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Getting to the Bottom of the Bidet

Bidet
The bidet is a piece of toiletry hardware with a long history, though far more common in Europe than in the U.S. Tiia Monto/Wikimedia Commons/(CC By-SA 3.0)

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Americans are very interested in hygiene, and yet the country that popularized hand sanitizer does not, in general, support the use of bidets. But what's more hygienic than really, actually cleaning your butt after you poop? Not much, but though Europe and Asia have been on the bidet bandwagon for a long time, Americans are fine cleaning their bottoms less well than the natives of other lands.

Humble Bidet Beginnings

This might have to do with the bidet's long, illustrious history. Popular in fancy European households since the 1600s, the original bidet was a little chair or stool with a tub of water built into the seat. The user, after doing all his or her chamberpot business, straddled this device and performed a really deep clean on the old undercarriage. In fact, the word bidet means "pony" in French, which goes a long way in helping the user understand how to use it.

Over the centuries, bidets became popular in bathrooms all over the world — eventually, they were a plumbed fixture in the bathroom, sitting right next to the toilet — but they never took off in the U.S. One reason for this might be that, during World War II, American soldiers visiting brothels in Europe and Japan noticed bidets were common in these establishments and began to associate bidets with sex work — it's possible they thought bidets were used as a douching method, which was thought at the time to be a legit contraceptive practice (for those of you who have not benefited from adequate sex ed, it is not!). So, even though the style of bidet most commonly used throughout the world today was developed in the States, it had to be exported somewhere else to become truly great.

A Brave New Bidet

"The old type of bidet — the style that's a separate unit that sits next to the toilet — is harder to work on, they require a few thousand dollar remodel to install and they take up a lot of space," says Sarah Shearer, owner of Clear Water Bidets in Sequim, Washington, in an email interview. "Most Americans only see them when they're on vacation in Europe, but they're still sold sometimes."

More common these days are the bidet seats — an attachment that affixes to your toilet, replacing your old toilet seat. This device sprays your bum with a jet of water (it can be warm or cold, depending on how much you want to pay) and there's a front wash for cleaning the lady parts. Not only is the bidet attachment less expensive — you can buy a nice one and stick it on your toilet yourself for less than $400, and some more basic models for much cheaper — it's more accessible than a traditional bidet, which requires the user to do their business on the potty, stand up, scooch over to the bidet and sit back down to do the freshening up. Here's a helpful video that demonstrates the ease of installation of the typical seat-model bidet attachment:

"The first rudimentary bidet attachment was created in the U.S. in the 1920s," says Shearer. "It didn't get very popular in America, but it really caught on in Asia, where it has been engineered into what it is today. In Japan, for instance, bidet attachments can be found in 80 percent of homes and in public restrooms. Most are produced in South Korea and some in China."

Steps for Using the Bidet

Using a bidet may sound like a difficult process and may be a bit intimidating at first, but it's really very simple and depends on the type of bidet that you are using:

  • Use the toilet as you normally do, both for urination and for defecation. The bidet can be used after you wipe with toilet paper or without the use of toilet paper — a totally personal preference.
  • Locate the bidet. There are three basic types of bidet: standalone, seat mounted or wall hanging. For the standalone type, you must move off the toilet and straddle the bidet, either facing the water jet or with your back to it. Again, personal preference. For the type of bidet attached to the toilet seat, locate the controls, which will either be mounted on the wall or attached to the seat itself. The wall hanging type of bidet will function much as a hand-held shower device.
  • Dry yourself after you are finished. Some bidet models have an air drying system, which you will operate with the controls and which can, of course, be used in combination with toilet paper should you feel the need. Some models don't include the air dry feature and necessitate the use of toilet paper.

Medical Uses — and Possible Downsides — of Bidets

Although bidets definitely can't ward off pregnancy or STDs, they're a healing balm for other private-parts-related sorrows.

"We see them used most in the U.S. for people who have a medical need," says Shearer. "Crohns, colitis, colon cancer, irritable bowel syndrome — the symptoms that make life hard with these conditions can be alleviated with bidet seats. General Practitioners, OB-GYNs and occupational therapists send patients to us for a variety of conditions. We have people who used to get urinary tract infections (UTIs) once or twice a month come in and tell us they're down to three or four times a year after getting a bidet seat. It can make an extreme difference."

Not only that, as we age, it's more difficult to keep clean down there, particularly if old age is exacerbated by arthritis — it's harder to maneuver a wipe or wash when our hands don't work properly. Bidets can help with this.

"For a lot of aging people, the main thing that's going to keep them independent and at home the longest is their ability to toilet themselves," says Shearer.

One major reason for this is that a UTI, which is pretty manageable (or even asymptomatic) for a youngster, can really make life hard for an older person, resulting in trips to the hospital. Although there's little research supporting the connection between bidet seats and fewer UTIs, hormonal changes during and after menopause can affect the way a woman's body grows bacteria, and many doctors recommend bidet seats for keeping clean. Regardless, increased ease in staying fresh can't be a bad thing for a population that needs a little extra assistance in a department that young people take for granted.

And although some research shows bidet seats can ease the symptoms of hemorrhoids, anal fissures and itchy anus (it's a real thing), preliminary research suggests at least one type of anal fissure stopped only after the patients quit using a bidet. Similarly, a 2011 study in Japan suggests habitual use of a warm-water bidet seat can actually knock vaginal microflora communities out of whack, resulting in more vaginal bacterial infections.

Bidets Save Water and Trees

When it comes down to it, though, bidets might be low-key to saving the planet.

"In places like Japan where there's more concern about conservation than in the U.S., bidet seats help them manage in a place where space and resources are very limited, they can't take showers as often as we do, but there's a need in their society to stay clean and hygienic," says Shearer.

And it's true that bidets use water, but it's not as much as a luxurious shower. But the real savings come in when you consider how much toilet paper you don't have to use if you're using a bidet.

Almost 90 percent of toilet paper sold in the U.S. comes from the virgin boreal forests of Canada, which cover about 60 percent of the country. They're making the air we breathe, in addition to the toilet paper, and the American lack of interest in bidets means that although the country accounts only about 4.5 percent of the world's population, its citizens use about 20 percent of the world's toilet tissue.

Which is why America probably needs to jump on the bidet bandwagon.

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