My Balinese friends were astonished that so many westerners rushed out to stock up on toilet paper when they realized there might be shortages of some items in the supermarkets.
‘Why would anyone think toilet paper is so important?’ they asked me. ‘You can’t eat it, you know!’
I must say, I felt mystified by this panic buying too. Having lived in Bali for 20 years, where toilet paper is exceedingly rare outside of tourist areas, it’s certainly not high on my list of life’s necessities.
In fact, as Indi Samarajiva explains in his article, How to clean your butt without toilet paper, it’s not a hygienic practice at all. In most Asian countries, people wash themselves after going to the toilet. They find the concept of using toilet paper disgusting because it leaves you unclean. But it’s so much a part of the western lifestyle that in times of uncertainty, it seems it’s the first thing people rush to buy.
Why toilet paper?
Psychologists around the world are still baffled why people would want to hoard toilet paper. No-one predicted this happening in the event of a pandemic. Essential foods, certainly. But toilet paper? No-one saw that coming.
One theory I’ve heard is that toilet paper is an inexpensive way of acquiring something soft and comforting in a time of danger. Another is that it’s bulky, so feels protective. One psychologist suggested that it feels desirable because it’s hygienic, at a time when we are all being urged to be more aware of hygiene.
These theories all seem quite reasonable. But I believe the truth is very much simpler. With so much fear in the world about the coronavirus, the last thing some people want is to have to confront the horrifying prospect of touching their own poo. A good supply of toilet paper makes that fear recede, at least for a while, and makes them feel less fearful about the virus too.
It’s not as bad as you might think
I have first-hand experience of this type of fear, so I’m pretty sure I’m on the money with this explanation. It’s something I had to overcome when travelling in India in my thirties, using squat toilets with only a pot of somewhat murky water and a ladle provided for washing.
The first time I had to do this, I froze. For several long minutes, I couldn’t bring myself to come into contact with my own poo. If my mother’s stories are to be believed, I had a very pally relationship with faeces as a small child. An often-repeated story she told was about how I once proudly filled my hollow alphabet bricks with the fresh contents of my potty. But three decades of using toilet paper had disconnected me from my gleeful experimental toddler self.
After I washed myself, I couldn’t believe I’d found it so hard. Like most fears when you overcome them, there was nothing to it. I got plenty more practice at this during the rest of the time I was in India and the years I lived in Bali.
Now I really do prefer the water-cleaning method. It’s not very practical when using a western toilet unless it has a Japanese-style mechanism to automatically wash your undercarriage or there’s a bidet nearby. But it really does leave you feeling cleaner. And it brings more bodily awareness too. As any Balinese person will tell you, your right hand is for eating and your left hand is for cleaning your bum. They never confuse the two.
No need to stockpile
The crazy thing about stockpiling loo rolls, at least in the UK, is that there would be plenty to go around if people only bought what they need. Many supermarket shelves here have now been restocked and this aspect of our lives, at least, seems to be returning to normal.
In Bali, my friends tell me there has been no stockpiling in at all in most parts of the country due to the fact that no-one can afford to buy more than they need for a few days at a time. So if you ever feel tempted to hoard piles of the soft white stuff in future, just ask yourself, is it really the most essential thing for your survival? You’re likely to discover there are far more important things.
Copyright © Karen Kingston 2020
A spiritual perspective on the coronavirus lockdown
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