It’s a weird time in history to have a human body. Meetings are now video calls, you can order your groceries or underwear without leaving your couch, and Instagram filters can make you look like a flawless, cyborg version of yourself… or even a cat. At the end of the day though, when you're done being a cyborg or an anthropomorphic cat, you’re still a good old-fashioned human with a human body. Until we’re fully uploaded to the Matrix, every single one of us needs to eat, sleep, breath, bathe, and yes…poop. (It may be possible to survive without bathing, but we strongly recommend against that.)
So why is it so hard to talk about pooping? All of us do it, ideally at least once a day. But rarely is it ever that simple. Eating and sleeping properly are hard enough when we live in a state of constant anxiety and distraction. Not surprisingly, if all our daily rhythms are out of whack, taking a poo gets complicated too. The same goes for farting, burping, bloating, puking, peeing, bad breath and B.O. And what do the above all have in common? They all are affected by our digestive health… so that makes them our business, too. Here at Wonderbelly, we believe that if even one person has to suffer from something, it’s our job to be accepting of it, regardless of the affliction.
Einstein said that "everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler." That’s a good guiding principle for talking about digestive health, and why we generally trust doctors and scientists about things like acid reflux, GERD, ulcers, constipation and IBS. These are complex medical issues that can be caused by a number of different factors, so it’s important to diagnose the proper source. But doctors can only help you if you tell them the truth, and the same goes for friends, partners and family. As Lucas talked about in his personal story, the false belief and shame he felt about his bulimia were major obstacles to getting proper medical attention.
As we learned the hard way in the pandemic, our personal health is tied very closely to public health. (Like the Joker says, we live in a society.) Our health is affected by the health of our neighbors, our personal access to resources, and the cultures and environments we live in. In our previous piece, we talked about how digestive health issues are on the rise, and how stress is a major culprit. But a major obstacle to treating digestive issues is also treating the stigma around them. According to Oxford Languages, a stigma is “a mark of disgrace associated with a particular circumstance, quality, or person.”
In Lucas’ case, the stigma around having an eating disorder was a major factor in him staying silent. People suffering from anorexia or bulimia are often falsely judged – by others and themselves – to be vain, insecure, unstable, disgusting or wasteful. A further, compounding issue for Lucas was his gender, because of his inaccurate, societally-fueled belief that only females suffer from bulimia, and that he would be judged even harder by his peers since he was male. These sorts of judgments can cause others to make false conclusions about the root causes of these issues, and make it harder for a person to speak up. Judgment is the total opposite of what someone needs in a situation as vulnerable as this – a person suffering from an eating disorder needs compassion, patience, and acceptance above all, in order to heal the mental health issues that lie underneath them.
According to the National Institutes of Health, research on digestive health issues such as IBS and IBD “showed that perceived stigma negatively impacts clinical outcomes, including increased depression and anxiety, lower quality of life, and reduced self-esteem and self-efficacy.”1 Perceived stigma means a person’s beliefs about another person’s opinions about their condition, versus internalized stigma, where a person accepts a negative idea, and incorporates it into their identity, and enacted stigma, which refers to the ways that others actually treat them. All three types of stigma can affect a person with a digestive health problem.
A central problem is that many digestive health issues have historically been regarded as psychosomatic, which means that they are believed to be caused by someone’s mental or emotional state, rather than by a physical illness or abnormality. Some of the stigma can even be found in the terminology surrounding an issue, and the medical system itself still has work to do as well. "It's a disease," says Dr. Mark Pimentel, director of Cedars-Sinai's GI Motility Program, about IBS. "And even the terminology, irritable bowel syndrome, is marginalizing the patients who have the condition."2
Like all things in life, the truth is usually somewhere in the middle – both physical and mental factors can impact our digestive health. The mind and body are deeply connected, even if we often forget that when we live so much of our lives in our heads, and on our screens. There is no reason to be ashamed about physical symptoms that are thought of as gross, such as farting or diarrhea, or mental symptoms we may feel are our “fault,” such as anxiety or depression.
Getting to the truth of our health issues starts with open, honest communication, and here at the Guts & Butts blog, and in our community, we want to help make you feel safe enough to speak up. It’s why Lucas was committed to baring it all and sharing his story, when we launched Wonderbelly.
We know it’s not easy, but we invite you to share your truth and connect with others… stigma is no match for a supportive community. Whether you need medical treatment, a therapist, a healthier lifestyle – or just a Wonderbelly Antacid after that spicy Thai food – we want to help you find the relief you deserve.