If you're an American, there's a good chance that the mental vision-board you just made didn't include one peculiar piece of plumbing — a bidet. Think about it: When was the last time you saw a bidet in the wild? The gap year you spent abroad doesn't count.
If you feel lost, you're in good company: even Jennifer Lawrence has fallen prey to bidet confusion. You may be wondering, "What exactly is a bidet, and how does it work?" Well that's easy. It's a bathroom fixture you use after toileting that uses a stream of water to clean your, um, undercarriage.
Maybe you're more familiar with the modern versions favored by Kylie & Kris Jenner, that includes features like warm-air drying or deodorizing. But if you're wondering why Americans turn up their noses at bidets? That's the truly confusing part.
Even in their humblest iterations, bidets save both paper and water, and not just the kind that's flushed. An average person uses about 30 rolls of toilet paper a year, and that's taking a measurable toll on our environment. The manufacturing of a single, two-ply roll of toilet paper uses up 1.5 pounds of wood and 37 gallons of water. Bidets only use an eighth of a gallon of water per use, that has the potential for serious environmental impact.
There's also the issue of actual cleanliness. In a nation that's obsessed with hygiene to a fault, the mind boggles as to why Americans wouldn't be on board with a device that keeps you cleaner than paper alone. Lenora Campos, spokesperson for toilet company TOTO, told the New York Times, "We use water to clean everything else in our lives: dishes, clothes ... At this critical juncture, you use paper?"
Still for many Americans, the bidet only exists as a punchline in the TV shows and movies we watch. Bidets show up in our shared cultural understanding — either as a signifier of extreme opulence, like the gag about "Beyoncé's bidet" in 2010's Get Him to the Greek. Or, as a slapstick foil, like for Halle Berry in 1997's B*A*P*S. Fans of The Real Housewives of New York City might recall Sonja Morgan's unconventional bidet ice-bath beauty routine. (Note: don't try this at home.)
To be fair, even the name "bidet" is a joke of sorts: In the 18th century "bidet" was the name for a small, squat pony in France, and the position you assume using the device led the name to stick. It's old French humor. Guess you had to be there.
The bidet is embraced in many parts of the world — Europe, South America, the Middle East, and Asia — so why are Americans seemingly so reticent to jump on the bidet bandwagon? Chronic case of the giggles aside, there appear to be, ahem, deep-seated cultural reasons why Americans balk at the idea of using a bidet.
Americans' shared aversion to bidets may have more in common with our past than with our present. Bidets originated in France in the 18th century. At that time, France's frenemy, England, felt bidets smacked of French "hedonism and sensuality," and rejected them outright. That belief jumped across the pond to America and solidified into a mindset. This connotation was further cemented in the minds of WWII soldiers, who brought home with them their memories of seeing bidets in French brothels.
Add to that checkered past the fact that Americans are historically squeamish about airing bathroom hygiene habits. The first appearance of a toilet onscreen in a movie wasn't even until 1960's Psycho, and even that was controversial. Seems like bidets are still waiting for their big break.
Puritanical tendencies aside, there are practical reasons as to why a standalone bidet feels like a foreign invasion to an American. For one: there are no pipes in the walls for them. American bathrooms are designed for American tastes, and by and large Americans have come out as bidet-agnostic, at best.
"Most Americans were raised from a young age to use toilet paper as a means to clean ourselves after toileting – we were never made aware that there was another (better) way!" Shane Allis, Director of Sanitary Products at Kohler, said in an email. "In addition, toilet paper is relatively inexpensive and easily accessible. Up until recently, bidet functionality has been limited in its association to a traditional, standalone, ceramic bidet, maybe seen on a trip to Europe, rather than personal cleansing functionality that is thoughtfully incorporated into the design of a toilet."
But it seems there may be a light at the end of the bathroom hallway: Americans are finally rethinking their bathroom setups, and as bathrooms get an overhaul, the bidet seat has found new life. From the streamlined, futuristic, integrated seats offered by big names like Kohler, to the humble seat add-on offered by viral bathroom innovator Squatty Potty, there's an option on the market for every budget.
Allis attributes a spike in bidet seat integration to a couple of factors. According to him, the globalization of commerce is normalizing bidet use. "A business professional might have experienced bidet functionality in a hotel or airport lounge in his or her travels abroad and upon return home, immediately [desire] a toileting experience similar to [that]," he said.
Americans are also living longer, and with that comes the desire to maintain quality of life. Allis says a bidet seat makes sense because "the bar has been raised when it comes to being able to age graciously and maintain the same level of cleanliness in spite of potential loss of mobility."
While Americans may still be reticent to talk about bidets face-to-face, social media is helping to finally flush bidet stigma, as celebrities give us peeks inside their homes. Kris Jenner recently outfitted her Hidden Hills, CA home with a washlet-enhanced TOTO 750H, and proudly posted on Instagram about the upgrade with the hashtag "#HighTechToilet."
If posts by the Kardashians can send the sales of waist-trainers soaring 250%, who's to say the same couldn't happen for the bidet seat? Allis is noticing an uptick in bidet seats in public spaces, which would lead to wider awareness of their benefits. "Hotel chains that have a global presence are now requesting toilets, equipped with personal cleansing functionality, for their locales in North America, to keep up with preferences that clientele has adopted in sister locations abroad."
For the environment's sake, hopefully the tide is turning. That first trickle of change in a celeb's Hidden Hills home may soon flow all the way to your bathroom.