Exploring the Bidet: A Look into its History and Popularity

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The bidet, a piece of toiletry equipment with a rich history, is more commonly used in Europe than in the United States. Tiia Monto/Wikimedia Commons/(CC By-SA 3.0)

Despite Americans’ strong interest in hygiene, bidets are not widely used in the United States, the country that popularized hand sanitizer. However, what could be more hygienic than thoroughly cleaning oneself after using the toilet? Although bidets have been popular in Europe and Asia for a long time, Americans seem content with less effective methods of cleaning themselves.

The Humble Origins of the Bidet

Perhaps this lack of popularity in the US has to do with the long and illustrious history of the bidet. Popular in fancy European households since the 1600s, the original bidet was a small chair or stool with a built-in tub of water. After using the chamberpot, the user would straddle the device and thoroughly clean themselves. The French word “bidet” means “pony,” which helps users understand how to use it.

Over time, bidets became popular in bathrooms worldwide and were eventually installed as a plumbed fixture next to the toilet. However, they never caught on in the US. One reason for this may 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 them with sex work. It’s possible they thought bidets were used for douching, which was believed to be a legitimate contraceptive practice (it is not). So, even though the style of bidet most commonly used throughout the world today was developed in the US, it had to be exported elsewhere to become popular.

The Modern Bidet

“The old type of bidet – the kind that’s a separate unit next to the toilet – is difficult to work on, requires a remodel costing several thousand dollars to install, and takes 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.”

Today, bidet seats are more common. These are attachments that replace the old toilet seat and spray a jet of water on the user’s bottom (which can be warm or cold, depending on the price). There is also a front wash for cleaning women’s private areas. These attachments are less expensive, and some basic models are available at a lower price. They are also more accessible than traditional bidets, which require the user to finish using the toilet, stand up, move over to the bidet, and sit back down to clean themselves. Here is a helpful video that demonstrates how easy it is to install a typical seat-model bidet attachment:

According to Shearer, the first basic bidet attachment was invented in the United States during the 1920s. Although it was not very popular in America, it became very popular in Asia, where it has since been improved. In Japan, for example, 80% of households and public restrooms have bidet attachments. Most of them are produced in South Korea, with some in China.

Using a bidet may seem like a complicated process and can be intimidating at first, but it is actually quite simple and depends on the type of bidet being used. First, use the toilet as usual for both urination and defecation. Then, locate the bidet which may be standalone, seat mounted, or wall hanging. For standalone bidets, you must move away from the toilet and straddle the bidet, either facing the water jet or with your back to it. For bidets attached to toilet seats, find the controls, which may be mounted on the wall or attached to the seat itself. Wall hanging bidets function similarly to hand-held shower devices. Once done, dry yourself off. Some bidet models have an air drying system, while others require the use of toilet paper.

Bidets are often used for medical reasons, such as for people with Crohn’s disease, colitis, colon cancer, or irritable bowel syndrome. Bidet seats can alleviate the symptoms of these conditions. Doctors also recommend bidet seats for keeping clean, particularly for aging people who may have difficulty maneuvering a wipe or wash. Additionally, bidet seats can reduce urinary tract infections (UTIs), which can be especially difficult for older people. Although there is little research to support this, doctors recommend bidet seats for women who have undergone hormonal changes that affect their bodies’ bacteria growth. Ultimately, bidets make it easier for people to stay fresh and clean.

While research suggests that bidet seats can alleviate the symptoms of certain conditions such as hemorrhoids and anal fissures, some preliminary studies indicate that the use of bidets may not be suitable for everyone. In fact, some patients with anal fissures experienced relief only after ceasing to use bidets, and a Japanese study from 2011 found that habitual use of warm-water bidet seats could disrupt the balance of vaginal microflora, leading to an increased risk of bacterial infections.

Despite these potential drawbacks, bidets may have ecological benefits. In Japan, where conservation is a high priority due to limited space and resources, bidet seats are popular because they enable people to maintain hygiene without wasting water or paper. While bidets do use water, the amount is typically less than what is used during a shower, and the real savings come from reduced toilet paper use. Nearly 90% of toilet paper sold in the US is made from virgin boreal forests in Canada, which cover 60% of the country, and American ignorance of bidets means they consume 20% of the world’s toilet tissue despite making up only 4.5% of the global population.

Perhaps it’s time for Americans to embrace the bidet and follow the lead of countries like Japan. Interestingly, it’s rumored that Marie Antoinette was allowed to use a bidet while imprisoned before her execution.

FAQ

1. What is a bidet and how does it work?

A bidet is a plumbing fixture, typically found next to the toilet, that is designed to clean the genitals and anus after using the bathroom. It typically consists of a bowl or basin that is filled with water and a spray nozzle or faucet that is used to direct the water onto the desired areas. Some bidets may also have additional features, such as heated seats or air dryers.

2. Are bidets more hygienic than toilet paper?

Many people believe that bidets are more hygienic than toilet paper, as they use water to clean the area rather than simply wiping with paper. Additionally, using a bidet can help to reduce irritation and the risk of infection, particularly for people with certain medical conditions or who are prone to urinary or vaginal infections.

3. Are bidets common in the United States?

Bidets are not as common in the United States as they are in some other parts of the world, particularly Europe and Asia. However, they are becoming more popular as people become more aware of their benefits and seek out alternative methods of personal hygiene.

4. How do you use a bidet?

To use a bidet, you will typically need to first use the toilet as normal. Then, you should straddle the bidet, either facing the controls or facing away from them, depending on the design of the fixture. You can then use the spray nozzle or faucet to direct water onto the desired areas and clean yourself thoroughly. Some bidets may also have additional features, such as temperature controls or pressure settings.

5. Do bidets use a lot of water?

While bidets do use water, they typically use much less water than is used to produce toilet paper. Additionally, some newer models of bidets are designed to be more water-efficient, using only a small amount of water per use.

6. Are bidets expensive?

The cost of a bidet can vary depending on the brand, model, and features. Some basic models can be purchased for under $100, while more advanced models with additional features can cost several hundred dollars or more.

7. Can bidets be installed in any bathroom?

Bidets can typically be installed in most bathrooms, though they may require additional plumbing work to be done. Additionally, some bidets may not fit well in smaller bathrooms or in bathrooms with limited space.

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