Expanding Our Pee-Brain through Art History
People's personal hygiene and toilet habits are both private and culturally influenced. We learn to go to the bathroom a certain way and don't tend to experiment. A lack of access to a place where one feels comfortable and safe peeing when in public is a common experience for women, trans, and disabled peoples. Many women say they don't know how to pee outside and would probably pee on themselves. Habits are in part shaped by a feeling of desperation when one needs to pee and can't find accommodations or fears not having the ability needed to pee in circumstance without making a mess.
Women interested in learning how to pee differently, who search for information, will be inundated with pornography. Due to the lack of adequate information about how women pee and how our bodies work around peeing, we find ourselves further restricted and lacking the necessary imagination for innovation of clothing, facilities, and equipment; deviating from norms could result in embarrassment and a mess.
Learning about how women peed through history shows how clothing, facilities, and practices varied and sheds light on how people with vulvae can go pee today or innovate to improve our toilet access, comfort and freedom.
Humans have an Interest in Hygiene
The image below shows a woman standing over a vessel, like a toilet, about to pee. Her hands are on her knees bracing herself to improve balance. She is in what we refer to as the 'hover' position, standing with bent knees, a pose often used today by women when faced with a less than clean toilet seat. The hanging garments and vessel suggest cleanliness and indicate the importance of hygiene in this early human civilization.
Early Sketches of Women PeeingThese early sketches of women peeing show the traditional and most widespread peeing method: squatting. Squatting is good for our bodies because it strengthens the pelvic floor, legs, and core, and is good for balance.
The woman below is looking comfortable while she pees. The presence of the topless woman nearby suggest that this may have been an environment or culture in which she felt safe and like she needn't hide.
In this very different image from the same period a woman lifts her skirts and is looking over her shoulder as if fearing getting caught, as she hides behind a tree. The representation of her legs and vulva suggests that Rembrandt may not have had a very good understanding of what everything under the skirt actually looked like. In fact, there seems to be a great disconnect from the upper and lower half of her body.
A woman bares her bottom with a little coverage from a bush. She is reaching to the front, possibly holding aside a garment, wiping, spreading her lips for better accuracy, or addressing menstruation.
The Industrial Revolution, Enlightenment & Victorian Eras
As we move into the 1700s and 1800s the artistic rendition of women peeing is more likely to occur indoors. Imagine a time when women lived in homes that did not have bathrooms. Instead, they would go pee in their bedroom or private chamber or often just the main room of a one-room dwelling.
In European towns & other colonialized regions of the world peeing was something that women did at home as there were no public restrooms. The large skirts of the era could get in the way of peeing, but they did provide some privacy. If we used such skirts in a contemporary setting then the back of the skirts would have to be lifted over the toilet bowl, which would be even more difficult in hoop skirts or gowns with trains.
The convenience of the bordaloue brought ease to womens' peeing needs of the era. One would slide the elongated ceramic dish with handle in-between their legs and up against their crotch and pee standing. In this image the woman has her hand between her legs, indicating some aspect of control. She appears to be manipulating or maneuvering in order to pee without making a mess. This vessel gave women the freedom to go anywhere as they could pee privately under their skirts, and then dump the contents outside. This was common from early modern history through the Victorian Era.
The bourdaloue came in various styles. The eye on the bottom of the pot was common; is this a Victorian joke? Does anyone know what it means? Was it about seeing eye-to-eye with your vulva? Is someone spying? Please comment below if you know what the eye represents. The openings of bourdaloue has a smooth and elongated concave shape ideal for making a seal with the vulva. The second bourdaloue is a more enclosed vessel that is less likely to spill urine due to the narrow neck, and presumably would be more safe like in a moving carriage. You can imagine how one of these would be a necessity for travel. The opening in the crotch of women's' bloomers (undergarments) enabled women to use this technology without removing any clothing.
Another way to address the difficulty of lifting the back of one's skirt over the toilet was to have front facing basins like the one in the image below. It is easier to pee with the front of the skirt lifted because you can see what is going on and more easily avoid peeing on your dress. Was this bidet used only for washing or for peeing too? If anyone knows the historical context of the image below, please let us know in the comments!
A figure in a dress is peeing standing against a building. The simple dress indicates it may be a boy in a dress rather than a girl. The position of the body combined with the direction of the pee stream suggests to me that the kid peeing most likely has a penis. Either way, the practical matter is that the clothing allows them to pee, whichever genitals they may bear, because, they are either wearing bloomers with a split crotch, or no undergarments. Lifting the dress in front would allow them to stand and pee discreetly without exposing themselves to the crowd.
Prior to modern plumbing the streets of London were men's toilet. Women did not go pee in public, unless they had to. If they did, apparently, male artists and periodicals made fun of them and called them indecent. This woman demonstrates leaning against a wall with skirts covering herself for privacy. We imagine it was difficult to avoid splatter when peeing on the hard ground. In this situation a bourdaloue would be helpful because one could direct the stream into it and then dump it away from her body. How did the toilet habits from this time vary between the classes?
The image below shows an accurate representation of a vulva with hips tilted forward and a strong pee stream. The woman's knees are spread wide apart and she is unrestricted by her garments. She is watching her stream, indicating control and intention - she is not likely to mistakenly pee on her robes.
A man and a woman each pee in their own urinals in a public setting with police. The woman is standing to pee. Because she is wearing a skirt and bloomers with with a fly-opening she is able to do so without her garments getting in the way. The peers are facing the wall, so they both have privacy. This begs the questions, is this historically accurate? Were there female urinals in public places historically? Is she transgender? Or is this a fantastical imaginary rendition? If you know anything about this image and it's historical context, please comment below.
Peeing squatting seems the most common way that women have peed through history. Variation in clothing is a big factor in how much of the body is exposed. In cultures in which nudity was accepted and where nature was plenty, people could both pee freely and have the natural access to hygiene and privacy that nature provides.
Entering the Modern Era
It wasn't until the late 1800s that ladies' retiring rooms were introduced and it took a long time for women to warm to them; women were curious but skeptical. It would take a lot to convince them that going to the bathroom outside the home was safe. It wasn't until shopping became a leisure pastime and department stores created delightfully private and fancy "retiring rooms" or "rest rooms" that women began to use a public restroom on a grander scale.
Bloomers had a long run of popularity and in the early 1900's were still worn by most women. Their convenient opening in the crotch allowed women to easily pee. Below two women watch themselves pee in the ocean with relative privacy.
Peeing in a chamber pot was both common and easy and is a method still used today by people camping or staying in under-developed housing. The squatting position is assumed, a position that is both comfortable and provides for long term pelvic floor health when done regularly.
What appears to be a male fantasy of women peeing and exposing themselves in various positions.
A contemporary piece by d caballero on Flickr showing a girl peeing with her pants down. Her knees are pointed forward, likely due to the restricting waistband of her trousers around her thighs. Notably, in historic art women often spread their knees to pee. Does this change in body posture reflect how our garments shape the way we move and use our bodies?
Download our Free How to Pee Manuals. Learn about how go pee outside, how to pee without TP, and how to pee standing.
Thanks for the walk through the Ps and Qs of how women managed to urinate through art history. I can’t imagine, though, that the images were considered anthropological studies at the time. More likely, they were for private viewing by men. Great to have those images now, though, if only to see how awkwardly society treated this natural bodily function in women.
S Lang on