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Working in Style

Is Bad Office Bathroom Lighting Ruining My Self-Esteem?

by Liana Satenstein

May 29, 2024

Maybe it’s time to put better bulbs in the union contract.

If corporate offices are rarely pleasant, their bathrooms are the absolute dregs. Think: one-ply toilet paper and big-box soap—and nary a tampon. However, it’s bad lighting that trumps all other aspects of poor bathroom design. A sad overhead bulb has the megawatt power to render that new foundation that’s supposed to make you glow useless, or appear like you have soul-sucking jaundice. The wrong fluorescent tinge can distort anyone; a Jekyll and Hyde effect that makes one wonder: “Do I actually look like that?”

Before I went freelance, I worked in a corporate office where I slowly stopped looking at myself in the bathroom mirror. Every eye bag, every blemish was a badge of horror that marked the hours of slogging away at a cubicle. To make matters worse, I thought I looked perfectly fine in my home bathroom. The experience of seeing myself under depressive LED rays was like seeing a terrible photo of myself but in real time. I’m not alone: “I see things in that lighting that my home mirror never shows me,” says designer Susan Alexandra. “It’s really tragic because I find it highlights latent blemishes.”

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, not the toilet. 

You wouldn’t be off base thinking that bathroom lighting feels like the design component left behind. “No one hires light designers,” says architect and interior designer Lula Galeano. “Light [in the bathroom] should shine on your face, not on top of it, but ceiling lights are the default and the easiest.” A poor lighting setup may mean that employees are seeing shadows or lines they didn’t even know existed in the first place.

Imagine matters made even worse: bad bathroom lighting at a job you detest. “It’s a double whammy… a job you hate and sickly bathroom lighting that wreaks havoc on you,” a friend told me. Bad bathroom lighting that feeds into poor self-image isn’t imaginary, either. “If you go in the bathroom and you have a glimpse of yourself, depending on how aware you are of it, you might have a bad mood,” says psychologist Dr. Jayme Albin. “Then you may get cranky, irritable, or start picking your skin. It [the bad bathroom lighting] becomes distracting.”

The effects of bad bathroom lighting can even become more irritating as it can feel uncontrollable. Albin draws a comparison using a noise study. “Uncontrollable noise in the workplace is much more annoying than perceived controllable noise. If you’re working in a factory and there’s a loud noise, but you perceive that you can shut it down, you’re still less annoyed than if you perceive that you have no control over it.” Case in point: When was the last time office maintenance ever answered an email?

Sure, workers can put a lightbulb change in a union contract. Or they can take matters into their own hands and replace the bulbs guerilla-style. Maybe they don’t have to use the bathroom at all. Ultimately, there may be no solution to bad lighting in the office. Perhaps, it’s about reminding ourselves that we are not in an office bathroom 24/7. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, not the toilet.

Photography by Sean M. Robertson