Revisiting family cloth 🧻

Ariel Meadow Stallings
5 min readMar 15

How the pandemic changed my mind about reusable toilet paper

A decade ago, I wrote about the concept of “family cloth” aka wiping your butt with washable cloth:

Ok, we’ve talked about all sorts of eco-friendly home hacks, but let’s try the final frontier of reusable toiletries: FAMILY CLOTH. The concept is pretty straight-forward: rather than wipe your butt with paper that you then wad up and flush into the septic system, you use small squares of soft fabric that you then wash and reuse.

It makes sense, right? People use cloth diapers all the time. What’s the difference? You can even do like the folks at Penniless Parenting did here, and make a nice little Kleenex-like dispenser that goes on the back of your toilet tank, and then a nice little hamper with a lid next to the toilet. Line it with an old pillow case that you can lift out and toss in the wash and VOILA: you never even have to SEE the poopy fabric. Reduce! Reuse! Recycle! Makes perfect sense, right? Plus, some people claim that you get cleaner — no bits of toilet paper left behind in MY butt crack, no ma’am!

In my head, I say YES. Yes, this makes perfect sense, and I am totally going to hop over to Etsy and buy some adorable Family Cloth wipes and start using them on my butt TODAY! In my head, I am completely on board with Family Cloth.
But somehow, deep in my belly (…in my bowels?) the idea just squicks me out.

Despite my squicked outed-ness, eight-years-ago me really did try to wrap my head around the concept. Wasn’t it essentially the same thing as cloth diapering my baby, which I’d totally done? Somehow, the diaper application of the cloth+bodily waste concept didn’t gross me out, but family cloth did.

As the Offbeat Home comments rolled in, I kept reading, and kept trying to get into the idea.

2012 Ariel just couldn’t quite get there. Even as a child raised by hippies, I just couldn’t make the concept feel right. I mean, my mother gave me cloth maxi-pads in 1988, for fucksake! If anyone should’ve been comfortable with reusable cloth hygiene products, it should’ve been me.

But oh well, whatever: I wrote it off.

Flash forward four years: I got a bidet in 2016. That changed a lot of things, but it didn’t make me revisit family cloth.

Flash forward another four years, and it was 2020. We were in a pandemic. Toilet paper became a hot topic and suddenly I found myself changing my mind.

[Brief shout-out to the uniform of 2020: filthy athleisure worn for days and probably slept in, combined with hair that hadn’t been brushed since the last terrified trip to the grocery store!]

Ok, what changed?

Clearly, I changed my mind. 2012’s squicky idea was suddenly delightful, much to the chagrin of my horrified 10-year-old son.

There were several factors involved in my pandemic change of heart on family cloth:

  • A bidet changes everything. With a bidet, family cloth isn’t really about poop or even pee… the bidet cleans you, and then you’re just using the family cloth as what one person referred to as a dab rag.
  • A pandemic changes everything. Quarantined at home with both dwindling funds and more time than we used to have, lots of us got thrifty and domestic in ways that 2012 couldn’t imagine. Back then, Obama was in office for god sake! There was plenty of toilet paper! I didn’t have the time or need to think about this stuff!
  • Having survived a wave of identity death changes everything. One of the weird silver linings of going through a shitshow / midlife crisis / life catastrophe is that it strips off your sense of identity.

My shitshow a few years ago was all about how what I thought of as “me” was no longer relevant: married, young, healthy, successful? ALL LIES! It turned out all my identities were just masks, and I had no idea who the fuck I was, and while first that was horrifying and confusing and extremely painful… after I settled into the unknown for a while, it started to feel weirdly spacious.

When your identity gets ripped out of your hands, the rope burn can be painful… but the upside can be that afterward, you learn to have a looser grip on who you think you are.

This kind of identity death transition is brutal. The disorientation isn’t just mentally overwhelming; it’s also physically exhausting — your allostatic load is the reason you’re so wiped out from doing almost nothing.

But here’s the thing: if you stop avoiding the discomfort and start sniffing around the edges of it, you might notice an interesting aroma…

Is that… LIBERATION!?

Why, I think that awful smell is indeed liberation! It turns out that when parts of you die, there’s room for new selves to be born.

That daily nap you never allowed yourself to take that suddenly happened during the pandemic? Suddenly there’s nothing else to do!

That spiritual practice that always struck you as wayyyyy too woo-woo and “out there”? Suddenly it’s strangely comforting!

That idea about reusable cloth toilet paper you totally dismissed years ago? Suddenly relevant and delightful!

It’s an efficient trick that our aging minds play on us, believing that once we’ve made a decision, it’s done, and we never have to reconsider it.

But here’s the thing: your brain is always changing! Neuroplasticity exists!

All of this is temporary, and that includes opinions or decisions or identities that made perfect sense eight years ago, or eight months ago, or even eight days ago.

Am I saying that using family cloth instead of toilet paper is the right answer for everyone? Naw, I’m just saying that you’re allowed to change your mind. You’re allowed to be someone different in this moment.

In fact, more than allowed… it’s how you keep your mind nimble, your life in the flow, and your existence grounded in the present moment.

Beginner’s mind means recognizing that everything is always changing, and that includes you and your opinions about who you are, what you do, and what feels right for you.

That was part of the pandemic for me: weird ideas from 2012 suddenly made sense.

It was about the discomfort and odd liberation of identity death.

It felt disorienting AF, but that feeling means you’re doing it right.

MY QUESTIONS FOR YOU

  • When in your life have you totally written something off, only to realize later that it was of value?
  • What does your ego do when you’re confronted with the reality that an old belief is no longer relevant? Does it get angry, sad, defensive, or analytical?
  • What aspect of yourself have you lost recently? How have you grieved it?
Ariel Meadow Stallings

Director of Publisher Growth @ Medium, but also an author, publisher of offbeatempire.com, and devotional dancer - because I contain multitudes, and so do you!