July 8, 2013

How an Army of Girls Forced Me to Wash My Hands. ~ Andie Britton-Foster

I love my parents—wouldn’t trade them for the world. But there are a few areas of child rearing that they may have overlooked.

I grew up on a diet of Spam and Kraft Dinner; I never properly developed an appetite for healthy competition, because in my eyes, a participation ribbon was still a ribbon—and my parents weren’t even remotely diligent about handwashing after using the bathroom.

Since entering adulthood, I have expanded my menu options and realized the sheer lunacy of competitive sports, yet my handwashing has remained a rare occasion. This personal hygiene hurdle has almost become a point of pride for me, as if washing your hands is only an activity for sissies and alarmists.

Yet this summer, I seem to be reaching for the Purel pump tenfold my regular habit. How did this sudden shift to sanitize happen at the ripe age of 23?

No, it wasn’t a moment of clarity where I clicked in to the health benefits and general importance of handwashing—it was the eyes of 100 little girls watching my every move.

I work at an all-girls summer camp as a yoga instructor. Everyday, I teach dozens of kids, from wild, bouncy six year olds to sullen teenagers that have proclaimed me to be ‘beyond lame.’ I am surrounded by girls, and am expected to set an example; at dinnertime, around campfire, and in the personal hygiene department.

Now, after going to the washroom, I constantly feel the watchful eye of those-who-I-am-supposed-to-be-mentoring. As I reach for the hand soap, I begin to sweat. Do these girls know that I’m a fraud? Can they see through my ‘smoke and mirrors’ bathroom sink routine? Do they know I would act differently were they not around?

I am suffering from the Panopticon effect.

The Panopticon, invented by Jeremy Bentham in the 18th century, was a piece of architecture designed to harness compliance and create fear. Essentially, the Panopticon began as a tall observation building in the middle of a prison yard. This structure would force prisoners to behave by the mere possibility of them being watched. No guard was even necessary in the Panopticon to gain compliance, the building as an ‘omniscient’ eye was enough to promote good behaviour.

Bentham was brilliant in this design, as he realized early on that good behaviour was not always fuelled by an inner moral compass. Rather, behaving oneself often depends on an audience.

The bathrooms here have become my Panopticon; I act hygienically for fear of being caught. My behaviour is kept in check by the prospect of being watched.

This got me to thinking of how often my actions are warranted by others witnessing or opinions.

This includes being kind to children when a coworker is around, being extra helpful in an attempt to impress a higher-up, oozing confidence around attractive men, and, yes, washing my hands for an audience. Social and community dynamics have become a Panopticon, reinforced through witnesses, rather than personal acceptance of the rules.

Hugh Prather once wrote: “Live your life as if everything you do will eventually be known.”

This enlightening quote reaffirms my suspicion that we would live much different lives were it not for the Panopticon of social norms keeping us in check. We are a product of our society, and our society is produced through our own influence over each other.

I can’t decide if this Panopticon effect is a bad thing or not; I believe that there does exist a healthy consideration of others, and that this consideration makes for a cohesive society. I do wonder what would happen morally if we didn’t feel this omniscient gaze of our peers.

A perpetual optimist, I like to think we would still take care of each other. For the ‘big issues,’ our heart would take the lead, and steer us in the direction of common consideration. Perhaps less people would wash their hands. Perhaps less people would opt for the ‘side salad’ option at a restaurant. Perhaps less people would recycle or volunteer at soup kitchens or offer to foot the bill.

The Panopticon may reinforce these ideals, but when it comes to the department of courtesy and care, my heart tells me that we don’t need a tall dark building to manipulate our behaviour towards each other.


Andie Britton-Foster‘s father was a walnut and her mother was a sparrow. By sheer magic, she was born. She spends her summers planting forests and spends the rest of her seasons teaching yoga in Kingston, ON.






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Ed: Bryonie Wise

{Photo: via Pinterest}


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