a few thoughts on bathroom signage


See this shapely two-dimensional lady at the left? I love her. I saw her hanging outside a women’s room at London’s Heathrow Airport, and I gotta say, I couldn’t take my eyes off her. I loved her so much that I stood outside laughing and snapping photos until it occurred to me that I resembled some colossal weirdo with a fixation on A) public bathrooms B) women entering and emerging from public bathrooms or C) both, at which point it also occurred to me that I might get A) reported B) arrested or C) both. At which point I stopped. I was traveling to Ghana to visit my daughter, and I really, really wanted to get there without causing an international potty incident.

But you can see why I couldn’t help myself, right? This chick is wearing a DRESS. Never in my life have I been the sort of woman who wakes in the morning, says, “Ooohhhh yesss, I want to wear a super-complicated dress today,” although I have, in my adulthood, evolved into the sort of woman who wakes in the morning, periodically wiggles into a less-complicated skirt or dress and overall rather enjoys it. But I have never chosen to wear a dress that makes me resemble a large church bell.

As a toddler I wore dresses because I was a girl and that was reason enough for my parents to dress me in them, but once I was old enough to form and state preferences I formed and stated a preference for pants and shorts, thank you very much. This was also around the time I decided that black was my favorite color; don’t read too deeply into it. It’s enough to say I had robust opinions.

I liked pants. In the winter they were warm. In the summer they prevented fat-thigh rub. Any time of year they allowed me to run around and roll in the mud and kick soccer balls and throw baseballs do all those things that boys were expected to do in the late 1960s and early 1970s but girls, for SOME GODDAMNED UNKNOWN REASON PLEASE EXCUSE THE OUTBURST, were not. I never understood this. What did we lack, exactly? Muscles? Curiosity? Energy? Feet?

And look, it’s not because I wanted to be a boy.  As much as I liked the little fellers and got wild crushes on them, inspiring me to punch one specimen on the playground, I only ever wanted to be a girl.  I wasn’t lesbian or trans or gender-fluid or searching. I was a wee girl with a penchant for sports and rough-and-tumble play, and I had parents who let me be who I was. These days such letting and being is easier for everyone, kids and parents alike, and long gone are the days when neighbors would remark to my dad about his daughter’s arm (“wow, she throws like a boy!”).

So I laughed when I saw the sign outside the loo at Heathrow. Who was this bulbous dame? What sort of neo-Victorian undergarment poofed up her dress to such proportions? Was a window fan propped under her ass? Or — I shuddered at the thought — maybe she was actually shaped that way. Maybe she had no arms and no feet and no neck, and if you flipped her upside-down, maybe she looked like a two-pronged American wall plug.  She was just so retro, so enormous, so Donna Reed-Meets-Godzilla, and I so wish someone had made that movie, don’t you?

Whatever. I walked in and went about my womanly business, which did not involve undoing anything more convoluted than a pair of jeans. As I did I continued to giggle, which probably didn’t placate anyone already on the verge of calling the cops, and I wondered about the plight of bathroom-sign designers. Who wants THAT job? It can’t be easy these days, coming up with new ways to divide the bladder-emptying populace with greater sensitivity and fewer stereotypes.

Then I recalled the best public-privy signage I’ve ever seen anywhere: downstairs at Northampton’s Academy of Music, which designates a STALLS ONLY restroom on one side of a corridor, STALLS AND URINALS on the other. I was agog with admiration at their plainspoken economy. I did not have my phone handy, or I would have snapped plenty of hi-res pix at the risk at the risk of being arrested, believe me.

The signs said everything that needed to be said, which was very little. No mention of men and women, no classification according to sexual plumbing, no silhouettes of ladies in A-lines or broad-shouldered dudes with posture like Old Kingdom Egyptians. And, best of all, no armless woman dressed in a massive bar sink!

Though I have to admit, she grew on me.



3 thoughts on “a few thoughts on bathroom signage

  1. It is a hard job. I remember as a kid visiting a science museum where the bathrooms had the symbols for male and female on them. I was frozen between them until my mother came and helped me.

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