Mini Object Lesson: Consider the Lavatory

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

Given the latest airplane urination scare, perhaps it’s time to look to the lavatory.

Occasionally aircraft lavatories burst into the news: an aging actor doesn’t make it to the lav in time, and pees in the aisle; another actor, a bit younger, slams the lavatory door in a huff and gets kicked off the plane; terrorists may use the privacy of the lav to assemble cruel devices or hint at their presence; an artist repurposes one for a curious exhibit on a trans-Pacific long-haul flight. Most of the time, though, lavatories fade into the background.

But here’s the thing about this space:

While airlines go to great lengths to sell the experience of flight as individuated, personal, and endlessly customizable—the lavatory is the only truly private place on normal commercial airliners. And yet—here’s the rub—it’s also the only place that is shared by everyone on board. It’s a paradoxical place, and one that we don’t really want to think about too much.

Taro Gomi’s classic potty training book Everyone Poops works by showing young children all the different shapes and sizes of various animals’ excrement (“an elephant makes a big poop, a mouse makes a tiny poop,” etc.). The book culminates in a child’s bowel movement, with gentle encouragement to do it on the toilet. But the unavoidable premise of the book is that humans are put on the same plane as camels, racoons, fish, and worms. We’re not so different, when it comes to our business.

Isn’t this what is finally so embarrassing about the lavatory? It exposes the grand project of flight as so much animal activity. We are less a suave set of individual travelers, donning antimicrobial fishing shirts and maneuvering sporty roller bags. We’re more like a migrating collective, not so unlike a wobbly V of Canada Geese cruising overhead—another day, another long journey. The lavatory reminds us that everyone poops, and that we are not so special as our job titles or status as frequent fliers would make us believe.

(For longer Object Lessons, head here)