutting loose, having fun, drowning your sorrows, celebrating your successes. But all of them involve taking the edge off and ultimately escaping the unpleasant existence we call a human life. Does that involve escaping our faces, too?

Booze certainly makes us feel way more attractive. It not only makes other people like looking at your dumb face more, but it also makes you like your own dumb face more. Also, yes: beer goggles are a real thing; drunk people aren’t as good at identifying asymmetrical faces and are less interested in symmetrical ones. Beer goggles could extend to liking our own. But maybe that’s all in our heads, quickly derailed by reflection and light.

For everyone who feels fun and sexy looking at themselves drunk, there are probably just as many who don’t. As a woman on Reddit confessed in a thread about worst drunk makeup moments: “I was always amazed in college that my friends would have a few drinks and feel sexier, and I would have a few drinks, go into the bathroom, look in the mirror, and be horrified by my hair, makeup, and facial features in general,” she wrote. “Then I’d sober up and think I was pretty cute again. But yes, I always think I look particularly shiny and moon-faced when I’m drunk.”

Of course, some of this may be that bar lighting is often just very, very bad even when it’s not too dark. Another commenter on the Reddit thread notes that “top lighting,” the unflattering sort, is actually often called “bar lighting” in cinematography.

No offense to these women, but here is an example:

No one’s best look.

I asked Los Angeles architect Sarai Grenell what design principles are at work in the super dark bar bathroom. She told me that lights are always much dimmer in any bar and late-night environments. “There is rarely front lighting,” she explained, because it can show you too much info. “You want to feel good about yourself, and concealed lighting is always good and indirect.”

That makes sense: No one out having a good time wants to be reminded of their physical flaws, and all the booze in the world isn’t going to make your lit-up scary face any better. In bars specifically, she explained, they’re going to focus on flattering lighting. “I also think there is a desire for women not to spend too much time in the bathroom to avoid lines.”

But potentially one big reason for going zero dark thirty in there is to cover up how dirty bathrooms typically are, she notes. “It’s like last call, when the lights come on, and you see how sticky and gross the floors are,” Grenell said. “I would say the bathroom is even worse.”

All this is valid and understandable, and any bar fan is likely grateful to not have to see the horror that is people and their deposited biological matter. But bars should also keep in mind that getting people to stay and drink more involves prolonging that enjoyment throughout the night. I’m much more inclined to stick around and keep drinking at a bar where I feel good and think I look good, whether that will be true the second I stumble out into the night or not.

Bars should take note of this universal truth: The most perfect lighting on everyone is soft, pink, warm light — it is the stuff of weddings, the stuff of rom-coms, and the stuff of good bar bathrooms. That means using about 45 watts of light or lower, with nothing overhead to cast harsh shadows on your face. (You can get bulbs in wattages as low as 3 to 5 watts.)

Particularly in an age of bar bathroom selfies and Instagram, setting up the right environment in the bathroom for a great photo is a free ad. And when the lighting it’s good, it’s the best thing on earth:

Of course, when it’s bad, it’s awful. Cold harsh lights make everyone look like a weird, sickly alien — no one is asking for that. But there is a point of diminishing returns when it comes to going darker. Dim is great — please, lie to us — but if it’s going to be so dark that you’ve essentially gone spelunking when it’s time to take a piss, escaping into a fantasy world where everyone is better looking and wittier is undermined. At that point, bars would be better off painting the mirror black or removing it altogether.

I repeat: If your customer needs to whip out their phone to check their hair, you have not served your audience. And remember, that audience is your friend: We only want to give you our money and keep drinking while believing we look as good as we’ve ever looked, will ever look. Help us help you, but more importantly, help us help ourselves get laid. Our faces may be sexy, or they may be ruddy, bloodshot-eyed, shiny and moon-faced, but they are ours, and by God, we have paid to sort of look at them in your dark, shitty bar.