One of the things I’ve become really interested in — thanks to our toddler son Felix, and our time abroad in India — is the recent movement towards early potty training, or what some people refer to as Elimination Communication (which, like any contemporary parenting movement, is rife with ideological rhetoric). This dovetails with my increasing research interests around excrement in the United States, which, in its contemporary moment, ties together parenting debates with the science and medicine of right living — a tradition that extends back to at least the turn of the 20th century, thanks to thinkers like John Harvey Kellogg.

Dr. Steve Hodges gives a pretty good example of the state of this kind of thinking right now, as he’s taken childhood constipation as his site of activism. He’s written a couple pieces for the Huffington Post recently, and they’re worth reading. Hodges points out that tons of children are woefully constipated in the U.S., and points to a few causes: the American diet (especially the American kids’ diet, with chicken nuggets and hamburgers), social shame, and early potty training. I’m not entirely sure why early potty training gets picked out, but he cites it as a cause since children have spent more time learning to hold ‘it,’ and so they just continue to do it. It seems rather counter intuitive, since it would actually seem that children who have been potty trained early would be more confident about going to the bathroom when sent to elementary school. When I think about our time in India, where Elimination Communication is just a way of life, and little kids don’t necessarily wear diapers (who needs to when your floors are marble or concrete and can just be sprayed off?) — kids are, in other words, potty trained very early by American standards — childhood constipation doesn’t seem like it should be the same issue.

In the service of making early potty training the problem, Hodges backs away from making a more pointed critique of American eating. Maybe it’s a tired critique to make; maybe parents don’t want to fight with their kids about the latter’s desire for white bread. But there’s something to learn from Kellogg, and that’s that the process of digestion isn’t strictly limited to the food itself, but also its preparation. Cultural geographer Nicholas Bauch has been working on this distributed view of digestion for a while, and it’s worth thinking about how the long chain of processing events to make our food might also make it harder to excrete. Taking this distributed view of digestion seriously might mean leaving the foodstuff itself aside and taking seriously how that food gets made — and what it gets made with. There might be room for a little more fiber in those chicken nuggets…

And, more importantly, Hodges leaves aside the question of social shame, which might be the biggest problem for young non-poopers, and possibly also the easiest to fix. Often, especially in elementary schools (which Hodges uses as his example), kids are waiting in line with one another, and intensely aware of what each other is doing in the bathroom. American experiences, in this respect, are pretty different from Chinese examples (like in Preschool in Three Cultures), where the kids are squatting over a trough together (I love that little kids face one another and chat through their time on the trough). Americans have so much shame about their bodily processes that it’s no wonder kids can’t perform when presented with semi-public excretion. Maybe, then, we should start thinking about a different infrastructure for excretion in the U.S.? Would replacing communal bathrooms with many small, individual bathrooms be so difficult? Stalls, clearly, aren’t private enough for many Americans. Individual bathrooms sure sound better than having a grapefruit-sized lump in your colon. Randy Marsh aside, of course.

2 thoughts on “Paging Dr. Kellogg

  1. Perhaps for your next column you could provide some preliminary commentary on your upcoming expedition to the north coast of Nunuvut to investigate infantile elimination philosophies of the natives there. Of special interest: the less fortunate Inuit who lack marble floors, and do they historically prefer Huggies or Pampers?

    1. Well,actually… One of the books that got me thinking about alternative management of shit is Jean Brigg’s Inuit Morality Play, in which she talks about how the Inuit in northeast Canada dispose of poop — in metal cans, thrown into a common field. When spring hits and it all thaws, it’s apparently a huge mess.

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