The bidet: What is this mysterious French lavatory fixture, and will it ever find a place in American bathrooms?
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Americans love Paris, the French love Jerry Lewis, but beyond that the two nations often can't figure each other out. The cultural divide extends to the bathroom. For Americans, the bidet is something of a mystery; many don't completely understand what they're supposed to do with it. Nevertheless, the French fixture has been appearing in some U.S. lavatories, with several models available domestically. So what is a bidet?
While American GIs encountering bidets in French bordellos in World War II reportedly thought they were used for douching, that is not the case. The bidet (pronounced bee-DAY) is for external, not internal, cleaning. Bidets are actually small sinks that users straddle to clean themselves after using the toilet. They derive their name from the French word for "pony." Bidets are usually equipped with two nozzles that gently squirt water fore and aft as users wipe themselves with their hands.
Beats Toilet Paper?
While Americans can be culturally squeamish about touching these areas, proponents of bidets argue that water is a naturally better cleaning agent than dry paper.
"Toilet paper has been perfumed, decorated in color, sterilized and made antiseptic," says the website of American Bidet, a domestic bidet dealer, "but, nevertheless, it is still dry paper and only a step better in evolutionary improvement than the pages of the mail order catalogue or the barbaric plantain leaf."
Although people generally still apply toilet paper after using the bidet, they say they use a lot less. They also point out that people wash their hands after using a bidet just as they would after using toilet paper.
MaryElizabeth Saga, who had a bidet installed in a new house she had built in Columbia, S.C., says she was attracted by the idea of using the bidet to save consumption of water in the shower or bath.
"I think the French don't think it's necessary to scrub one's whole body as often and obsessively as Americans do," she says. "Bidets are easy to use, they're very handy and whether you're conserving toilet paper or water, it just made sense to me."
Saga says she did have to explain what the bidet was to her builder: "He said, 'Can you get me a picture of that or something.' I said, 'If you go to the plumbing supply store, they will tell you what a bidet is.' So he did and they told him that it was illegal because it was associated with houses of ill repute."
A Matter of Habit
Bidets are common in Europe, Latin America and Japan, where people use them because they are regarded as the best way to stay clean. People who don't use a bidet are considered to be unhygienic. As in America, the question of using a bidet is a matter of custom and habit. People in countries where bidets are found in every home find it difficult to change their habits, and will use the bathroom sink as they would a bidet if there is no other alternative.
While the experts we talked to saw no groundswell in American interest in bidets, wider experience with bidets might change that.
"Usually with trends, you'll see it in the hotels first," says Janice Costa, editor of Kitchen and Bath Design News, "and that can trickle down into the residential. With well-traveled people coming back from Europe and demanding bidets, you might see that happening more down the road."
Bidets for Americans
In the meantime, many bidet models marketed in the U.S. are designed for installation on an ordinary toilet to create a combination, one-fixture-does-all unit.
"The good thing about combination units is you don't need more room for a separate fixture," says Sabrina Foulke, architectural designer at Point One Architects + Planners in Old Lyme, Conn. That's an important consideration for people remodeling a bath with limited space, Foulke says.
Americans may also be attracted by the ingenuity of these units. Foulke specifically endorses combination bidets/toilets sold by the Japanese company Toto.
"They're basically the only toilets we recommend at this point," Foulke says. "They have a toilet seat that's also a bidet. They've also addressed the flushing mechanism, which nobody had redesigned in 100 years. The toilet functions very well, it uses less water, and you get the option of the seat that can function as a bidet; it's a heated toilet seat—it'll do everything. It's scary. I actually have a friend who has one, and the heated part is quite nice."
The bidet endorsed by Foulke, the Washlet, is attached to toilets equipped with four different re-engineered, water-saving Toto flushing systems. Depending on the model, the Washlets offer front and rear warm-water washing nozzles, automatic air dryers, even deodorizers. Washlets by themselves range from $725 to $1,250; the most luxurious combination toilet and bidet retails for nearly $6,000.
Mr. and Mrs. Bidet
Less luxurious bidets that attach to your toilet run from $300 to $500. The American Bidet website features a number of attachment bidets proudly "manufactured in the U.S.A. by Americans." American Bidet, which has been in business since 1964, is run by "Mr. and Mrs. Bidet" (AKA Arnold Cohen and his wife, Donna) in Hollywood, Fla. The blurb for the Deluxe Wash 'n' Dry Model invites patriots to "discover the ingenious new American bathroom appliances made to do everything a French bidet does and much more."
Other online bidet dealers include Comfort Clean, which sells the Home Tech line of bidet attachments, and MyBidets.com, which offers a variety of brands and models from around the world.
If you prefer a separate French-style unit, check out Kohler bidets. Most units list for around $500, although handsome designer bidets such as the Ankara are priced as high as $1,700. Also, American Standard offers a full line of bidets. The stylish Savona comes available in six colors, including silver.