I began collecting excrement because I grew tired of disappearing.
I began collecting excrement because I grew tired of disappearing.
After I wrote the sentence, it lingered on the page in solitude for an hour, which became hours, which became days. The words infiltrated my brain, repeating constantly like an intrusive thought, taunting me: I began collecting excrement because I grew tired of disappearing. I considered deleting the sentence from the page, but there was no point, it was ingrained into my memory. I was obsessed—not only with excrement, but with the impulse to collect, with my curiosity, and my obsessiveness itself. I feared I was delusional, but really, what is obsession without delusion?
My collection began with a list of words: poop, poo, feces, fecal matter, defecation, excrement, excreta, waste, waste matter, stool, dung, manure, droppings, ordure, scat, shit, crap, dump, turd, number two, doo-doo, doody, dookie. While it may be perfectly reasonable to laugh at this list, I encourage you to ask yourself what’s so funny. Is your amusement uneasy, or joyous? Do you laugh to cope with your discomfort, and maybe even your shame? If so, where does the discomfort and shame reside? Are you reminded that humans are animals? That you are not so different from the leashed dog who squats on the sidewalk and defecates for all to see? Or maybe this reminder of your animal nature brings you the sort of simple, easy pleasure that makes you chuckle.
I try to remember a time when my own poop-related amusement resided in my joy rather than in my discomfort. I attempt to remember in order to recover what has been lost; it is a form of self-preservation.
I was very young, before I understood my body as sexed or gendered. My parents would read me the children’s book Everyone Poops, by Taro Gomi. The book depicts innocent, playful illustrations of animals defecating with simple text: “An elephant makes a big poop. A mouse makes a small poop.”1 Eventually, humans are shown pooping beside the animals. The book concludes with a self-evident truth: “All living things eat, so… Everyone poops.”2 I struggle to remember the feeling of my joy between the pages, yet when I read the book now, many years later, I hear it in my mother’s voice. I feel nostalgic for my innocence. And despite, or maybe even in spite of, my belief that nostalgia is a suspect feeling, capable of concealing truth, I am overcome by a desire to hold myself, like my mother and father held me as a baby—in order to affirm my existence and protect myself from the world’s cruelty.
While I loved Everyone Poops as a young child, my pleasure turned to unease when I realized that my body was different from every (male) human body illustrated in the book. As I grew older, I would come to understand the othered status of my female body.
I first learned that “everyone” did not include “girls” on playgrounds and in school cafeterias. “Girls don’t poop” became a popular slogan among my peers. And though I never really understand the point of this bizarre and repeated phrase (Is it funny? Should I wear it as a badge of honor?), I internalized it: For young girls, pooping and farting is meant to be kept a secret, especially from the boys. It is not “ladylike.”
Scrolling through Twitter just a few days ago, I stumbled across a tweet with 36.2 thousand likes and 4,275 retweets. The tweet includes a photo of a pink flower floating inside a perfectly clean toilet bowl; the words “Girl poop” are typed in white letters atop the image.3 Whether or not I lied about never pooping as a child or joked about shitting flowers as an adult, the message was clear: Being seen as a girl or as a woman is about learning to hide your nature, to make your otherness known in order to distinguish yourself from the boys and the men, and simultaneously, from your humanness. The secret of my defecation was only the beginning. I would go on to learn that in order to preserve my femininity or my value in this world, I must shave off all my body hair, cover my face with makeup, and always wear the proper undergarments; visible female nipples are a mortal sin, and a discernible outline of underwear through my clothes is an ignominy indicative of unattractiveness. If I could alter my appearance, or keep secrets, to hide my body’s human naturalness to appear more attractive in the eyes of boys and men, in the eyes of cisgender heteropatriarchy, then I was supposed to do so no matter how agonizing or expensive the process. “Beauty is pain,” my mother would always say to me.
In the seventh grade, my best friend, Graysen, and I would meet in the girls’ bathroom every morning during homeroom. We would make desperate attempts to cover up our pink pimples with pale beige concealers, and check each other’s khaki uniform skirts for visible panty lines. A few weeks into the ninth grade, Graysen and I had a falling out: my first heartbreak. In the months to follow, I would write dramatic poems about the hole in my heart she had left. Three years would go by before I realized I was queer, and two more years after that is when I finally stopped shaving my legs, which I thought would never be as soft, or as beautiful as Graysen’s. While this may be true, when I look down at my legs now, hairy and covered in tattoos, I recognize them as my own.
As I watch my parents age, I observe my mother in yet another battle with nature. While my father’s skin wrinkles and his scalp and beard fill with gray, white, and silver hairs, my mother gets Botox injected into her face, buys lotions and creams labeled “anti-aging,” dyes the gray roots of her hair every few weeks, and obsessively searches her scalp tweezing any silver stragglers. I have digressed, but only because I must recognize that abandoning or liberating myself from womanhood and heterosexuality has been crucial, not only to my life, but also to my decision to collect excrement. I know the value in discomfort, shame, and ambiguity—I tend to walk toward it.
After I wrote down the list of words for poop, I discovered that of the twenty-three terms I listed, four do not appear in the Oxford English Dictionary. This is fine with me—I don’t believe the dictionary should serve as the authority on what constitutes language. Even so, I suspected that the considerable length of the list, whether you count those four terms or not, was a noteworthy discovery. I believe there must be a correlation between dung’s abject status and its lengthy list of names.
I look to Julia Kristeva’s writing on abjection. The abject is neither subject nor object. It refers to what is literally expelled or discharged; and thus it may appear as excrement, but also as other forms of waste, vomit, piss, blood, hair, and even the corpse which Kristeva classifies as “the utmost of abjection.”4 Simultaneously, as the abject is rejected, it rejects, and we are overcome by our repulsion in the face of its ambiguity. The abject is:
not me. Not that. But not nothing, either. A ‘something’ that I do not recognize as a thing. A weight of meaninglessness, about which there is nothing insignificant, and which crushes me. On the edge of non-existence and hallucination, of a reality that, if I acknowledge it, annihilates me.5
You may struggle to pick a single name for something if you do not know what it is. Maybe all the words (especially the funny ones) allow you to create more distance between yourself and it.
The night before I began writing this, I was woken by sharp pains in my belly. Half-awake and struggling to catch my breath, I dragged myself out of my bed and hurried to the bathroom. There was something inside my stomach, like some sort of demon or wild animal, desperate to escape. The thing was pushing and shoving my organs and scratching my insides. I cried out in agony. I heard the thing’s voice in my own voice; I heard our desperation. With my head over the toilet, I tried to push it out of my mouth, but instead I tasted my own stomach acid as it rose in my throat before falling back into my body. I gagged. I let my body fall onto the cold bathroom floor. I lay on my side holding my knees to my chest, closing my eyes and breathing heavily until I felt the thing, or something, pushing on my anus. I will spare you the gross details of the case of diarrhea that followed, but I will note that I have always found the experience not only unpleasant but unsettling. It feels as though my entire body is turning to liquid and I am melting.
The word diarrhea comes from two Ancient Greek words: “dia” meaning “through” and “rhein” meaning “to flow.”6 I would not say diarrhea “flows through” the body. The affair is too violent for flow.
Besides the more commonly used definition, diarrhea also means “an excessive flow (of words, etc.).” “Flow” implies continuity and freedom, while “excess” implies extra or unnecessary. In digestion, our bodies break down food, transforming it into nutrients to be absorbed into the bloodstream and fed to the body’s organs and tissues. Our feces is what is left, all our body didn’t need or couldn’t use: dead bacteria and cells, water, indigestible food matter, and leftover fibers—a combination of excess and waste.
I turned on the sink and held my water bottle beneath it. My professor’s words echoed in my head. “You are afraid of wasting time on creating a collection about waste?” she’d said with a half-smile, pointing out the irony of my distress. I sighed. I was brought back to the present by the feeling of water running over my hand. My water bottle was overflowing. An excessive flow. Diarrhea. As I turned off the sink and dried my hands, I found myself laughing—from joy rather than from unease. I momentarily forgot about my fears as I remembered the feeling that I had known as a very small child, the feeling I felt when my parents would read me Everyone Poops, the feeling I thought I had lost. I was collecting excrement, and I was keeping myself.
On my most recent birthday, my twenty-second, I received a gift in the mail from my younger sister. I ripped open the stiff paper and felt a soft white cotton T-shirt. I unfolded the shirt, and it revealed an illustration taken from my beloved childhood book, Everyone Poops. The book’s title is printed at the top of the shirt in its familiar font; the illustration below shows a zebra, a bird, a pig, and a boy child pooping beside each other. I had briefly mentioned my latest obsession to my sister, as I have mentioned it to anyone and everyone that is willing to listen to me talk about shit. My sister and I are not very close, yet she had given me the most incredible gift; it is so lovely to feel seen by another. It is like being held, being kept—it is an affirmation that you exist.
- Taro Gomi, Everyone Poops (Kane/Miller, 1993).
- Gomi, Everyone Poops.
- Gomi, Everyone Poops.
- Julia Kristeva, Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection, translated from the French by Leon S. Roudiez (Columbia University Press, 1982), 4.
- Kristeva, Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection, 4.
- Oxford English Dictionary, s.v. “diarrhoea | diarrhea, n,” December 2021.