THE POWER OF SYMBOLS
I never doubted that symbols were powerful. In our society, we have many symbols that, when we see, we don’t even have to take a second to know what they mean/stand for me. Take for example the shape and colors of a stop sign, or, the symbols that designate the gender of a particular bathroom. The simple, stick like figure of a person in a dress is, can be recognized instantaneously as one that represents a woman, and the the person in pants that of a man- more specifically it’s, without hesitation, known as the designation of a space (the bathroom) as being for that particular gender only.
Most everyone, upon seeing these symbols thinks: women’s bathrom, men’s bathroom…and underlying that, all the other words and thoughts that are commonly attached to those genders due to the pervasiveness of gender stereotyping & gender roles in our society- and inherently, those become attached to and define those gender designated spaces as well.
So what happens if you dont fit into either of those gender boxes, or what if you do BUT, by society’s rules, don’t appear that you do? These symbols then become something that come to mean other things: exclusion, discomfort, dysphoria, violence. They also become symbols that are approached with hesitation, that require second-thought, confusion. Instead of just walking through the door of a restroom thoughtlessly like most, you come upon the door and gendered symbol and have to consider which restroom you are supposed to use, which space you safely fit…despite both spaces being used for the same exact reasons- to go to the bathroom.
This is where our thinking came for putting the focus back on the bathroom and away from gender when designing a new bathroom sign.
We chose to simply designate what was available inside the space for use: ada accessible stalls? standard stalls? urinals? and then designated that the space was for everybody.
The funny thing about symbols though, is that you are not even consciously aware of what it represents and means when you see it, nor how ingrained in you those meanings are. So upon changing the bathroom signs to our design, we have heard about, and witnessed confusion upon approaching the bathroom.
I (feminine appearing) witnessed this yesterday while in the bathroom (without urinals) hanging posters with someone (andro/masculine appearing). A feminine appearing person walked into the bathroom, looked at both of us, stopped dead in their tracks, looked at the sign on the bathroom door in confusion and walked out. This bathroom was previously gendered a Women’s Restroom before becoming All Gender.
When I walked out I saw them reading the “Bathroom Problemz” poster explaining the project— and then I saw them walk back into the non urinal bathroom. I hoped they would walk into the one with urinals- but I wasn’t surprised they didn’t.
Most people still use the all gender restrooms as if they are still gendered…which makes me start thinking about how ingrained our behavioral training is- but that’s for another day.
This bathroom has been All Gender before our project-though it had been using a different sign on the door that utilized the common restroom symbol, but with multiple variations. Now, the sign simply had the symbol of a toilet, the word everybody, and a list of facilities available.
In that moment I realized how powerful a simple symbol can be, and also realized perhaps that is why the school decided to stick with the basic stick figures for the all gender bathrooms. That style of symbol is associated with the bathroom.
Despite this- I still stand by the signs our group came up with. Although- I am interested in exploring how to make them more accessible for language differences, and in coming up with a symbol to represent an ada-accessible stall without using the “handicap” symbol (which only represents visible disability, it ungenders anyone with a disability, and the use of a symbol that includes the disabled individual as part of the symbol to represent a bathroom stall is dehumanizing). I think our groups design definitely got people to think differently about the space of the bathroom and the ways in which those spaces are designated. And hopefully it got people thinking about symbols, and what they represent, and how much they are ingrained into our brains ALONG with a whole set of behaviors that we have been trained to perform along with them— but it is finals, so everyone is probably too sleep deprived to think about this a much as I wound up doing.