Lessons Learned in Ellis Hall Bathrooms

Like many young women, I have cursed the Victoria Secret models as they strut down the runway, felt fat, and then comforted myself with a piece of Kentucky Fried Chicken. But the thought always comes to mind of why women feel the need to compare themselves to each other.

As a college student, I began my higher education in the “sink or swim” mentality that is freshman year. Friends were a life jacket and I was in need of them following my departure from a town where I had known all of my friends since infancy. As the struggle to find a sense of belonging progressed I became critical of everything about myself. Why didn’t I have a perfect body? Why couldn’t I make friends as fast as other girls?

This insecurity progressed until the spring quarter of that year when I took a freshman English class. Although I do not remember much from the class, I do remember one thing about the building it was in: the bathroom.

I recall being late for class and desperately having to use the restroom. I ran in the bottom floor of Ohio University’s Ellis Hall restroom and was instantly taken aback what I saw. Across the walls were song lyrics, quotes, poems, and inspiring messages written by my fellow female students. I was surprised not only by the amount of graffiti I saw, but the stark difference it was from the crude language usually written in bathroom stalls. It was as if, for the first time, I could see the confidence other women had about life.

“Learn from each mistake, don’t be too hard on yourself. Trust me – no one is perfect,” – anonymous quote, bathroom stall number two.   

Ohio University, a Mecca for liberal arts students in the harsh world that is Appalachian Ohio, has a female population of about 53 percent within its entire population of 20,000 students. Such statistics beg the question of why we as women feel insecure when we could take over the campus male population if need be.

Society, especially the media, tells us to have perfect bodies, perfect grades, and perfect relationships. It can be overwhelming. But society also tells us not to write on bathroom walls; the women of the Ellis bathroom defy the norm.

“When I am on a mission, I rebuke my condition. If you’re a strong female, you don’t need permission,” – Lady Gaga, stall number three.  

But is it just about rebellion? Or is there some other motive to take out a marker and write?

“I think the bathroom is interesting because especially I think on college campuses the bathroom has been a space where women have voiced all kinds of concerns,” Susanne Dietzel, director of the Ohio University Women’s Center said. “It is very different from the bar bathroom, where people write when they are drunk.”

The women’s bathroom is more than just a restroom. For women, it is an area to cry, to talk and seek advice from friends, and to gossip.

“That bathroom is a forum for exchange and very often bathrooms have been that,” Dietzel said. “I remember reading about how when women first started talking about sexual assault and rape on campus the bathroom became one of the places in which surreptitious campaigns were started. It provides anonymity. In the bathroom you are usually alone, and the only person you face is yourself in the mirror and that can be both affirming as well as not so affirming.”

“It’s nice to know that some good people still exist in the world. I felt alone until today,” anonymous quote, stall number one.

But some see the bathroom writings as a shadow of creative writing in addition to a self-help room.

“Some of it [the writing] is due to creative writers and philosophy majors in this building,” Director of Creative Writing Dinty Moore said. “The better graffiti functions like an image in a poem or a very short haiku. I’m hesitant to go on the record and say it qualifies as creative writing, but in fact it does. The point of creative writing is to make the readers stop and look at the world differently.”

Director Moore holds office in Ellis Hall and has not personally been in the girl’s bathroom since he is male, but believes the writing to be more of a nuisance than an expression.

“I suspect most people in the university wish that no one was doing that,” Moore said. “I wish there was a dry erase board in every stall so that people could write things and then erase them. Even if sometimes I am amused by what I read, I just don’t think you should write on other people’s walls.”

Director Dietzel disagrees about the writings’ function.

“I do think that the graffiti is a very legitimate form of communication,” Dietzel said. “If you look at the social groups who do graffiti, those are usually the groups that don’t have other voices that are available or other medias that are available to them. It [graffiti] is really about people who don’t have access to other means and ways of communication. So, for them graffiti is definitely a way in which their voices are being heard, in which their artistry is being seen so it’s a great way to communicate and give disempowered people and groups a voice.”

Upon further exploration of the restroom, I noticed that the writings are painted over at least once a year. After the removal of the words, it does not take long for more to pop up.

“When you paint over the writing on the walls, you censor those you serve, breed resentment among them, and try in vain to suppress creativity,” – anonymous quote, stall number one.

But is the painting done to punish the rule-breaking writers? Or is it done simply to create room for more?

“I think it is just to clean it up and I can understand that,” Dr. Marsha Dutton, director of the OU English Department said. “Of course it would make more room for the writers because it is clear the people who are writing in these stalls are going to keep on doing it. But I’m sure that’s not the intention. The intention is, ‘let’s clean this up.’ Which means, when they decide to paint, they are actually regarding it as graffiti.”

Graffiti or not, the Ellis bathroom is seen as original.

“There is such a range of both lyricism and quotations from songs and to some extent poetry and from things they have read,” Dutton said. “But also a kind of dialogue where one person will write something and someone else will respond and someone will say something and it may move from a kind of plaintive comment to someone being cynical. So you get a range of ideas and emotional responses.”

Emotional responses that made me wonder if there should be a couch like you see in the movies on which a patient lays upon while a psychiatrist scribbles notes.

“Women are writing to one another and hearing each other and giving advice. There’s a kind of, I almost don’t know how to say this, there’s a kind of sisterhood developing in there,” Dutton said.

“My boyfriend in abusive, but I love him and keep letting him hit me. What should I do?” anonymous quote, stall number two

–       “I had the same problem. I left. It feels AMAZING,” responding quote, stall number two.

–       “You deserve so much better. You are strong,” responding quote, stall number two.

Recently, OU experienced a similar situation in another campus restroom. A student took to the wall, recording their despair.

“I feel like I am losing control of this. I don’t know how much longer I can keep going. Trying to survive this is exhausting. I feel like there is no reason for me to be alive anymore. I think I should be dead. I hate having these thoughts, but I don’t know how to make them go away,” anonymous quote from a photo taken by the Ohio University Division of Student Affairs.

In response, students who saw the comment took the time to write inspiring messages to the writer on post-it notes and place them on the bathroom wall. This occurred the same day the writing appeared.

“Ask yourself now where you would be without days like this when you finally collide with the moments you can’t forget,” anonymous quote, stall number three.

Going to the restroom is a primal need. We do not control it. We do not over think it. But it is also a place where each of us has a moment of privacy to reflect on the day, our work and what we need to do. It can be a place of solace.

You can weep to your friend, but sometimes what you want to get out is just plain pain,” Dutton said. “Sometimes what I see in there is people who are grieving or suffering or searching. They can write one sentence or a piece of a song and somebody that they don’t even know hears them. It is sort of like an inanimate psychologist and better even because you get a real response.”

“Don’t forget to love yourself,” anonymous quote, stall number three.

As I move forward towards graduation, I face throwing myself into a sea of uncertainty once more as I search for a job, home and life. I will continue not because I have to, but because I know I can. Finding your place in the world is difficult, but it is nice to know that the writers of the Ellis girl’s bathroom know how I feel.

“Cherish every moment you have here; every single step, class, person, etc. Each day is yours to make the best of it all so you have no regrets,” anonymous quote, stall number three.

 Post written by:
Caitlin Turner,  junior studying journalism

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About Ohio U Women's Center

The Ohio University Women’s Center serves and responds to the needs of OU women students, faculty, and staff, as well as members of the community. Founded in 2007, the center is dedicated to creating an inclusive and welcoming campus climate for all members of the community through programs, resources, referrals, advocacy, and education. Located in Baker University Center 403.
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One Response to Lessons Learned in Ellis Hall Bathrooms

  1. Thanks for such an insightful blog regarding the pressures to be perfect for women today. I wanted to let you know I was inspired to use your post for a rhetorical analysis for a class of mine because of the power behind your words. (:

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