What is the “poo taboo” and what does it mean to you?

Before you read any further I would like you to try something, say the word “poo” aloud. It you’re alone you were probably ok with doing that, but now imagine you’re not only saying the word “poo” in front of other people but actually trying to discuss it actively with people, many of whom you probably do not know, because you are trying to improve public health by decreasing the practice of open defecation. It would probably make you and them a little uncomfortable, and that discomfort is known as the “poo taboo.”

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Taboos in general are deeply rooted, often historically relevant, topics that people are uncomfortable talking about. The poo taboo is a particularly well-studied one because, as the book title goes, everybody poops; and despite the fact that the toilet and sewers were invented around 2800 BC there are still over 1 billion people that practice open defecation on a daily basis.

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The people who are passionate about poop have taken up arms against the idea that poo is taboo. They have done a media dump of epic proportions on multiple continents in order to get people talking about poop. They have enlisted the help of celebrities like Matt Damon, had researchers give TEDx talks, and just generally made it easier for people the world over to say the word poo. The World Toilet Organization, headquartered in Singapore, have even gone as far as declaring November 19th World Toilet Day.

So you may ask yourself what this particular taboo has to do with you? Well, as someone interested in public health you have no doubt come across research and initiatives that would have incredible public health impacts but are shrouded in social taboos. Whether that topic was condom distribution, sex education for children, needle exchanges, or something as simple as poop doesn’t change that people do not want to talk about it. Our natural human inclination is to avoid talking about topics that make people uncomfortable, but in doing so we are doing a tremendous disservice to the global community. Only looking at the poo taboo it has been shown that not talking about the problem has significantly slowed the development of public health sanitation progress the world over.  But the poo people have gone on fighting to put poo in everyone’s face, no matter how much they don’t want it there because when push comes to shove it matters. We can all learn from the poo people is that the solution to tackling a taboo health problem is to force discussion and education into the public sphere. The more people who are actively talking about a taboo the less uncomfortable it becomes for everyone involved and the greater progress can be made.

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10 thoughts on “What is the “poo taboo” and what does it mean to you?

  1. Matt I love it!!! This was hilarious and insightful at the same time! Great blog post! Happy belated bday by the way 🙂

  2. Both funny and informative. Reminds me of the recent toilet paper commercial with the tag line ‘Be kind to your bum”. First time I saw it I thought “you can’t say that on TV”. Sometimes one provocative word can get enough attention to force the discussion about an important topic (the health issue not the toilet paper).

  3. Great Great Great topic!

    This is right on with what we are trying to do in pubic health. I once had a boss tell me not to use the word obesity while I was charting. My response: “What word would you like me to use, fattie or chubbie? Patients need to hear that they are obese, Im not going to sugar coat it for them. It’s not being insensative, its the truth”.

    If we continue to dance around a topic and not adress it directly, we will never get enough headway to change it.

  4. Great post! But I was really disappointed that Matt Damon did not use the phrase “poo taboo” in the clip! 🙂

    • In our family, there is no poo taboo. We also discuss it at the dinner table with the kids. However, we do need to teach them that it might not be a topic that they should bring up at other dinner tables. My wife is a healthcare provider so all medical & science topics are fair game.

  5. I wonder why I do not suffer from the Poo Taboo, does this say something about me? Hum.. Matt Damon is my favorite.. I always knew we had a connection, who would have thought it was this! I love this post Matt, Thanks!

  6. This is hilarious! It feels very reminiscent to one of the toilet paper commercials in which a woman talks to people about their toiler paper preferences and putting the “poo” issue out in open. I think some issues need to be tackled head on in a humorous way and I think your post does just that!

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