Juliana Breines Ph.D.

In Love and War

The Body Problem

Why do bodily functions make us squirm?

Posted May 03, 2012

The children's book Everyone Poops, which documents the pooping styles and sizes of a range of animals and a little boy, did not get the greatest critical reception. Publishers Weekly said: "Okay, so everyone does it—does everyone have to talk about it? True, kids may find it riveting, but their parents may not want to read to them about it... Call it what you will, by euphemism or by expletive, poop by any name seems an unsuitable picture book subject." 

"Don't ask, don't tell" seems to be the dominant ideology when it comes to poop, and understandably so. Unfortunately, however, this attitude can lead children—and some adults—to believe that what happens in the bathroom is abnormal and shameful. And it's not just poop that we're uncomfortable with—it's also body hairbody fatbreast-feedingpuberty, periodsdigestive soundsnudity, and pretty much anything else that involves natural body states and processes. Even Adam and Eve felt compelled to cover themselves with fig leaves. Clearly no one wants to hear the details of your latest bout with food poisoning, but many of the things that make us uncomfortable have nothing to do with physical discomfort or disease. Why are our bodies so embarrassing?

Although bodily functions seem outside of the range of topics generally studied by social psychologists, a group of researchers, led by Jamie Goldenberg, have bravely ventured into this territory and made some important discoveries about the origins of body-related shame. According to Goldenberg and colleagues, natural body states and functions are threatening because they remind us of our "creatureliness" and therefore our mortality, or vulnerability to death. Societal rules about proper body maintenance exist in part to manage our discomfort with our animal nature, and, somewhat paradoxically, people conform to these rules even when conformity compromises their physical health.

The theoretical basis for this perspective is Terror Management Theory (TMT), which is inspired by the work of anthropologist Ernest Becker (The Denial of Death, 1973), who argued that humans are uniquely burdened with a strong drive for self-preservation combined with an awareness of the inevitability and unpredictability of death. This unfortunate combination can arouse a sense of paralyzing existential terror. Thankfully, though also problematically, humans have found ways to manage this anxiety so that they rarely have to confront it directly. Denying the physicality of the body is one of these ways. In one study, for example, students who were reminded of the similarity between humans and animals were subsequently more likely to have death-related thoughts and expressed less interest in the physical aspects of sex, and more interest in the romantic aspects, compared to participants in a control condition. This shift in priorities was interpreted as a psychological defense against the threat of creatureliness.

Despite its protective properties, the denial of our physical vulnerability can have serious costs for health and well-being. Reminders of mortality have been shown, for example, to decrease women's intentions to conduct breast self-examinations, and may also lead people to avoid other types of routine screening and health-promoting behaviors. A lack of open discussion surrounding bodily functions may also compromise people's ability to distinguish between normal and abnormal physical symptoms, resulting in unnecessary anxiety on the one hand, and failure to detect real signs of disease on the other. Not only can this denial hurt our health, but it may also undermine our very humanity and sense of aliveness. As Becker put it, "The irony of man's condition is that the deepest need is to be free of the anxiety of death and annihilation; but it is life itself which awakens it, and so we must shrink from being fully alive" (cited in Goldenberg et al., 2009).

Is there a way to come to terms with our animal nature and the joy that comes with it without becoming paralyzed by anxiety? "Unfortunately," Goldenberg writes, "this abandonment of fear and defense may require evolutionary developments beyond our current capacities (p. 215)." But that doesn't mean there is nothing we can do in the meantime. For starters, we can develop a more forgiving attitude toward our bodies when they betray us, as they inevitably do, and we can strive to recapture that childlike sense of wonder at all of the miraculous things our bodies can do—poop included. 

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