The sanctity of women’s toilets

It was in a nightclub toilet that I decided to break up with my boyfriend.

Over the dull, bassy thud seeping through from the neighbouring dancefloor, under the glare of purple-tinged lights, I slumped on a closed toilet seat as my friend, back shoved against the cubicle door to hold it shut in spite of a broken lock, nodded patiently and passed me toilet roll with which to wipe wine-infused tears. My voice taking on the hysterical edge that only a heady combination of sobbing and alcohol can produce, I told her everything. “Dump him!” came the call from the stranger in the neighbouring cubicle. “You deserve so much better”.

My experience of women’s toilets has almost exclusively been one of solidarity and camaraderie. In the age of catcalling, manspreading and the omnipresent risk of groping or darker violations, it’s no surprise that women’s relationship to public space continues to be fraught. While feminist scholars have written extensively on the gendered nature of public space, little has changed on the ground. Many women still feel constantly on display: potential prey; objects for exhibition; the owners of mouths for men to tell you to smile with.

In recent years, the contested nature of gendered public space has taken on a new and dangerous edge as conversations about women’s spaces have become hijacked by certain corners of the ‘feminist’ movement who have sought to attack and cast out trans women in the name of some imagined and absurd universal womanhood which I for one have certainly never been able to relate to. This brand of trans-exclusionary radical ‘feminism’ incenses me on many a political level, but on a personal one it just fills me with a deep sadness: if I have gained anything from women’s spaces, it’s a sense of solidarity not just in spite of difference but often because of it; a realisation that we’re all just fumbling through figuring it out as we go along; ownership of bodies and minds in which we hadn’t felt comfortable for years. It was in women’s spaces that I learned there was no right, wrong, or single way to be a woman.

I remember being 12, taking my first swimming lesson at secondary school and being consumed by anxiety for weeks beforehand about the logistics of communal changing. The body I possessed didn’t feel like mine yet, its rapid evolution into that of a woman keeping me locked inside a skin where I felt like a visitor instead of an occupant. I was contorting myself to enact one of the changing techniques I had painstakingly practiced beforehand, my body shrouded beneath its towelled armour, when a classmate casually dropped her own towel and strode the full length of the changing room naked, seemingly unaffected by the gasps and widened eyes which clung to every inch of her pink skin. Bits of her looked like me, I thought. Nothing happened; the world didn’t end because a girl refused to be ashamed of her teenage body. I started to feel a little more at home in my own.

When I was 16 I went to Ibiza and became completely infatuated with the island’s many drag queens for reasons I couldn’t properly articulate at the time, but which I now know to be about liberation from the shackles of gender expectations and the epiphany that rejecting them can be riotous fun, too. I got to know them, saying hello as they arrived as handsome but unremarkable men and squealing with delight when they emerged as Amazonian goddesses, Disney princesses, and many an 80s diva. One of them taught me how to trim false eyelashes, my competence at which she would be disappointed to learn of now. One night as I washed my hands in the grimy toilet of a tacky entertainment club, one of the queens emerged from a cubicle behind me, knocking the doorframe with a neon orange beehive which easily took her to over 6 feet tall. She applied lipstick and powder as middle-aged women tittered, flirted and fawned over her, and as she left she winked at me. I blushed and enjoyed a feeling not dissimilar to the somersault a tummy does when a boy at school smirks at one of your jokes.

At 18, I had moved away from home and was in my first year of university in a new city where everything glinted with opportunity and everybody carried themselves with the arrogance of those recently inducted into adulthood but not yet jaded by its nuance. In the hand-washing area of the toilets in a nightclub I felt underdressed and overcharged for, women swapped make-up tips and compliments, and warned each other of which predatory men stalked the dancefloor outside. Stalls swung open and closed, spontaneous singing broke out, and my coursemate told my reflection in the mascara-flecked mirror that she was gay. For all that they are defined by garish lighting and clinical hard edges, women’s bathrooms have a curious way of enabling vulnerability.

By 20, I was working in a high street clothing store and starting to get to know myself. I smoothed out dresses flung haphazardly back onto hangers and smiled as women emerged from behind curtains in various states of undress: patchy fake tan exposed, cellulite shining proudly, love handles slouching comfortably over waistbands. Lovingly honest feedback was exchanged here. Women found clothes to make them feel like the people they wanted to be. Someone wrote ‘girl power!’ in lipstick on a mirror and we rolled our eyes and said it was corny and god, what a waste of lipstick, but none of us wanted to clean it off.

The relationship I describe here is both a shared and yet intensely exclusive one. For many women, toilets and changing rooms have been the setting for racist attacks or humiliating interrogations about perceived gender and their rights to access the space. I feel at once privileged that I’m able to experience the joy of these spaces, and deeply ashamed that such safety and solidarity isn’t extended to all who are entitled to it. For me, these spaces have always been the refuges I needed in a public sphere where I was never quite sure of my own footing. Here I’ve shared secrets and concealer, made new friends and made old friendships stronger, and bit by bit I’ve learned how to occupy my own body and my place in the world.

In my early 20s I found myself back in my home city after a drawn-out period of heartbreak and existential crisis, the sum total of my life so far crammed into my mum’s spare room and with a feeling like I’d failed at a game I hadn’t known I was playing. Determined to make the best of a situation I’d never planned to be in, I threw myself into my new-old life with an enthusiasm that only desperation can muster. I made meetings with new people. I turned up to every event I could find. I organised every other event that I couldn’t find. And, in a signal that I was Getting There, I settled on a favourite local pub. On the toilet wall by the hand dryer, in tiny blue-biroed letters, another woman had scrawled the words “you are enough”. In the early days, I would look at this manifesto and feel an inner tug, and a solidarity with her that transcended her anonymity.

Years later, my mum’s spare room is restored to empty serenity and my life is scattered between various people, places and nightclub toilets once again. But that woman’s love letter remains scratched on the wall around the corner.  Nowadays, I glance at it and smile, and I think that I believe her.

Originally published in print magazine King Kong and republished here with permission

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