Among the more practical advice that can be offered to international travelers is wisdom of the bathroom. So let me say, as someone who recently returned from China, that you should be prepared to one, carry your own toilet paper and two, practice your squat.
I do not mean those goofy chairless sits you see at the gym. No, toned glutes will not save you here. I mean the deep squat, where you plop your butt down as far as it can go while staying aloft and balanced on the heels. This position—in contrast to deep squatting on your toes as most Americans naturally attempt instead—is so stable that people in China can hold it for minutes and perhaps even hours ...
... while eating.
...while waiting for customers.
...while examining art.
And, for our purposes, while using the bathroom. Toilets are common in Chinese households now, but public restrooms are still dominated by squat pans, which many Chinese find more hygienic due to the lack of thigh-and-toilet-seat contact. The flat-heeled squat position here is crucial, not only for stability on wet porcelain but also—without getting too anatomical—for proper angling and position. Especially for the ladies. Let’s just say if you stay on your toes, your shoes will get hosed.
(Pro tip: Wearing a slight heel helps.)
Of course, squat toilets are not unique to Asia, nor is the deep-squatting position. But so ubiquitous is the position in Asia and so invisible it is in the West that it’s been dubbed the “Asian squat.” The internet is rife with suggestions that most Americans cannot squat properly, an idea with which I particularly enjoyed taunting my white American boyfriend.
But is this true? Were my taunts fact-based? How much is this nature or nurture? I figured I first had to understand the physiology of the deep squat.
Luckily, at least one other person on the internet is obsessed with squats as me, and he knows something about physiology. That would be Bryan Ausinheiler, a physical therapist in California who has penned a series of blog posts about the deep squat. “The squat is a great model for a multi-segmental movement pattern,” Ausinheiler rattled off at the beginning of our phone call. Uh, what does that mean? “The squat is a triple flexion movement. You’ve got bending at the hips, knees, and ankle, so you have to fold everything up underneath you.” There’s a lot going on.
But the key factor seems to be ankle flexibility. In the words of our editor Ross Andersen, “squatting makes me feel like I might rupture my Achilles.” A 2009 study in Japan found that men who found it impossible to deep squat had particularly inflexible ankles. This is also in part, Ausinheiler says, why kids have no problem squatting. “I measured my daughter’s ankle flexibility when she was one day old,” says Ausinheiler. “She has 70 degrees of ankle dorsiflexion! Normal in the West is like 30.” So humans are born squatters; some of us lose it when we stop trying.
In fact, not everyone who can deep squat is, as Ausinheiler puts it, squatting “well,” with feet close together and toes pointed forward. I grew up in the United States with few occasions to squat, and I fall into this category. (A fact I was painfully aware of in China because I had to place my feet wider than the grooved sides of the squat toilet that kept you from slipping on the wet floor.) The position, while doable, is not particularly comfortable for me either. When an editor dared me to write this entire article while squatting, I quickly realized I’d either end up with an extremely short article or a workplace injury.
Body shape also seems to play a role. Short limbs, big heads, and long torsos make it easier to balance. (Again why toddlers have it so easy.) “I have three brothers, so of course every year I test all their abilities to deep squat,” Ausinheiler told me. “What I found is of the four of us, my squat is the best, I gotta say, but I’m also most conscious of technique. I have another brother who has even shorter legs than me. His squat isn’t quite as good as mine but it is very easy for him. And then the brother with the longest legs has the worst squat. He kind of has a hard time with it.”
Believe it or not, no one appears to have actually studied innate ability in deep squatting across ethnic groups. “You would have to take kids from the time they’re born in China and never let them do any squats to be a control group, and it’ll never happen,” says Matt Hudson, a physiologist at the University of Delaware, who kindly humored my questions. And ultimately, it may not matter. Practice and training make the bigger difference. (I suggested to my boyfriend that he could improve his squats, but he refused for reasons I cannot fathom.)
And Ausinheiler says he has seen more people interested in doing a deep squat—thanks to Crossfit. Weightlifters squat in a deep position, pushing up through the heels. And weightlifting shoes, Hudson points out, usually have a slight heel to help. Crossfit has turned a lot of people into weightlifters—and in turn, made them conscious of their stiff ankles.
There is another group of pro-squatters, those who believe America’s bowel problems can be blamed on toilet seats (the argument has to do with the anorectal angle). Squatting is of course how our ancestors pooped for millennia. Yet this ability that comes so naturally to cavemen and to babies has been lost to many Western toilet sitters—and it’s not so easy to get it back.