Fifteen Minutes: Notes from the Underground

If you venture deep into the depths of the basement of Lamont, tiptoe quietly to into the women's bathroom, and
By A.c. Marek

If you venture deep into the depths of the basement of Lamont, tiptoe quietly to into the women's bathroom, and slide your way into the first stall on your left, you will find yourself in the midst of an intense debate, worthy of the most alert discussion sections.

"Why have men always been so rich and women so poor?" one individual asks.

"Women are generally richer in the ways that are really worth anything," another responds timidly.

"Yes, but men succeed in convincing women that their treasures are actually trash," another muses.

These passionate voices fall on deaf ears. They do not resonate in the public forum of Women's issues at Harvard but have been subjugated to one of the only places women feel they have entirely to themselves--the paint chipped walls of a lone bathroom stall. In a school where discussion of gender issues has been ignored, where women are only guests of finals clubs and not members, where equally talented women silently watch an all-male cast perform the most professional show on campus--these bathroom dialogues should come as no surprise.

"I went down there one night when I could no longer concentrate on my reading--I felt like I was practically going insane," said a sophomore graffiti writer who wishes to remain anonymous for this article. "I needed to be alone, and the only place I could go was the bathroom, and by fate, I somehow ended up in that wonderful stall. What amazes me so much is the raw honestly of the writings. It's a place where things are understood, where you can express those things you only think when the Harvard world goes away for a moment and you have time to look inside yourself."

However, as the montage of writings on the silver panel of the wall seems to indicate, the women that partake in this library ritual look inside themselves and come up with strikingly different results. With more than 50 entries in total, the women mention the art of autumn leaf placements--a "therapeutic activity, much like reading the books at Buck-A-Book"-- quote e.e. cummings `15, "To be thy lips is a sweet thing and small" and discuss everything in between. A neatly scrawled blue ballpoint hand offers sage advice, "You cannot change what has already past; but how you deal with the past is in your hands now."

In nakedly honest prose, a black, loopy hand shares a moment of pain with the bathroom going community,

"I should have known they were together before he said anything because when they were standing by the salad bar, she put her hand on his hip and everything was quiet, like the first snow..."

But the uniqueness of this Harvard-born graffiti is that it extends beyond simple recounts of traumatic, salad bar sagas. Students in this community engage in a dialogue, responding to the prose written by their fellow partners in crime. A debate spanning the left corner discusses the difficulty of not becoming disillusioned with learning solely as a result of intense workloads. A contingent on the top right argues over women's worth--or seemingly lack thereof.

One large, blue block print attempts to prompt the women in the stall to confront larger fears that come into play in the outside world.

"TAKE A MOMENT NOW--Look down at your body--your stomach, your thighs--lift up your shirt, consider the soft flesh of your breasts," she writes. "How do you feel about your body? It's your physical incarnation; you're immutably tied to it. Forget all the stupid cultural standards that tell you how you 'should' look...Take a moment to honor your body--it houses you..."

And it is because of the uniquely interactive tone of the bathroom dialogues that women find these scrawlings so attractive. For many, conversations between magenta and black ballpoint writings on the bathroom wall fill a void that pervades their daily existence. As one writer who described herself as a "high school girl" wrote aptly, "Thank you so much for this wall, it's nice to know that in a world that often makes me feel secluded, there are people out there I can talk to."

However, with the formation and strengthening of groups like the Seneca and the Women's Leadership Conference, Harvard has made strides in the opening of channels for communication between the female community. Peggy T. Lim '01, the chair of the Women's Leadership Project, acknowledges an old boys network that continues to persist in the Harvard community and the implicit pressure placed on Harvard women to exude sophistication. With the creation of a new "Women's Guide to Harvard" due next fall, and a Lilith Fair equivalent on campus in the spring, Lim hopes to make new strives in female empowerment on campus.

"The book aims to expose women to resources and academics and an honest perspective of the Harvard community," Lim says. "Hopefully it can create a community of voices for women--one that is louder than your average bathroom wall."

But the graffiti artists and their comrades harbor no regrets for using the bathroom wall to fulfill their needs in the here and now.

"Had I been scrawling obscenities on the wall, I would have felt guilty," the sophomore said. "The people in this community seem genuinely interested in expressing their thoughts and feelings--something that sometimes seems lacking on this campus."

--A. C. Marek