Sunday, 18 April 2010

The ladies' room: how can it go so wrong?

How can it go so wrong? All that’s required is a toilet that flushes, a door that has some form of secure lock, enough toilet paper, somewhere to place your coat and bag, a sink nearby, some soap, and something that dries hands. Yet, for some reason, women’s public toilets are, 9 out of 10 times, barely tolerable, lacking basic provisions and cleanliness, and so awkward to navigate that you emerge, 15 minutes later, damp (“Please, please, please let people realise I just splashed water from the sink on my skirt, rather than wet myself”), flustered and annoyed.

It’s all wrong right from the moment you start looking for the toilets in a pub or restaurant. You meander around the establishment, looking for a sign or symbol to show you where the facilities are, and eventually you see something on the wall: a drawing of a hand pointing the way round a corner and up some stairs, and you follow the hand and find the room labelled with something the establishment thinks is a quirky, modern, perhaps even feminist, way to distinguish the ladies’ from the gents’, just in case we’d be offended by the old, reliable stick woman with a skirt on. Increasingly you get just an absurd “W” or “F” painted on the door, or a vintage drawing/photograph of a woman. Just give me the damn stick woman. I know her. Women have trusted her for decades; we’re seriously not about to hold her up as a symbol of female objectification.

So you’ve established it’s the ladies’ and you go in, to be confronted, usually, by two or three schoolish cubicles. You pick one; it’s the one with the broken lock, obviously. Sometimes the lock isn’t just broken but has been removed completely. Who, please, are the people who break the locks and steal them? Why would this be a fun thing to do? What is going on with that? Anyway, so you go into the next cubicle and that one has a lock that works. Good.

But, oh, hang on, where do you put your bag? There’s no hook on the door and no flat surface of any kind. Other than the floor. Which is slightly damp. “Please, please, please, let that just be splashed water, not wee,” you think as you gingerly put your bag down.

And you sit down on the loo. I won’t dwell on this particular detail, but the experience of sitting down on a wet toilet seat is one that will happen in a woman’s life hundreds of times. And a woman never, ever gets used to it, or finds a way to convince herself that it was just water splashed up by an over-zealous flushing design, rather than another woman’s ... ugh, fluids.

Glossing past the lack of toilet paper – so annoying, so inevitable, and so simple to fix, I can’t be bothered to moan about it – we’ll now move over to the basins. Right, the sink’s in one location, the soap is all the way over there on the wall and the hand-drier is all the way over on the opposite wall. And, unsurprisingly, there are trails of gloopy (often lurid pink) handwash and water marking the distances that countless women have attempted to negotiate.

Oh, I should also mention that there isn’t anywhere to put your bag down at the basins, either, so you have to clutch it under your arm, which makes washing your hands into a very careful stunt: in order to avoid covering yourself in water and dropping your bag, you can move only your forearms and vaguely rotate your wrists under the water. Which comes out in a big, badly-plumbed explosion, and gives you a wet patch just where you really don’t want one.

You get to the hand-drier which, if it works at all – how many times have you stood there waving your hands under it, to be given nothing and resort to drying your hands with cheap toilet paper that flakes wetly all over you? – gives a pathetic, rasping air that gets absolutely nowhere near sorting out your hands, particularly if it’s one of those that only blows out air in one-second bursts so you have to keep either pressing the button or waving your hands under it in order to keep it going.

Finally, mission accomplished, you can leave and return to your friends. But not before reaching into your bag for your antibacterial hand gel which you feel compelled to use, either because the soap dispensers were empty or because, even though you did manage to wash your hands, the door handle you had to touch on the way out was wet with some horrifyingly unidentifiable liquid.

So I return to my question: how can it go so wrong? The criteria for a workable, pleasant public bathroom are not particularly difficult to fulfil, are they? But it is infuriatingly rare to find one that manages to combine sensible design (individual soap dispensers above each sink, and bag hooks inside each cubicle, to name two very easy and obvious features), with cleanliness and plentiful supplies of the fundamentals (loo paper, a hand drier that actually works).

What establishments don’t realise is that, for women (I can’t speak for the men. God only knows what they have to put up with in the room marked “M”), the state of the room and the experience that lies behind that stupid little “W” is important enough to affect our opinion of the entire place. Regardless of how good the food, how cheap the drinks, how lovely the atmosphere of the place, how confusedly feminist they think they’re being by taking away the stick woman with the skirt on, if the establishment can’t provide something as basic as a clean bathroom that doesn’t leave us huffing and puffing with irritation and disgust, we’ll be taking our custom somewhere else, thank you very much. Read more by Maddie.