The Writing on the Wall (Online Only)
Story by Liza Weeks
The stalls in the women’s bathrooms in Haggard Hall provide ample amusement for those spending time on the toilets. Words are strewn on the walls; some form the intricate web of a multi-party debate, some accompanied by anything from a doodle to a giant masterpiece, while some stand alone with no purpose other than to make a statement: “Harry Potter 4 Life!!!,” “Labels are dumb as long as you’re happy J,” “I like to poop”.
Once ink begins to take over the walls, they are covered with a layer of paint. Then another layer of writing begins to reappear.
“Getting married? Congratulations! Fight the patriarchy at the same time — keep your own name!”
“But my BF’s name is so bad ass…”
“Or become gay and take your wife’s name”
Then comes another layer of paint — and so the cycle continues.
The stalls serve as an anonymous forum for women to debate and discuss issues they face. They also are a space for simple musings for the occupant to read while passing time on the porcelain throne.
Topics discussed on the walls include the question of whether it’s appropriate to let yellow mellow in public bathroom facilities, the number of times writers have had one-night-stands, and thoughts on what might be written on the stalls in the neighboring men’s bathroom.
“People just spill their guts and I love it,” Western senior Amanda Warren says. As a linguistics major, she is fascinated with the ways people communicate, and finds the stalls particularly interesting. She has even taken photos of the writings, mostly for herself, but also to show to people who are not a part of Western. Her favorite subject discussed on the walls is beauty.
Serious discussions also grace the walls of the women’s bathrooms, as the stalls offer an anonymous way for women to reach out. Women write on the walls for advice about suicidal thoughts, sexual assaults, drinking problems and other topics that can be difficult to talk about.
“I want to go to counseling but can’t convince myself to do it”
“3 of my best friends got MIP’s last weekend. It was a shock and I want to help them in any way that I can but I am running out of ideas.”
“Go to AA [Alcoholics Anonymous] classes w/ them.”
“I think underneath it all, it’s just nice to see that people that reach out in a way that feels safe for them are getting support back from other anonymous sources,” says Devlin O’Donnell, Crime and Sexual Assault Support Services (CASAS) coordinator at Western.
O’Donnell heard of the stall forums when one of the students who had previously visited her office took a photo of some stall writings and sent it to her cell phone. The writing was by a victim of sexual assault looking for advice. The student responded on the wall to go to CASAS.
“I just want survivors to know that they are welcome here,” O’Donnell says. “They’re not alone, and not at fault. They don’t have to tell me their name, details or fill out paperwork. They can just come into my office and have a safe, confidential space to talk about whatever feels comfortable for them.”
O’Donnell says she would like to see brochure holders added to the bathrooms so CASAS and the counseling center can have information accessible to those in need of help. She says this would be especially helpful for when the university paints over the writings.
The university typically paints the stalls about every three months, but sometimes the graffiti forces them to paint it every month, says Paul Cocke, director of University Communications.
“It is important to realize, in these tight budget times, that adding to the workload of already hard-working Western maintenance staff is both unnecessary and irresponsible,” Cocke says.
O’Donnell says the university could deal with the forum in a way that would both help the women and keep them from having to repeatedly paint the bathrooms. Western could bring back free speech walls or put butcher paper up in the bathrooms.
Cocke says butcher paper is not an option because while it may be a solution for some of the writers, much tagging specifically targets permanent surfaces. The paper may deter some from writing on the walls, but other writers may move to surfaces that would be harder to restore, Cocke says. He says staff and students have worked to provide forums for students including Viking Village, Facebook and the comment boards in the Viking Union.
“Graffiti in undesignated spaces, which costs staff time to repair, is simply vandalism and contrary to the spirit of collaborative decision-making,” Cocke says.
The university views these forums as nothing more than vandalism and the best-proven approach to dealing with vandalism is to cover it up as soon as possible.
Fiona Shearer, a fifth-year Western senior studying photography, disagrees with this policy. She took photos of the most visually stimulating graffiti to be archived for a project for one of her photography classes. Her goal was to bring the forum outside of the bathroom.
Shearer calls the writings embellishments. “You’re not making something uglier than it already was,” Shearer says of the plain white walls and tile in the bathrooms.
O’Donnell says she doesn’t condone vandalism, but she appreciates people reaching out to one another.
“Whether it’s on a bathroom stall, or in a classroom, or at a friend’s house, I am so grateful for the people who support survivors,” O’Donnell says. “It’s just a huge gift when someone is brave enough to share in any way what they have been through, and us making sure survivors know that they deserve help and have people they can talk to is critical.”
Even if it’s scribbled on the door of a bathroom stall.