The Existence Of Poo (On Shame, Part I)

by Lisa McKay on April 4, 2014

Almost four years ago now, on a velvety Friday night, my husband, Mike, and I had a hot date. We’d been married a year and a half by that stage, and living in our new home-town of Luang Prabang, Laos, for three whole weeks. We decided to go somewhere special to celebrate. That somewhere was a tiny restaurant called Tamarind.

Tamarind is tucked opposite a gold-glazed temple and serves traditional Lao food along with a dash of cultural orientation. It was at Tamarind that I first sampled a stalk of lemongrass stuffed with minced chicken and herbs and grilled over an open flame. It was also where I first tried the brown triangles of dried riverweed studded with sesame seeds that you are meant to dip into tiny bowls of chili paste mixed with buffalo skin. The latter was not such a transcendent epicurean moment, but I guess you can’t win them all.

Despite the occasional appearance of buffalo skin in the dishes, I love the food at Tamarind. At least initially, however, the food at Tamarind did not return my affection in equal measure. Although I was feeling perfectly perky when we sat down to dinner, I suddenly felt markedly less perky about halfway through our feast.

There are few things more deflating than suddenly becoming aware that you may need to make an emergency toilet run in the middle of a hot date.

outhouse-231367_640Mike – a water and sanitation engineer and himself a veteran of giardia in Tajikistan – was sympathetically no-nonsense. We got the coconut sticky rice desert to go and caught a tuk tuk back to the guesthouse immediately. After we got there, I made a beeline for the toilet. Then I collapsed, petulant and groaning, onto the bed.

“What?” Mike asked. “Don’t you feel better?”

“Yes,” I said. “It’s just that, well, Asia is forcing me to acknowledge poo.”

“What about poo?” Mike asked.

“Its existence,” I said.

“Wait,” Mike said, genuinely baffled. “Let me get this straight. Asia is forcing you to acknowledge the existence of poo?

“Yes,” I said.

Then Mike busted up laughing so hard I really thought that he might fall over.

“Did you really just say,” he started, when he was once again able to speak, “that Asia is forcing you to acknowledge the operational out-workings of a normal bodily function that you have, on average, been experiencing at least once every two days since you were born?”

“Mere existence doesn’t mandate open acknowledgment,” I said. “And I am not the only one. This is a widespread woman issue.”

“What do you mean?” Mike asked.

“What do men do when they feel the urge and they’re out somewhere – at the office, or at a friend’s house?”

Mike looked at me as if trying to figure whether I was asking a trick question.

“You use a toilet,” he said. “That’s what they’re there for – to deal with our body’s normal waste in a sanitary and efficient manner.”

“There are some exceptions to this, obviously,” I said. “But women usually find it excruciatingly embarrassing to be caught out in public and need to do the poo. It is generally understood that you do not do the poo anywhere where other people may surmise what you are up to – much less anywhere you may be heard or smelled. Ideally you do not do the poo unless you are at your own home. Alone.”

Mike did not want to believe me on this. I had to tell him about women I know who will never use a public restroom. I had to tell him about women I know who regularly go to an entirely different floor of their office building to use the toilet if they simply cannot wait any longer at work. I had to tell him about women I know who spent their entire honeymoon constipated because they refused to use the bathroom in their hotel room.

“No!” Mike said, horrified, upon hearing this last tale of poo-shame.

“Yes!” I said. “They made covert runs to the bathroom in the lobby.”

“Did you…?” he asked.

“No!” I said. “I wasn’t that bad. But I get it. It’s hard to suddenly acknowledge the existence of poo to someone else when you’ve spent much of your life working to hide it.”

How can there can be that much shame around something everyone experiences?” Mike asked me.

We lay on the bed for a while that night, staring at the ceiling, and pondering this question. We didn’t come up with a great answer four years ago, and I’m still not sure I have one now. I have, however, done some more thinking about shame and guilt since those days, and next month I’ll revisit this topic of shame, guilt, vulnerability and living overseas in some more depth.

In the meantime, however, I’d love to hear from you on this topic. Help me think through how to take this further in next month’s post by picking one or more of the following questions and leaving a comment.  


1. Has living overseas “cured” you of any shame?

2. Has living overseas “created” any shame(s)?

3. Do you differentiate between shame and guilt? If so, how?

4. What is the most scenic/unusual toilet you’ve ever used?


(P.S. With regards to question 4… For me, it’s probably the three-sided shack overlooking the rice terraces of Banaue, Philippines. There was no door on the side overlooking the valley, but when this is your “while you pee” view, who really wants a door?)


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About Lisa McKay

Lisa McKay is a psychologist and the award-winning author of the memoir Love At The Speed Of Email, the novel My Hands Came Away Red, and several books on long distance relationships. She lives in Laos with her husband and their two sons.
  • Superb starter questions! I am looking forward to the follow up post. A few thoughts…

    My first introduction to the fabulous Brene Brown was her Ted talk about shame on YouTube. Wow. I’ve revisited it on occasion because it is so good.

    The middle income demographics church we attended in Santa Cruz had two star toilets. Cloth towels for hand drying after washing your hands in cold water with a sliver of grimy bar soap. Buckets of water to help the flushing of #2. And plush doors to individual stalls. Yet, people of a lower income bracket gave the excuse that they didn’t want to come back to church because they felt inferior because of how nice the bathrooms were. This experience was the first peek at a deep seated condition of shame that courses through the Bolivian culture.

    If the renters of the shops of in a mini mall get behind too much on rent the owner will post huge posters at the entrance of their building listing the names and the amount of their debts. This is to shame the renters into paying.

    In some churches a similar list of tithe debts is posted on the wall near the front door of the church complete with names and amounts due, too.

    After so many years here it is very hard to resist the urge to follow suite in the manipulative practices of laying on the guilt to get someone to do what I want them to do. I hate it when they do it to me or my kids. But in some cases the results are amazingly quick.

    For me, shame is imposed by another person in connection to a perceived public offense. Whereas guilt is an inward sense of wrongdoing one carries in their soul.

    • Thanks, Angie!! Yes!! I’ve been listening to Brene Brown’s stuff on You Tube. Her take on shame and guilt is that shame is connected to your sense of who you are, whereas guilt is related to something you’ve done or not done and isn’t as closely connected to core issues of identity and self. Not sure I agree with her on that split, so your alternative take is thought provoking. Thanks also for your examples about using shame/guilt as tools to stimulate action.

  • Tim

    In high school in Colombia, a bus was chartered to take the entire high school and a few adults from the mission base to Bogotá for a retreat. At one stop, there was a men’s urinal with a chest-high wall in plain view of anyone who was on a bus or waiting for one. I had never had any hesitations about using it when my brother and I traveled alone and only Colombians were around, but to have the North American girls I went to school with (and some of their mothers) see me stand there and pee was suddenly very inhibiting. I waited in line for the closed john instead.

    • Pee shame!!! Awesome. Thanks for this anecdote. It made me smile.

  • Richelle Wright

    I’ve spent a chunk of time thinking about this shame question and I’ve still not come to any hard and fast conclusions. American society, the western church, is hugely anti-shame… and while I understand the why – I think we have a tendency to throw the baby out with the bathwater. I’ve spent some time talking with one of my good African friends (the pastor’s wife at the church we were assisting the past 8 years or so) about shame because it is a huge part of the W. African culture… although shame can be abusive, they seem to get its power a little better than we do. It was talking to her that I recognized that the Bible mentions shame before it actually mentions the word sin…

    I wrote a blog post about shame not too long ago, and one of the ideas I’ve been mulling over is this: people can’t really shame us, though they may try… But they don’t need to… All they can do is lovingly or hatefully remind us of what we already know. I found it interesting that the very first mention of shame in the Bible – Genesis 2: “And the man and his wife were both naked and felt no shame” – refers specifically to the presence of shame as Adam and Eve,were both naked… uncovered in each other’s presence and in the eyes of God. As soon their eyes were open after they disobeyed and ate the apple, they made coverings and tried to hide from the presence of God. Adam and Eve were able to cover their nakedness in their own eyes… but could not hide their awareness of their “uncovering” from God. They felt shame.

    The word sin isn’t actually used until Genesis 4 and the story of Cain and Abel, when God corrects Cain. This and other studies I’ve done keep me coming back to the fact that feeling shame, recognizing our uncovered state before God, is critical to understanding the impact of sin… but these ponderings are always in a state of growing and developing. I think guilt is much more of an inside recognition of wrong doing or of our involvement in situations that have consequences we regret. I think shame is realizing that other people see our wrong doing or our uncovering.

    Most amazing bathroom I ever used was in the mountains of Thailand as we were trekking through villages (purely touristic) – gorgeous, but the whole village showed up to watch the tourists use the toilet. Sigh… Quite shaming and there was nothing I could to about it…

    Loved how you’ve started this discussion, Lisa! Looking forward to the next part!

    • Richelle, thanks for these great insights and thoughts, can you share the link to that post? Among other things you wrote, I was struck by this: “people can’t really shame us, though they may try… But they don’t need
      to… All they can do is lovingly or hatefully remind us of what we
      already know.” It’s made me wonder about situations where shame springs to life not because of something we already know or knew, but because our eyes are suddenly opened because of comparison to others to an alternate meaning that causes shame. Sort of like an “eating the apple” moment. Also love your take on shame being linked to other’s perceptions of us. I’ll be pondering.

      • Richelle Wright

        here’s the link to that post:

        i think i agree with what you are saying and in a sense, it might be what i was trying to say… and maybe linked to the definition of shame vs guilt that you mentioned in your reply to angie’s comment. at least when i study shame as it is discussed in the bible (i.e. not contemporary culture), shame is a recognition of falling short of an ideal standard – and that other people see our shortcoming or that our shortcoming is uncovered before the eyes of others – hence it affects our identity – and i do believe that deep within, all people recognize that they fall short of what they should and could and hope to… be. we feel a-shamed when our eyes are opened or directed to the fact (again and in yet maybe another way) that we not only know that deep inside, but others (including God) can clearly see it as well.

        thinking with my fingers, here – adam’s and eve’s eyes were opened to the knowledge of good and evil after they’d done evil and thus the fact that they were no longer good was out in the open, staring them in the face as they looked at each other and felt shame in their nakedness… the first “eating the apple” moment.

        • Thanks for this. I’ve read it once, but will have to re-read when I have a brain again (been away two nights of the last four with the kids, and two sick kids and two sick parents here in this household at the moment). Doing the “just keeping head above water thing”. Look forward to revisiting this as I work on next month’s piece.

  • jos

    This post is just solidifying the fact that my friend thinks a coffee table book showcasing different toilets (and views from toilets) around the world would be a big seller. 🙂

    • Well, I dunno about that. I certainly wouldn’t take anything I write as indication of market potential :).

    • Jenny Gentry

      There actually IS a book about different toilets of the world (not necessarily the views from said toilets). A friend and I stood flipping through it at our local Barnes and Noble one Friday night, laughing hysterically. I of course had to buy it. ;-D

      • I think my husband has a couple of different types of those books, actually. People give them to him and snicker because of his water sanitation background :).

    • Missy just added a “bathroom search” to their website as an April Fool’s joke. I was thinking it would actually be a big hit if it were real. Moms and travelers everywhere would have that ap on their smart phone. 🙂

      • TOTALLY a market for that app. Someone could get rich off that. Especially if there were an interactive “rate this bathroom” function where travelers could rate it out of 5 stars.

  • Robert and Jenn McDuffie

    I can not think of any shame that has been created or cured in living overseas. More than anything, I can think of the magnifying glass that has been put to my shame. My shame has mainly been born out of my own frustrated moments of self condemnation and seeming failure to “just get it right”. Although I know I am not perfect, I definitely think many times I strive to find perfection in what I do and often create false expectations of myself which leaves me disappointed and frustrated. Out of that frustration I find myself projecting those feelings towards my family which afterward I feel shame about.

    The most unusual toilet experience I had was when my husband & I were ministering in Lusaka, Zambia. We were blessed to be hosted in a home with indoor plumbing but our ministry was about a 3km walk to the neighboring compound. Since we spent the entire day in the compound (ministering in service in the morning and then teaching class in the afternoon/evening) we were forced to use the outdoor, long drop toilet. The first time I asked for the toilet and they directed me to the long drop, my heart sank and I’m sure the expression on my face said it all. Needless to say, after 3 months of ministry there I learned how to successfully “hit the hole”. 🙂

    • Ahhhh, the skills that really matter that we learn later in life when we think we’re “out of school”.

      Interesting that you talk about shame in response to behavior and how it has it’s roots in disappointment, frustration, and expectations. I’ll think more on this as I prepare next month’s post.

  • Elizabeth Trotter

    I laughed so hard reading this, Lisa! My husband just sort of sat there, dumbfounded, and asked, “so you’re not the only one?” Um, nope! But the curing or creating shame is a good question. When I first read it, I thought, no, I feel no new shame, and no shame has been alleviated either. But then I realized I was thinking about shame over sin. Because there are things I am embarrassed about that never used to embarrass me. I am ashamed I don’t speak the language super well, as is expected of missionaries. I am much more ashamed of clothing choices that don’t cover absolutely everything there is to cover, because I live on streets with GAWKERS. Which is mucho uncomfortable. In the beginning, I was ashamed that we had a salary that allowed us to eat pizza and western food and use air conditioners, but I’m pretty much over that by now. I am not “over” my insufficiencies as a language learner (though, to be fair, I teach my kids full time and have pretty much nothing left over at the end of the day with which to learn language). But I am not convinced the things I feel shame over are actually sins. Embarrassing, maybe, sins, maybe not?? Because I don’t really feel guilt about those things before God.
    So I think I do differentiate between guilt and shame, just like Brene Brown (whose talks I have watched and resonated with). And I am not so sure shame is a good thing — having dealt with an eating disorder in the past and understanding the whole “bodyshame” concept, I see that shame can have some really negative consequences. Although Richelle’s comment about shame being mentioned first in the Bible, that was fascinating! Something to think about more for sure.
    By the way, have you heard of the book “Material World”? It’s old, from the early 90’s, but the writer and photographer traveled all over the world looking at the way statistically average families lived in each of the countries they visited. And there’s a two page spread on “Toilets of the World” which my children love looking at. So I guess kids have much less poo shame than grown women!

    • Have you got a link to the Brene Brown talks Elizabeth?

    • I haven’t heard of Material World, but it’s been fascinating to watch my two year old develop a little bit of poo shame. He’ll go find a quiet corner to do his business now and tell you to go away when you look at him. I’m absolutely sure it hasn’t been transmitted by Mike and I in the way we’ve talked about and dealt with his poo, so that’s fascinating.

      Loved reading your thoughts on what you feel ashamed about overseas living and the relation to sin. I too feel a bit ashamed/embaressed re language learning (or lack of) but also don’t think it falls into the sin category. So for me it falls into knowing I’m doing something others don’t approve of and may judge me for. That links up with Brown’s take on the role of judgement in growing shame.

  • Missy

    Question 2: Sometimes I seriously doubt my ability to continue living overseas when so many of my daily struggles are nothing compared to those of people in my host country. Hence, I seem to lose the ability to relate with them and move beyond superficial relationships.

    OK, I’m a bit incredulous about “women usually find it excruciatingly embarrassing to be caught out in public and need to do the poo.” Seriously? I had a friend who went to great lengths to avoid using the bathroom at the same time others did, but I thought that was unusual. Where have I been all this time?

    Question 4: Once while visiting friends of friends of friends in India, I was paraded from house to house for many hours. As was the custom, I was offered tea at each home. After several gallons, I was seriously worried about my ability to sleep that night for all the trips I’d be making to the latrine. The problem was compounded when I was told the “community toilet” was located at a neighbor’s house and my host’s “time share” wasn’t until the next morning. To my humiliation, I was forced to use the family shower all. night. long.

    It served as a stepping stone, however, since I would later quite willingly line up with other women along a busy path, hide behind a tea bush or wake early in the morning in hopes to be alone out in the neighboring field while tip-toeing around previous deposits.

    • Where have you been? You’ve been in the minority that has a sensible attitude to this issue and therefore cannot really conceive of what on earth the rest of us are thinking :).

      Loved what you led off with about feeling like your daily struggles are actually a barrier to forming relationships because you’re struggling with completely different things. That ability to relate to other people’s struggles and for them to relate to ours does seem to be so important in developing an “even” and intimate relationship, doesn’t it?


    Q1 – Living overseas eventually cured me of all shame via a nervous breakdown, as a result of
    Q2- enormous amounts of shame produced by constantly feeling like an inadequate failure in an environment where I perceived myself to be incompetent in every area. I expected life overseas to relieve all my shame, because I was going to be The Best Kind of Person Possible, a Missionary. Instead it all backfired, thank God, into the End of Life As I Knew It.
    Q3 – I would actually put a completely different word here: conviction. Conviction speaks to me of things that need to change, and change happens in a safe and loving relationship, between me and God. But shame and guilt–at least for me–are all mixed up together, and they’re mostly about trying to be that self-protecting invulnerable perfect person who went out to make herself better by being a missionary. I can’t even think about “good guilt” vs. “bad guilt/shame,” because all those words make me feel condemned. I don’t do guilt. Conviction I can do, though, because I trust that God loves me.
    Q4 – I’ve blocked those painful memories 🙂

    • “Living overseas eventually cured me of all shame via a nervous breakdown”… I’m not sure what it says about me that this line made me laugh out loud. Loved what you said about shame being tied up with self-protecting and (though you didn’t use this word) defensiveness. Will think more on this.

  • Shannon

    So… Lisa, I just have to say something about poo! I sat here reading dumbfounded that women go to great lengths not to poo in public toilets! I’ve been with people where we share our crazy toilet/poo stories – traveling can make great content! And childhood camping with no toilet – ya just gotta acknowledge that you and everyone else does it too. 🙂 (But of course, I’d rather be home for a prolonged emergency, and I would want to avoid pooping in a public toilet if it’s dirty – I mean “nasty” – which I’ve experienced.) So who are all these women, and what happened that they can’t “go”?

    • Ha!! Another woman who is free from poo shame!! I’ve met more than a handful now and it’s good to know that you guys are out there :)). Look, I dunno. I had a mild-medium case of poo shame, not a full blown severe case, but I honestly think the severe cases would rather risk ending up in the emergency room than have a poo emergency in a public toilet or at someone’s house, and I’m not kidding about that. I’ve known a couple of people on that end of the spectrum, too.

      • Shannon

        Yes, I’ve heard a few people’s “outreach” stories of emergency rooms! Scary stuff.

    • Kristi Lonheim

      I am with you Shannon. In fact, I know men who will only poo at home. Also, in high school, all the girls on a mission trip decided to keep score of our poos. Points were given depending on the type of poo; floater, length, sinker, pellets, etc. That was decades ago and I still remember how much fun we had with it. No poo shame here! (And yes, camping helps – especially backpacking above tree line and using ‘blue bags’ to pack it out.)

  • Jenny Gentry

    Living abroad has definitely created a “shame”. When I look around at the utter poverty in the places I’ve lived, where people are literally living in dumps, climbing into waste-riddled gutters searching for food or shelter, I am ashamed at the excesses we westerners embrace. Every time I see posts on Facebook or the like of people’s obsession with the latest gadget, even though they already own the most recently released model, I cringe. When I think of the growing entitlement mentality, or the attitude that says we’re too good to work at menial labor. Here in Mexico, entire families stand on street corners or intersections selling small bits or cleaning windshields for mere pennies at red lights. Young children bag groceries for tips; they are not paid by the stores, relying solely on the generosity of the customers. Large families cram into one-and-two bedroom apartments, grateful to have a roof over their heads. In the west, we keep going into debt just to “beat the Joneses”, or to have the latest and greatest, the best and biggest. At times I’m even ashamed of our fancy state-of-the-art churches, having worshiped in very simple, modest surroundings. There are no bulletins. No fancy programs.

    Don’t get me wrong–none of these things are wrong in and of themselves. What concerns me, however, is the fact that we seem to have made idols of comfort and materialism. When families are far more concerned about getting the biggest possible TV instead of helping those less fortunate than them, or when churches care more about state-of-the-art programs and building projects than in supporting missions (both local and global), I believe we’ve lost focus of what is truly important.

    I will readily admit that, until we moved overseas, I was so obsessed with maintaining the status quo of our family, of being *comfortable*, that the way people live in third world areas truly shocked me. But being uncomfortable in my surroundings has been the best thing that’s happened to me in a long time. It’s shaken me out of my stupor and opened my eyes to what is truly important. I pray more westerners will experience how other people in the world live, and that they’d return home more open-handed and ready to make a difference.

    • Loved the way you put this: “being uncomfortable in my surroundings has been the best thing that’s
      happened to me in a long time. It’s shaken me out of my stupor and
      opened my eyes to what is truly important.” So true. In my mind it’s one of the biggest personal benefits to short-term and long-term missions. That recalibration process can be long and painful, but really … so beneficial. Also know what you mean about that mixture of shame/guilt that comes from the disparity between our lifestyles and choices and those who have not.

  • Nicole

    Q2: yes. I’ve felt shame and therefore, frustration regarding what I wear, or don’t. Skirts are common for married women. And sometimes, I just want to garden out of my front door with pants, or scandalous- shorts. I’m not immodest by any stretch, but I love tank tops and short and going barefoot. All things that my new culture don’t exactly smile upon. So shame when I say”screw it” and don shorts anyway. Anger that something so small upsets me… Also a bit of ‘guilt’ when I have luxury time, or go get a massage or have a girls night with expat friends. Like a betrayal to my neighbors who can’t enjoy the same… 😉 you asked! I’m excited to see how you handle this… Thanks for addressing!

    • I’m excited to see how I handle this, too :). I may have bitten off more than I can chew given the next post is due a couple of days after I relocate back to Laos with two children under the age of three who hate change. (PS, I feel a bit ashamed of how much I’m dreading our return… don’t tell anyone).

  • Erika

    Interesting that poo could spark such a conversation! Sorry your date ended so uncomfortably! I have been thinking about this, uh, daily, since moving here to Thailand a year and a half ago. I came pregnant with baby number four, being 5’9 and knowing I could not easily lose the weight babies bring. Knowing I would be giant here. There is a whole new world of shame being able to afford a huge house, having four kids, being over weight, being white, not speaking the language (only a little) I am aware that everything I buy is a luxury, every night when I sleep in my air conditioned room on a comfy bed that it is a luxury, not a right. I feel shame whenever I leave the house, and even when I stay in. I have moments of over coming the shame, but never free. I continue to wrestle with the implications (going out requires a big “talk up” from myself) It is crushing, exhausting, and overwhelming. I am confessing this as a faceless commenter 🙂 but wonder if other people feel this way and how you alleviate the shame? Would I feel less guilty in a smaller house? Or if I was thinner? Would I feel less guilty if I was working in a ministry out of the home? Or if my home housed ministry other than my children? I wanna curl up and suck my thumb… Works for my kids! Trying to find the light yoke and easy burden Christ talked about seems so hazy (some days I get it, I really do). Coming into focus for a moment and then dissipating behind yet another stack of dishes. I used to be a much more impressive Christian in my home country… I can only hope that God is using my utter humiliation for His Kingdom.

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