Making Peace With My Gorgeous Girl IBS

Photographed by Polina Zimmerman.
Welcome to the brave new world of hot girls having stomach problems. We have freed ourselves from the shackles of the 'girls don’t poo' mentality and are proudly posting about our dumps on TikTok. Nature is healing. And this bowel-positivity movement could represent a long-overdue challenge to the damaging influence of diet culture disguised as wellness.
Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is a poorly understood condition despite being the most common digestive disorder in the world, affecting up to two in 10 people in the UK. For decades IBS was considered a psychosomatic illness, implying that patients’ symptoms – from stomach cramps, irregular bowel movements and bloating to anxiety and depression – were all in their heads. Considering that 65% of IBS patients were assigned female at birth, it isn’t much of a stretch to treat the dismissal of IBS as a gendered issue.
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Today, an IBS diagnosis essentially means there’s something seriously wrong with your bowels, hun. More technically, it means that your digestive tract isn’t able to process food as it should, leading to painful and at times debilitating symptoms. As is often the case with conditions that affect people of marginalised genders, there has been little research into IBS. As a result, there is currently no cure. 
It makes sense that IBS is such a hot topic among the girlies as it affects women in their 20s more than any other group. Studies suggest that gender roles and body image are key factors in explaining why, with pressure to eliminate 'unattractive' symptoms like stomach bloating making young women more likely to seek IBS treatment than other groups. A 2016 study of shame and IBS suggests that female patients don’t feel they can 'laugh off' bodily functions like farting or leaving a bad smell in the bathroom. Body image was a major factor in my desire to treat my IBS throughout my teens. I associated gut health with conventional ideas of beauty, primarily thinness, and spent years trying to 'heal' my gut with expensive supplements, dubious advice from online forums and restrictive dieting, like giving up refined sugar for two years.

After years of shame and isolation, I was seeing women joking publicly about IBS and even claiming that the symptoms which had once been labelled 'shameful' were now hot.

Currently, one of the only proven treatments for IBS is the highly restrictive low FODMAP diet, which involves cutting out common ingredients like onions and garlic and can make eating a stressful experience. I was put on this diet last year as a treatment for SIBO (small intestinal bacterial overgrowth) and thanks to how complicated it was, I started talking about my gut issues for the first time. I had previously hidden the illness from most people in my life, despite the fact that its symptoms – including acne, severe PMS and social anxiety – majorly impacted my wellbeing. I was so ashamed of my body’s inability to be 'healthy' and 'desirable' that I convinced myself these symptoms were a personal failure rather than the effects of a legitimate illness.
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As I began to speak about my gut problems, many women shared that they too had been struggling with – and hiding – IBS for years. Hearing people I cared about share their experiences made me feel less alone. I didn’t judge my friends for their irritable bowels. I didn’t view them through the same self-critical lens that had made me feel ashamed of my digestive system. When others expressed shame relating to IBS, I reassured them that a functional gut disorder had nothing to do with their inherent worth as people. It was the very compassion that had been missing from my relationship with myself.
This period happened to coincide with the explosion of 'hot girls have IBS' on TikTok. While I was miserable on a ridiculously restrictive diet, I witnessed girls on TikTok finding the humour in their symptoms. After years of shame and isolation, I was seeing women joking publicly about IBS and even claiming that the symptoms which had once been labelled 'shameful' were now hot. Suddenly, boys on Hinge were saying 'hot girls have IBS' and it was not only okay to have IBS, it was desirable.
I started to realise that IBS has always been tied to my relationship with myself. My gut issues coincided with an undiagnosed binge eating disorder, which exacerbated my symptoms. Irregular eating habits can cause gut issues and around 50% of people who suffer from an eating disorder are also thought to have IBS. Recently, scientists have started talking about the possibility of a mind-gut connection: the theory that the gut acts as the body’s 'second brain'. Research into the mind-gut connection is still very new and no conclusive link has been drawn between gut disorders and mental health but a few studies indicate that the gut sends signals to the brain, which may directly affect mood. Statistics like '95% of serotonin is produced in the gut' are also gaining traction in popular culture through social media accounts with cult followings like The Holistic Psychologist. Pending further investigation, the mind-gut connection could help to explain why many IBS patients also suffer from anxiety and depression
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A treatment which has been proven to help treat IBS is cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), a talking therapy which allows IBS patients to tell their story and be listened to without negative judgement. Unfortunately, those with IBS face the same barriers as everyone else to NHS-funded support and are among the 1.6 million people on waiting lists for mental health services in the UK. 
If we want long-term solutions, we need access to mental health services. But what are we supposed to do in the meantime? Research shows that talking about painful experiences, even with friends, can help us to cope with them in the future. Talking about an upsetting event calms down the body’s fight-or-flight system, meaning we won’t react as negatively the next time we are faced with the same problem. Suppressing trauma, on the other hand, can cause stress-related illnesses. For conditions like IBS, which flare up in times of stress, talking about experiences of the illness could be key to managing symptoms now, while we wait for better treatment options. 
Talking about IBS and learning to accept that it might never completely go away has helped me to break the decade-long cycle of disordered eating and anxiety that once ruled my life. I realise now that there is more contributing to my gut issues than how much sugar I’m eating. Making peace with my unruly gut was a vital stepping-stone towards body neutrality and self-acceptance but it’s an ongoing process. There are still days when I obsess about bloating but more often than not I am choosing what makes me feel most at ease in the present over punishing myself for the sake of attaining 'perfect' health. Sharing a dessert with loved ones doesn’t mean I don’t care about my health. Policing myself with restrictions might change the shape of my body but it doesn’t make my life any happier or more meaningful.
For so long I was at war with my gut in a bid to be healthy and, as I saw it, worthy. TikTok and my friends taught me that showing and accepting the parts of myself that I find gross or inadequate is possible. And not just possible but hot!

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