Natasha Bright watched in horror as she saw her friends drinking beer after beer in the park. She had gone out to meet them as lockdown restrictions eased and maybe have a drink herself. But one thought plagued her: what if I need the toilet?
It was the same when she went to walk her dog in the Peak District near her home in Sheffield. With the already dwindling numbers of public toilets closed, and pubs and cafes shuttered, the options were to hold it in or find a bush. “There’s a lot that can go wrong when you’re squatting outside,” says the 33-year-old charity communications manager. “It takes longer to get your trousers up than it does for men, there’s nettles and the fear of being caught … oh God. If the choice was to have a drink and have to go in the bushes, or not have a drink and wait until I got home, it was easy.”
A friend had told Bright about something she had used at a festival: a cardboard funnel that women can pee through, aiming into a urinal. “It was a laugh at the time,” she says. But when lockdown happened, she bought herself a Shewee; a plastic contraption that comes with its own carry case and enables the user to pee standing up. “This way I can wee as easily as my boyfriend does,” she says.
Bright was not alone in finding this solution. Sales of Shewees have boomed, with the company reporting a 700% increase since the beginning of lockdown. Other companies have reported the same: the Pee Pocket, a cardboard design, has seen an 800% spike in sales. The Tinkle Belle and P Style have also confirmed marked hikes in demand.
It has been something of a stand-to-pee revolution, says Sam Fountain, who invented the Shewee in the late 1990s when she was a product design student. “Men don’t have a problem with using public toilets, but women do: having to get their bottoms out and touching everything, the massive queues. I was looking at a tampon applicator one day and thought: ‘Wouldn’t it be great if you could just wee down that?’” Fountain turned the rudimentary idea into a funnel that could sit under the vulva with a tube pointing the urine away from the body.
She thought the Shewee would appeal to clubbers, but it became a big seller among outdoor types, people with bladder problems, with mobility issues who found it hard to sit down, or those who spent time on the road. “Now, with the pandemic, we’re outside more than we ever have been before. But with that comes the thought: ‘Where am I going to go to the toilet?’ A quick Google and Shewee comes up,” says Fountain.
Cross your legs … bank holiday queues for a women’s public toilet in London Fields. Photograph: Jenny Matthews/Alamy Stock Photo
Even now, when many toilets have reopened, there remains still a lingering fear of using them. Jade Gebbie, 30, is a standup comic and office worker from Tunbridge Wells. She takes her Shewee on long journeys or camping. “I’m not keen on using public toilets anywhere,” she says. “I don’t like the idea of sitting on them. And now, with the pandemic, I just feel a lot safer standing and using it. It probably doesn’t make any difference but I just feel in my head it’s more hygienic.”
According to the gynaecologist Dr Jen Gunter, there is little evidence to suggest that using a stand-to-pee device is safer in terms of coronavirus. “The issue with toilets is what you touch with your hands,” she says. “Which is why good hand hygiene is so important. But you are not going to get Covid vaginally, or via the skin on your bottom. The virus causes a problem because it goes straight into your lungs.”
A more rational fear around public bathrooms is ventilation. According to research published in the journal Physics of Fluid, droplets containing coronavirus could potentially linger up to a metre in the air after a toilet is flushed, to be inhaled by the next user. Hence, the importance of ventilation and wearing a face mask.
Being caught in public with your knickers down, however, is a much more pressing problem. “I often hear girls saying: ‘I’m not going in a bush because people will see my bottom,’” says Fountain. “Especially now: people take photographs and put them on the internet and laugh at you.” Photographing and shaming people urinating in public on social media became something of a sport for some local communities as lockdown eased, with those living near parks understandably rattled by the hordes of people using their bins, alleyways and even doorsteps when they were caught short. Newspapers even featured images of girls, faces and bottoms blurred, squatting behind bins and in bushes.
It could have easily happened to Hanna-Beth Scaife. The 24-year-old from Teesside works as a courier for Stuart, which provides drivers for restaurants on behalf of Just Eat. Her experience shows how seriously some women were affected by the closure of public toilets and the need for innovative solutions.Usually on a shift, Scaife would use the loos in the restaurants she worked with. “But then the staff started refusing us entry,” she says. “We were having to go to the toilet behind bins, change tampons in alleyways. We were told to wash our hands before and after every delivery, but how could we do that?”
Scaife, who is also a rep for the Independent Workers Union of Great Britain, which represents casual workers, works in fixed shift blocks of two to three hours. For every 10 minutes she works, she gets a minute’s break. A two-and-a-half hour shift, for example, adds up to a 15-minute break. “Usually, you would use that time to grab some food and a drink, have a rest,” she says. “But in lockdown, I would drive home to use the loo, and then try and be back in the allotted time.” If she took even a minute longer, she would lose her hourly rate for that shift and instead get paid per delivery, which could be a lot less if it was a quiet shift. Some female colleagues who lived too far out of town to pop home stopped drinking fluids. “If you came on your period, or have diabetes, it made it very difficult to work,” she says. Scaife suffers from myalgia, or chronic fatigue syndrome, and uses a wheelchair on days when it is too difficult to walk. Accessible toilets with the facilities she needs are a rarity at the best of times. When there were all shut, she says, “it was the biggest kick in the teeth”.
Yvonne Taylor bought her stand-to-pee device when she was diagnosed with interstitial cystitis, a chronic bladder condition that made her need the toilet about every 15 minutes. The device she bought came with a bag attached to it, like a portable urinal. While it got her out of a few tight spots, she found it difficult to use. “You still have to take your trousers and knickers down, because it drips everywhere, so everyone can see you going anyway. You might as well squat behind a tree,” she says.
Trying to pee standing up “just didn’t work for me”, she says. “It’s OK for men, because they’re used to it, but as a woman it’s just not built into your mind.”
This is the main problem Gunter has with these devices. “Voiding is such a complex reflex,” she says. “When you’ve been doing it one way for 30 years, changing it is very hard for your brain to comprehend. It’s not a good idea to mess with that.
No entry … a closed public toilet in Windsor. Photograph: Maureen McLean/Rex/Shutterstock
“Standing is not a natural position for women to be emptying their bladder in,” she continues. And while, like many areas of women’s health, research on the ideal position for women to urinate is lacking, the general consensus is that “the optimum position for the pelvic floor is squatting”, she says. Standing is a tricky position in which to relax the pelvic floor, which when tensed can lead to residual volumes of urine staying in the bladder. “For people with bladder urgency, these devices might get them out of a tight situation. But I really wouldn’t want anyone to be doing it on a regular basis.”
So why in Britain do men urinate standing up and women sitting down? “Practices vary so widely across cultures, there is really no one uniform way of urinating,” says Barbara Penner, professor of architectural humanities at the Bartlett School of Architecture at UCL, and author of the book Bathroom. “Generally, these things have very little to do with anatomy and are culturally and socially determined.” Before the industrial revolution, it is believed that all genders would just squat. The development of hooped dresses favoured by the Georgians, for instance, could have doubled up as a portable toilet cubicle, when out and about, especially without cumbersome modern undergarments such as tight-fitting knickers.
And while the Shewee may sound radical and modern, there have been similar devices dating back to the 1700s. “They were discreet objects that women could tuck into purses and make use of when travelling. It’s even claimed that they were used in churches when preachers went on for too long,” says Penner.
The Victorian era brought with it a new prudishness and the division of the public and private sphere, with men in the former and women confined to the latter. “The ideal Victorian woman did not go charging about the city streets and would certainly never admit to needing a toilet,” says Penner. So while public toilets for men appeared in Britain in the 1840s – in the service of disease prevention – it was the late 19th century for women, and even then they were wildly controversial. “It was said that women who needed such a space were themselves public women, which was essentially saying they were prostitutes,” says Penner.
Today, there may be no moral imperative for women not to be out in public, but the demise of Britain’s public toilets due to cuts to council funding has meant many people are still kept on a “loo leash”; chained to the house for fear of not being able to relieve themselves. Is the Shewee a viable solution? Mary Anne Case, a professor of law at the University of Chicago, who has worked extensively on equalising public toilet provision, says that the problem with many of the alternatives for women “is they are not thinking about the female body, customs and habits. Most of the people inventing these devices are trying to allow females to urinate in the way males do.” The fly on women’s jeans, for example, is not positioned for the female urethra.
Women wearing crinoline dresses in 1850. Photograph: Heritage Images/Historisk Bildbyrå/Mustang Media/Getty Images
In many ways, the Shewee and devices like it could be seen as a “lean in” feminist approach to a public health problem: the “if you can’t beat them join them” approach to equality. “There is this notion that whatever men have chosen for themselves must be good, because men are powerful,” says Case. “And it so often isn’t the case.”
For instance, research has suggested it may be better for men’s prostate health to urinate sitting down. The idea became so popular in some countries – such as Germany and Taiwan – that it was introduced as a public health message. There is even a German word for a man who pees sitting down: Sitzpinkler. But the backlash was so vehement that in 2000 the sociologist Klaus Schwerma wrote a book, Stehpinkeln: Die Letzte Bastion der Männlichkeit? (Peeing Standing Up: The Last Bastion of Masculinity?) on the subject.
For the trans community, however, the devices have been helpful. Searah Deysach has been selling them for 19 years via her store FTM Essentials. “We sell both non-representational ones – like the Go Girl and the P Style that are designed for and aimed at a cisgendered female market – as well as ones that are made to look like penises, designed for the transmasculine market.” She has seen a sales spike in both.
“Not every trans person wants to pee standing up,” says Chase Ross, 20, from Montreal. “Lots of people don’t want to conform. But others feel they need to pee standing up or their gender dysphoria is absolutely horrible, so whether it’s just a medicine spoon or a full on $500 prosthetic, it really helps people feel more comfortable.” When Ross was transitioning there was little information on these devices, but he now makes educational videos on YouTube and reviews new ones.
Being able to feel a bit more comfortable is what Shewee fans say it is all about. Soma Ghosh, a 39-year-old writer and performer from Herefordshire, says it was an “essential item when I was pregnant, because I needed to go a lot more”. And now it makes her feel “unshackled. To be able to stand up and go for a wee quickly and safely is the male privilege that I want”.
Lockdown changed our sense of space as our worlds shrunk to the confines of our homes. But it also messed with our sense of time, with the monotony of our days making them feel longer.
Even our most basic units of time sometimes seemed to change. Where we’d once typically divided our days into one-hour or half-hour blocks, some of us instead found ourselves scheduling in shorter snippets of time. Instead of sitting through drawn-out, boring boardroom meetings or labouring over lengthy tasks in our manager’s line of sight, many of us found ourselves working more flexibly, flipping between tasks at a faster rate thanks to the sudden merging of our work and home lives and the increased autonomy it affords us.
In short, many people have shifted to a new normal that involves filling bite-size units of time with bite-size tasks and activities.
Studies have indicated that during periods of ongoing stress and anxiety, the brain’s prefrontal cortex (responsible for our ability to focus on tasks) is significantly weakened. But a recent report from the American management consulting firm Boston Consulting Group found that 75% of employees reported being able to maintain or even improve productivity levels in certain tasks during the first months of the pandemic.
So could the shifts in our scheduling patterns mean we’re becoming more efficient in our work and in our day-to-day lives? Jane Piper, an organisational psychologist and business coach, thinks there are significant benefits to our new way of doing things. “People are more in control of their working day now, and we perform better when we have autonomy. Our days are more flexible to better integrate work and home lives, which leads to an increase in productivity and reduction in stress,” she says.
Taking responsibility for our own schedules also means there is likely to be a reduction in presenteeism, with employees no longer putting in unnecessary “face time” just to show that they’re working. “Working from home means managers have to trust people to do the work, even when they can’t see them,” says Piper. “It changes the question from: ‘Were they present at their desk?’ to ‘Did they produce what was required by the deadline?’ A real upside of the new working landscape is what we deliver, rather than when we deliver.” Of course, it won’t be the case for everyone, she says. “For some, it has been replaced by a digital version, with managers scheduling constant meetings in a bid to force staff to be ‘present’.”
David Ogilvie, who runs The Resilience Development Company, which trains and coaches organisations to optimise performance and productivity, says: “Humans just aren’t meant to focus for long periods – brains are most productive in ‘focused sprints’ compared with ‘marathons’.”
In the programmes Ogilvie runs, clients are advised to work for no more than90 minutes and then rest for 20 minutes. “That might mean setting 90-minute chunks in your diary before breaking or switching to an easier task for the next 20,” Ogilvie says. “There are many variations out there, but the principle is always the same: watch for signs of energy flagging and then reset and start again.”
However, working in shorter bursts doesn’t mean multitasking. “Switching between tasks and multitasking is a feature of modern life, amplified by the pandemic,” says Ogilvie. “But this behaviour could be working against you – studies show that we can lose productivity if we multitask because our brain is switching focus.”
This distinction is key – and arguably explains why we can feel more productive when engaging in activity in short bursts, but less productive if we’re flitting between wildly different short-burst activities. It’s worth bearing this in mind whenever you want to make the most of handy, short-burst formats, such as the wealth of instructional videos on social media platforms. Short is good, but if you’re looking to learn a new skill or knowhow, focusing on that one subject or topic is also important. You could call it scrolling with intent.
So how do you retain the benefits of short bursts while avoiding the trap of multitasking?
Gemma Ray, a productivity expert and author of Self Discipline: A How-To Guide to Stop Procrastination and Achieve Your Goals in 10 Steps, suggests batching similar tasks to improve efficiency, and timing regular tasks to avoid falling prey to Parkinson’s law – the idea that work expands to fill the time available.
Minimising distractions is also key. “A study by the University of California states that it takes the average person 23 minutes and 15 seconds to get back ‘in the zone’ once disrupted,” she says. “For some, working from home means less distractions in terms of colleagues or unnecessary meetings, which enables us to be much more productive.” Though, of course, others might fall into the unluckier bracket of domestic distractions, with children storming their 10am brainstorm or neighbours renovating their kitchen.
Explore the world of TikTok and discover the joy of learning new things in shorter bursts. What will you #LearnOnTikTok?
The Last Dance, the Netflix show about Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls, scored 24 million viewers around the world within a month of its April release. An audience held captive by lockdown almost certainly drove those numbers up, but still, that is a lot of eyeballs for a documentary about basketball games that happened 23 years ago.
Which makes sense when you realise that The Last Dance isn’t really a sports documentary at all, but a blockbuster superhero movie, spun out over 10 instalments, just like Marvel do them. The Last Dance turned Jordan from a sports icon into a superhero, and it did it in part by rebooting his pre-athleisure 90s look as a costume.
Superheroes have to look the part. Without the lurid 70s tricolour T-shirt, Superman is just Clark Kent with wings. Batman doesn’t even have any superpowers, but his look and accessories have always been so on point (the mask! the car!) that fans barely noticed that he couldn’t fly or walk through walls without a gadget to assist him.
Jordan’s sneakers are his Batmobile. When Nike launched the Air Jordan 1s in 1984, it predicted sales of $3m; the shoes banked $126m. Brand Jordan was born, a Nike division in its own right, and with it the mythology of Jordan as not just a basketball court legend but a hero. With serendipitous timing, the Dior designer Kim Jones last year unveiled an ultra high-end luxury homage to the thinking sneakerhead’s favourite trainer, with his handmade-in-Italy limited edition Air Dior. The March 2020 launch date was postponed due to the pandemic; by the time they went on sale in July, The Last Dance had turbocharged the Jordan hype. Even with a £1,800 price tag, these shoes were harder to get hold of than Dorothy’s ruby slippers.
The original Nike Air Jordans were red, white and black, to match the Chicago Bulls uniform. But the resulting Jordan mythology soon soared way above the basketball court and slam-dunked their namesake into popular culture. Jordan became a larger-than-life character and a visual brand, mapping out a master plan that has been followed ever since, by athletes including Tiger Woods, Tom Brady, David Beckham and Cristiano Ronaldo.
Every great fashion brand is defined by a signature shape, and Jordan is no exception. Dior had the New Look, Chanel had the boxy skirt suit – and Jordan had the supersized silhouette. Basketball worships height – Jordan is 6ft 5in, and in his prime he could jump to bring his head level with the 10ft-high rim of the hoop. The aesthetic of the classic shorts-and-vest is oversized and airy. Jordan brought this height and volume into his spectacular off-duty wardrobe, which, in the 90s, revolved around oversized power tailoring and shiny leisurewear. The suits were there to make the point that Jordan was no sporting journeyman, but a bona fide business mogul. The quilted bomber jackets, the diamond hoop earring, the signature beret. This was the 90s and celebrities came larger than life.
Jordan wore his suit jackets extra wide across the shoulder, and extra long. What fits as a jacket on Jordan would be an overcoat on almost everyone else – a neat reminder that he is no mere mortal. His trousers were pleated for extra fullness and worn belted and high-waisted for added length. It is not just the sporting footage that showcases his elongated frame in The Last Dance. When he is filmed sitting down, his knees rise into the foreground of every shot. Set against the popcorny palette of televised sports events, where every available angle flashes advertising in the national colours of Coca-Cola and McDonald’s, Jordan’s suits are notable for their muted colours. He wears taupe and stone-grey, tones that in the 90s helped him stand out against his environment – and which in 2020 make him look eerily contemporary, like a supersized Kanye West.
With his cartoonish swagger and a vintage leisurewear wardrobe that could unite irony-loving millennials and nostalgia-soaked generation X, in a year where big blockbusters were off the cards, Jordan was a stand-in superhero. And why not? After all, this man could fly.