Make sense of... The French bidet

Seen as amusing and mystifyingly foreign by many Brits, the bidet also went out of fashion in France but is making a comeback

24 October 2018
By Oliver Rowland

Bidets are rare in British homes but almost all French bathrooms had them until around 30 years ago - as they still do in Italy.

They did not disappear completely but they became seen as ringard - old-fashioned and undesirable - partly due to lack of space in homes and the increasing popularity of showers.

In 1970, 95% of French bathrooms had one, but by 1993 the figure had dropped to just 42%.

French humorist Vincent Lagaf’, in a 1989 novelty song, seemed to echo the prevailing view when he sang that “il est beau le lavabo… il est laid le bidet” (the washbasin is beautiful, the bidet is ugly).

There is also a (somewhat rare) bidet-related insult raclure de bidet (bidet scrapings), and the similar rinçure de bidet (bidet rinsings), meaning something that is worthless.

According to academic Jean-Pierre Goubert, the poor bidet suffers from “a whole heritage of shame and opprobrium”. Notably because bidets were especially associated with brothels, before they were closed down in 1946.

The women would use them to wash their private parts - and some women who had affairs also tried to avoid pregnancy that way. Chevalier du bidet was a term for a pimp.

After the war, such associations seem to have reduced as they became almost universal – before going out of fashion.

More recently, however, some manufacturers say bidets are becoming seen as a posh, chic accessory, perhaps precisely because you need space to accommodate one, and maybe even because of their perceived uselessness.

Some French people are unsure what to do with them - so much so that one site, for Paris bathroom company Jacob Delafon, offers tongue-in-cheek suggestions for what to do with yours. They range from using it as a plant container to a stool or a candle stand. Other people are said to fill it with bathroom accessories such as brushes and hairdryers.

French furniture-makers are responsible for inventing this piece of bathroom equipment, around the start of the 18th century, though it has since  taken off around the world. An early reference is in the household expenses of Madame de Pompadour, who had a bidet in beech wood with carved sides in 1751.

Bidet comes from an old word for a small, stocky pony, such as was ridden by post riders, because you straddle it as if moun­­ting one.

In France they are not generally used on their own for cleaning your posterior after using the loo, but for an optional additional wash for extra cleanliness and/or at other times as part of a daily personal hygiene routine for cleaning the nether regions generally.

The earliest models were not plumbed in. They were in fine woods such as mahogany or rosewood, with a porcelain bowl, and were mounted on feet. They would have been kept in the bedroom, rather than a dedicated salle de bain.

They were especially used by women, so they were referred to by such euphemisms as confiant des dames (the ladies’ confidant) or ami intime (intimate friend). First enjoyed by aristocrats, they became widely used in the 19th century, by which time they looked like modern ones: a fixed installation in porcelain. In contemporary models they are often wall-mounted and may come in a variety of designer shapes.

The functioning varies from the basic – you just put a plug in and fill it from the taps and use your hand to wash yourself – to those with a jet that you position yourself over. In the latter case, as long as the jet is strong enough, it should be sufficient on its own.

You can sit on the bidet (or hover slightly above it) to use it in either direction. Though, without “drawing a picture”, it is sometimes recommended that you seat yourself with those parts of yourself you want to rinse closest to the tap end. Generally speaking, it is said that facing the taps gives you more control.

If you are wearing trousers, you may need to take them off or at least take one leg out.

You should take care not to turn on the flow too fast and - for models with a hot tap - it is likely to be best to turn on the cold first and increase the flow of hot gently to avoid scalding yourself. It is advisable to test the water first with your hand.

After finishing, you dry yourself with paper or a towel, run some water to rinse the bidet – and then wash your hands in the sink.

More ambitious versions (especially those from Japan, where bidets are popular) even include such sophisticated additions as electrically-controlled, push-button jets (in which case you stop the jet by either taking your finger off a Laver button or pressing a separate Stop one), warm air to dry you (in which case there may be a Sécher button to set it off) or an in-built deodoriser.

There are also variants such as toilets with a bidet jet built in and the bidet escamotable (literally, retractable) which is on rollers and can be moved out of the way when not in use (such as under the sink). If you are on a budget or lack space there is the bidet sur pieds, a plastic bidet on legs that you fill with water and which is not plumbed in.

Despite being an item that some people have in the bathroom but do not use, others extol them as more hygienic than just wiping yourself. Some say they are ecological – if you incorporate partial washing of yourself into your routine, you can take fewer showers or baths, thus using less water. You might also use fewer toilet paper sheets.

They are said to be especially convenient for elderly or disabled people and for those who suffer from piles.

Many also point to the bidet’s versatility: some use them to wash their feet, or even their hair!

Others wash their pets in it and some use it as a baby bath, though this is not recommended if you are also using it in the traditional way.

If in doubt, remind babysitters not to use it that way, one website helpfully suggests.

The image here was drawn by artist Perry Taylor. For more of his work see www.perrytaylor.fr

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