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Lights, camera, bathroom! A private space goes public

Once taboo, the public restroom is now at the center of Instagram fame — and transgender rights.

By Kara Baskin

The upscale steakhouse The Grill, one of New York’s power lunch spots, opened in 2017 inside Manhattan’s Seagram Building. In this mid-century modernist space, originally designed in 1958 by architect Philip Johnson, dapper men squire statuesque ladies to tufted banquettes. They order goose terrine and prime rib from a trolley. They sit side by side, not across from one another, gazing as a parade of privilege strolls by. They are, for a moment, from another time and world, even if they’re just in from Jersey spending a Christmas bonus.

And so the bathrooms transform them, too. An attendant straight out of a 1950s cigarette commercial presides over a ladies’ powder room. There are four vanities and counters, with lighting you’d find in a Broadway green room. Walls are a pink peach satin, soft as Betty Draper’s lipstick. The ceilings are peach, too, exuding a feminine glow.

“And then you walk into bathroom proper, and it’s all done in marble. It’s very beautiful, with rosewood. So it’s like walking onto a stage, and you’ve got to act the part,” says Bill Georgis, the architect who gave the restaurant its signature look. It’s all meant, he says, to evoke the images of Roman baths — the ultimate sin, the ultimate exposure and indulgence. It has been called the most photographed bathroom in New York.

The idea that people would take glamour shots of a bathroom might once have sounded absurd. But at a time when “Bathrooms of Instagram” boasts more than half a million followers, it’s natural to think of restrooms as status symbols, and more. Bathrooms serve many purposes beyond the basic physical needs these days: Selfie showcase. Emotional sanctuary. Creative canvas. Refuge. And as the place where everyone from presidents to peons conduct their most intimate moments, bathrooms are the great equalizer. They’ve long been at the center of technological, social, and political change. They stand at the intersection of voyeurism, taboo, and identity. And as a tumultuous decade comes to an end, they’re having a moment.

“People buy out our whole restaurant and use the bathroom as a photo booth. It’s a social gathering place.”

In the earliest days of civilization, humans revered the bathroom and its attendant activities. In ancient times, bathing was a sacred, cleansing ritual. Think of the Jewish mikveh, for example, a purifying taking-to-the-waters. For Romans, baths were a near-carnal indulgence, a place to openly socialize and rejuvenate unclothed, without shame.

But over time, bodily functions became cloaked in taboo, as any Freudian analyst might tell you. In the United States, in the late 1800s, states began passing laws requiring separate bathrooms for men and women. When Marcel Duchamp released his iconic 1917 art piece “Fountain” — a porcelain urinal, signed and dated and laid on its side —“there was nothing more risque that he could possibly do,” says New York University sociology professor and industrial designer Harvey Molotch, the editor of “Toilet: Public Restrooms and the Politics of Sharing.”

By the mid-20th-century, entire movie plots centered around violations of bathroom privacy, from “Psycho” to “The Shining” to Andy Warhol’s 1967 film “Tub Girls,” featuring superstar Viva lolling in a bathtub with various partners. Bad things — private things, sinful things — happened in bathrooms.

So people were conditioned to treat bathrooms as dangerous places that needed to be contained and controlled. “[Bathrooms] seem to be an easy way to scare good people who might otherwise be more humane,” says Mara Keisling, executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality (NCTE).

Whites-only bathrooms, Keisling points out, were one of the most potent symbols of the Jim Crow era. “Why We Lost the ERA,” Jane Mansbridge’s 1986 book about the failure of the Equal Rights Amendment, argues that the amendment was largely sunk by fears that passage would mean the end of separate women’s and men’s rooms, creating unsafe conditions for women.

More recently, bathrooms have become a centerpiece in the battle over transgender rights — because, as Keisling says, they’re essential, both symbolically and literally, as part of the human experience. To use a bathroom that matches your identity is to be recognized in the most fundamental way.

“If you can’t use a safe bathroom at your middle school where you’re a student, you simply can’t be a student,” she says. “And if you can’t use a safe bathroom that’s the right bathroom for you in a workplace, you can’t have a job. And if you can’t use restrooms in restaurants or movie theaters, you can’t be a full member of society.”

Today, Keisling says, single-use bathrooms, marked as gender neutral, are increasingly common at corporate headquarters and at colleges and universities. In January 2019, the International Code Council, which governs building construction standards, implemented new codes — expected to be adopted by state and local governments — that require signage on all single-user bathrooms, indicating that they’re open to all users.

“This means that there just will be a lot more gender neutral bathrooms in the future,” Keisling says: even corner restaurants could soon have to remove their “M” and “W” labels and offer bathrooms available to all. And those more inclusively designed bathrooms, Keisling says, could help people with disabilities and caregivers, and families with small children — or, really, anyone who has ever waited in line on one foot while another restroom sat empty.

The rise of bathroom parity laws comes at the same time that bathrooms are getting a closer look as public spaces — and more image-conscious businesses are realizing, as Marcel Duchamp did a century ago, that bathrooms are a powerful way to make a splash.

“Using the bathroom is doing something intimate in a public space; it is the most intimate thing that one can be doing,” Molotch says. “And that kind of playfulness and intrigue has, I think, gained ground. In part, because of Duchamp. But also because there’s always a hunger for moving forward with the avant-garde. Some clubs, for example, now have it so that you’re set up that you can vaguely see, through translucent glass, people going and using the facility.”

Indeed. Now, architects and designers are paying much more attention to the aesthetics of their restrooms, says Boston-based interior designer Erica Diskin.

They “used to be an afterthought,” Diskin says. “And then as social media and especially Instagram have [evolved], there was a phenomenon where people began selfie-ing themselves in mirrors. So now, you have to create moments.”

And so the bathroom has gone from the bowels of history to artistic showcase, and the most taboo place of all has become a status symbol. No less an elite fashion institution than Harper’s Bazaar recently ran a spread quantifying the most Instagrammed bathrooms in London, noting that 40 percent of pictures taken at Michelin-starred Sketch are not of the food but of the loos (which are festooned with Jetson-esque pods and rainbow-tiled ceilings).

At Sinema, a restaurant in Nashville, the bathroom is decked out to resemble a Hollywood dressing room; #SinemaSelfie has thousands of hashtags, with customers draped before their full-length, movie-lit mirror pouting like aspiring Kardashians. It has even been home to engagement photo shoots.

“People buy out our whole restaurant and use the bathroom as a photo booth. It’s a social gathering place, and it’s crazy to think a bathroom could ever be that,” says special events coordinator Carly Houison.

But there may be no more inclusive, selfie-worthy status symbol than the public bathrooms in New York City’s Bryant Park. Built in 1992, as the brainchild of philanthropist Brooke Astor, the bathrooms are modeled after the Place de La Concorde in Paris; they consist of one building, containing three stalls for women and two for men. They’re lauded for their spotlessness, their over-the-top flower arrangements (created by Upper East Side florist Flowers by Philip at $1,400 per month, and paid for by the nonprofit Bryant Park Corporation), ever-changing artwork, and classical music pumped through the speakers. They got a $280,000 makeover in 2017.

East New York’s Sharon Edwards, an immigrant from Guyana, is the luxury loo’s steward and devoted gatekeeper. She supervises the cleaning crew, hires workers, and ensures that those bathrooms live up to their reputation.

“You come into our bathroom, and you shouldn’t find dirt,” she says.

Edwards and her staff arrive at 7 a.m., scrubbing tile walls with Windex and spritzing the ceilings with Spray Nine while perched on ladders. She stays on her feet for eight hours with three 15-minute breaks, maintaining the bathroom’s standards even when mentally ill guests spray feces on the walls, or others try to wash their children in the sink or use needles in the stalls.

Despite it all, the greeting remains the same for Edwards, who understands that bathrooms possess a unique power—to make people feel safe, to make them feel seen, to make them feel clean, to make them feel accepted.

“I say, ‘Welcome! How are you? Welcome to Bryant Park.’ Most people say, ‘What a beautiful bathroom.’ And really, it doesn’t matter who you are. We all have to go the toilet,” she says. “Black, white, homeless. We serve blue-collar people. We serve everyone. Whoever you are, when you enter our bathroom, you may feel the same way blue-collar people do, even if you’re homeless. You must have the same feeling: ‘Wow.’”

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Kara Baskin is a writer based in Boston.


Illustration by Miguel Porlan


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