Comedians Need to Stop Joking About IBS.
By Lydia Shaw
This is how it usually happens: I’ll be watching a sitcom on Netflix, thoroughly enjoying myself, and out of nowhere, an actor throws out an IBS joke. (Off the top of my head, I can name 30 Rock, The Office, and The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt.) After hearing these jokes, I’ll usually take a deep breath, close my computer, and never watch the show again. A few months ago, I was watching Saturday Night Live with my mom, both of us excited to see Natalie Portman, when in the middle of a sketch poking fun at Stranger Things, Cecily Strong’s superhuman character farts. Strong says, “No, no, no, that was just a regular one, I’m sorry, I have unrelated IBS.” The crowd gets a hardy laugh. My mother looked at me in a mixture of horror and concern. She knows how I feel about this. I was disappointed, but we kept watching the sketch, because we wanted to see what else Natalie Portman would do.
At first, I tried to ignore IBS jokes. In my ten years of suffering with this illness, I have gotten used to hearing people make fun of it, but I shouldn’t have to. IBS is different for everyone, but for me, it has shaped almost everything I do. I’ve lived in chronic pain for ten years. I wake up in pain almost every single morning. I’ve been on diets, I’ve been on pills, I’ve done acupuncture, and none of it has worked. I have to think through everything I eat. Sometimes I’ve had to miss school because of flare-ups, but most of the time, I just sit through my classes. I’ve been talked down to by my own doctors. Until six months ago, I’d only ever told five of my friends exactly what I have. I didn’t believe that anyone could ever fall in love with me because of my condition; I thought that everyone would see me as a disgusting joke (this, I learned, was very untrue).
Here’s a quick overview of IBS: IBS stands for Irritable Bowel Syndrome, meaning that it’s an illness made up of a collection of symptoms. Because it includes so many symptoms, every person’s case of IBS can be different. Symptoms include (sometimes debilitating) bowel pain, gas, diarrhea, and constipation, but there are more. IBS has been shown to cause depression and anxiety disorders because the symptoms and corresponding stigma are so difficult to live with. In people with IBS, these symptoms can be horrible all the time, or there can be periods of time in which symptoms are hardly there.
I’m trying to open up about my illness because much research has proved that there is thriving stigma against those with IBS. There’s an abundance of jokes about IBS because of its symptoms, but the comedians making these jokes don’t understand just how debilitating they can be. IBS is a cheap joke, something people will laugh at, because they don’t understand how it works. They just think it’s another poop joke. People with IBS shouldn’t have to live their life defined as a poop joke, by society or by themselves. An added layer to the stigma is that IBS is an invisible illness (an invisible illness is one that doesn’t manifest itself in a way that is visible—when you see someone with an invisible illness, you won’t be able to tell that they have one). Society tends to tell people with invisible illnesses that they’re making up their illness and pain, or that their illness is their own fault. None of this is true, and it isolates those with invisible illnesses. People with IBS shouldn’t have to be ashamed of their illness and their bodies. We shouldn’t have to feel like we can’t tell anyone.
It’s harder to deal with an already extremely tough illness when there is a social stigma involved. Let me tell you this: those of us with IBS are so much more than our illness. We are artists, entrepreneurs, students, senior citizens, business people, social justice workers, baristas at the café down the street, the designer of your coffee table, the celebrity you see on TV. One of us is probably a family member. So please, next time you hear an IBS joke, don’t laugh. Educate.