Why Women Don’t Visit the Ladies’ Loo Alone


Why Women Don’t Visit the Ladies’ Loo Alone

Illustration: Shruti Yatam

“Is it in?

“Try your finger!”

In the ladies’ room at a posh London bar, I stood anxiously in front of a cubicle. Inside was my sister, trying to insert an unfamiliar menstrual cup, and I was coaching her through the door as best I could. Barely a minute went by before a couple of girls walked in on this peculiar scene. Without missing a beat, they figured out what was going on and pitched in, one girl troubleshooting like a seasoned IT professional while the other consulted the manufacturer’s website. Before long, half a dozen strangers had been in and out, each one stopping to offer a word of encouragement or an emergency tampon.

Welcome to the world of the women’s loo, where the spirit of sisterhood runs deeper than the drunk 2am conversation you have with the girl who just puked her pitcher of sangria into the commode. You never learned her name, but you held back her hair and told her to dump her cheating fiancé. If you haven’t been the one playing nursemaid, then a woman has certainly consoled you in the confines of the loo.

Yes, it plays into the that old cliché – straight out of a man’s imagination – of women unable to visit the loo on their own. Now you know why. There’s always someone to convene with in the ladies’ room. I can’t count the number of times I’ve gone out and, having misplaced my group, made a beeline for the bathroom. I know I’ll always find friends there, even if they’re not the one I came with.  

This phenomenon is so widespread, it inspired a whole Reddit thread on the unspoken etiquette of women’s bathrooms, ranging from telling someone when there’s no more toilet paper to letting the most desperate girls go first. Commenters even agreed that however awful a girl is, she must never be allowed to leave the loo with her skirt bunched into her panties or toilet paper stuck to her shoe.

While “etiquette” implies a modern-day Debrett’s Handbook on how to piss with elegance, women helping each other in the sanctuary of the bathroom goes beyond that. It’s a full-fledged global subculture. Like black mould, a unique sisterhood flourishes between the damp, grubby walls of the bathroom. Here, society is kinder and gentler, with help always at hand and threats temporarily at bay. This is where you go to escape the creep at the bar, the bloodstain on your jeans, the thumping bass of a concert, or your boss’s latest outburst. It’s also where you’ll meet the aunty who buttons your shirtsleeve before a job interview and the teen girl who gives you a pad when you don’t have any. For me, this is the place to collect yourself before you confront the challenges that wait without.  

We’re ready to offer whatever is in our purses, our pockets, and our hearts, knowing that down the line, in our hour of need, another woman will do the same for us.

We live in a world where women are judged for everything from having periods to having emotions, and the bathroom is one of those few gender-exclusive places where we can let it all hang out – a brief but cathartic loosening of corset strings. Women go to the loo in pairs not because they can’t take a dump alone, but so they can take a glorious moment to be themselves.

They can talk about how much they hate swimsuit shopping, and be a drunken mess without worrying about roofies. They can cry and be met only with tissues and understanding. They can tell a stranger that she’s beautiful, because in the ladies’, the only boundaries necessary are the ones between the stalls.

I’m reminded of a Community episode in which a character is never invited to be a bathroom buddy, since she’d rather rant about fascism than provide a listening ear or a warm hug. The other women have to induct her into the arcane rituals of the loo in order to protect their sacred space, teaching her the code of conduct that most of us take for granted.

How did we all develop this sense of sorority, seemingly by instinct? Is this what a woman’s world looks like?

Perhaps this is why we guard it so closely, deeply cognisant of the principles that govern our paradise – even if it occasionally smells less than Edenic. We queue for what feels like hours with the patience and efficiency of assembly line workers, never mind the screaming children and the steady decline of the paper towels. We clean up after ourselves in deference to the girls who will follow us. We’re ready to offer whatever is in our purses, our pockets, and our hearts, knowing that down the line, in our hour of need, another woman will do the same for us.

In a strange bar in London, thanks to the combined efforts of the entire women’s loo, my sister successfully inserted her menstrual cup. It’s a small, deeply personal victory. But in the ladies’ room, triumph, like sorrow, is always shared.