The Paris Review

A Bathroom of One’s Own

Larissa Pham’s monthly column, Devil in the Details, takes a tight lens on single elements of a work, tracing them throughout art history. In this installment, she focuses on women in bathrooms.

Edgar Degas, La Toilette, c. 1884–86

The door of my childhood bedroom didn’t have a lock on it, so I spent a lot of time in the bathroom. Every human wants privacy, but no one more than a teenage girl. Though I ostensibly shared the bathroom with my little brother, I claimed it as my domain. I spent hours reading on the tiled floor, my body bracketed between the sink and the door. In my memory, it’s a slightly steamy, always warm, watery place—but I never spent that much time in the bath. If I wasn’t reading or sulking after a fight with my parents, I was performing those charmless beauty rituals teenage girls are so fond of—shoving my A-cup breasts together trying to make cleavage magically appear in the mirror; waxing my legs with a kit I’d surreptitiously tipped into the family shopping cart; dyeing the tips of my hair hot pink. Manic Panic spotted half my towels; menstrual blood stained the rest. In the bathroom—my bathroom—I lounged, I cried, I sat on the edge of the empty tub, my two thumbs laboriously T9-texting my friends.

Last summer, my roommate brought home a framed print of a woman standing at her toilette. She found it for, from . In the composition, a woman bends over a basin, one hand submerged in water, the other at her brow. She is nude from the waist up; her dress is rendered in appealing, nearly abstract stripes, and the shape of her skirt blocked out in solid, pastel colors—sage green, snow white, sunrise pink. On the floor is a flowered water pitcher, and the ground is similarly patterned with ferns and flowers in warm gray and thinned-out royal blue. The image is modest—we see only her smooth back, the faint shape of her breasts—and the mood is one of quiet intimacy, a peek into one woman’s private world. Though Cassatt’s subject stands opposite a mirror, her face is hidden from us. Her expression is caught in the private, unreadable space between her body and the mirror. I love this most—that her image is doubled and therefore doubly hidden from us. The rectangle between her face and her reflection becomes a chamber of endless possibility: What thoughts run through her mind? The flowered ground rises up to meet her.

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