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Is it IBS or an eating disorder?
In the quest for ultimate gut health, are we just promoting eating disorders?
But first, a poem on bloat:
The year I had the worst bloat
was the year I was the most strict with my diet
The more I removed various foods,
the more it seemed my tummy hurt
I wanted nothing more than for my belly to stay flat, perfect
My anxiety ebbed and flowed with the shape of my stomach;
Growing larger as my belly expanded,
and shrinking as my tummy lay flat.
The angst of managing and control my body
If you’re semi-online, you’ve probably heard about IBS becoming a “Hot Girl Issue”. “Hot Girl”, once a term coined by Megan Thee Stallion via her song Hot Girl Summer, was all about living your best life. Now, I’m afraid this term has been co-opted by both the beauty and diet industry, excluding the originators of the term. What I mean is, the “Hot Girls” talking about IBS are looking really thin, cis, and white.
There is a lot of B.S. IBS content on TikTok. We’ve got:
The “internal shower” trend (a term that makes me wince) where people chug cups of soaked chia seeds to help them poop and “detoxify” (because the body doesn’t detoxify itself *sarcasm*)
People drinking 64 oz. of Miralax in a few hours and haphazardly adding laxatives to their coffees (some argue Miralax isn’t a laxative as it doesn't make you go. I would argue that it is, and it’s an entryway to other laxatives and diet/weight loss techniques)
Gracie Abrams blow drying her stomach as part of her morning routine
Influencers shelling supplements with their 20% affiliate codes (they are financially inclined to share it and benefit from you purchasing)
I do not want to mitigate IBS or people with chronic illness.
But this is risky territory. Whenever you have “hot” young (and many of them thin) people shelling diet tips, know that things are going to get messy and… diet culture-y.
Many of the young people turning to TikTok for IBS-related problems risk self-diagnosing themselves. What’s wrong with self-diagnosing on TikTok?
First of all, users don’t have all the information around IBS needed to make an informed decision on what’s right for them, so they risk trying out tips from a stranger and developing disordered eating patterns. Many of the tips above are diet tips masqueraded as IBS prevention. And the best part is, people don’t have to say they are on a diet for weight loss, they’re simply trying to heal their gut and IBS. (Hello, wellness!)
Turning to TikTok for help rather than a doctor (wellness culture dislikes doctors) provides a slippery-slope towards disordered eating, folks! I don’t care who you are, dieting, in any capacity, increases your risk of developing an eating disorder by 25%, and increases obsessive thoughts around food by 35%. And that’s on… diets being diets. They don’t work, and they set us up for a never-ending cycle that destroys our self esteem and body image.
As you can see in this video, we have an attractive white woman in natural light and a clean space showing us, at eye-level, her cut stomach. She is rotating just so, pulling at the hem of her pants in an almost come-hither way. We can’t really see her face, it’s ~mysterious~. We do get the sense, however, that in the below screenshot, when she shows us her abs, this is the goal, to not have bloat. Abs, and the way her tummy looks below, are the goal.
In the following clips, we see her bloated belly and a list of foods that caused her bloat which she no longer eats. The “before”. The photos are blurry, she’s in her cluttered dark bathroom. This is the “not so pretty” version, the “before”. Her stomach is distended. This, her video plainly communicates, is bad, something to be avoided. The message? FLAT BELLY = GOOD, BLOATED ROUND BELLY = BAD. These messages are not subliminal. This is fatphobia, loud and clear!
What’s important to remember here is that so many people are going to watch this video and cut out the foods she recommends. If I were still in wellness, I sure as heck would. Why go to a doctor (especially when medical care costs so much in the US) when you can get your medical advice on TikTok? Doing so allows people to feel like they are taking matters into their own hands and regaining control in a chaotic hierarchal healthcare system. Wellness and diet culture loves this messaging; it plays on people’s natural emotions and desire for control and results. If you mess up your diet, it’s your fault. If your diet is working, just keep doing it forever (which most people can’t) or boom, you failed!
Why do Hot Girls have stomach issues? Because we live in a society where being hot means never being bloated.
Let me be clear: elimination diets (even for IBS) are diets. Diets that seek to 100% cure a disease or illness is a red flag. Diet-based techniques to conquer non-life threatening IBS/gut issues can lead to eating disorders, disordered thoughts, and obsessing around food. Even with the best of intentions - there is a risk.
I couldn’t not write about the IBS Hot Girl TikTok trend, because years ago, I was one of these girls. I wrote all about bloat: combatting it, fighting it, avoiding it, and how to deal with it when it came. Who remembers me touting intermittent fasting, not eating on planes, and a whole bunch of other diet-y tips?
My days were revolved around managing and controlling my digestion. Each night, I drank a 7-powder adaptogenic drink with 6 horse-sized magnesium pills to ensure I’d go to the bathroom the next day (I call this the “wellness laxative”). Each morning, I’d sit and meditate and drink a caffeinated bulletproof matcha with more adaptogens to get my bowels moving. It was a very rigid process to make sure I went to the bathroom, not allowing for much flexibility.
Constipation was even worse. The added weight and mass of an unpassed bowel sitting in my digestive track was distressing to me. I’d visualize the bowel sitting in my stomach, my body absorbing the toxic stool and “adding fat back into my skin” (This is NOT actually what happens).
I was obsessed with my digestion because to me, when I was bloated or constipated, my disordered thinking told me that I’d gained weight. And to me, that had equaled bad.
I read in Womancode if you didn’t poop for a day you were constipated. Which is not medically sound advice, let alone correct.
With this information, I set off to “fix” it myself, which is how I got to my horse-pill-adaptogenic-sludge-drink-bulletproof-matcha daily routine. I’d even seen a functional doctor who recommended I cut out foods like avocado, dairy, and cauliflower. I wish those functional doctors had asked me if I had a history of disordered eating before requesting I cut out entire food groups. Not saying that would have done anything, but hey, you never know. Is my mental health not as important as my gut health?
All diets should come with a Surgeon General’s Warning: Engaging in this diet may cause disordered eating and a lifelong dislike of your body.
The more I restricted and fretted about my bloat, the worse my bloat became.
After leaving wellness culture and slowly re-incorporating all the things wellness had told me not to consume, my constant bloat eventually subsided. I can’t help but see the tie between getting help for my eating disorder (instead of just trying to heal the bloat) and the bloat going away on its own.
Bloat and gut health are tied to anxiety. And having an eating disorder is anxiety producing!
Not to mention, bloat and stomach problems are actually a symptom of an eating disorder. Folks with eating disorders are not feeding or treating their bodies properly and this physical and mental stress can cause gastrointestinal problems on their own.
Bloat, constipation, and diarrhea are not necessarily an indicator of a food intolerance, gut issue, or IBS. THESE ARE ALL NORMAL THINGS THAT HAPPEN TO THE HUMAN BODY.
Wellness culture has a way of making us believe that the slightest inconvenience can be solved with a quick google or influencers’ advice- and alas, we can take matters into our own hands and heal ourselves! And for anxiety-prone people like myself who always want to control the outcome, this is the perfect storm for orthorexia or an unhealthy obsession with eating perfect.
Yours in bloat and all the messiness that is the human body,