Instagram is a minefield for many reasons, but the thing I find myself most frequently having to dodge at the moment is poop. I could chalk it up to the fact that the app’s algorithm knows I’m a 36-year-old woman whose digestive system is becoming increasingly fragile, but I’m not the only one who’s seeing this constant glut of ads, sponsored content, and memes all centered around the health — and lack thereof — of our guts.
“Gut health” has quickly emerged as the first major health buzzword of 2024. It’s a phrase that’s being used to hawk digestive enzymes, greens powders, expensive sodas spiked with prebiotics and vitamins, even “probiotic water.” There are ice creams and yogurts made with A2 milk, which is supposedly easier for those who are lactose intolerant to digest. The implication is that these products will improve your digestion, relieve your gas and bloating, and ultimately make you a better, healthier person.
It’s a trend that makes sense on a lot of levels. Digestive discomfort is something every human has to deal with at one point or another, and it sucks. No one wants to have gas and bad poops. But the brands are more willing to talk about our gas and bad poops than ever, and it’s getting a little uncomfortable. A couple of weeks ago, I was scrolling through Instagram when I saw an ad for Redbloom, a spicy, “gut-friendly” condiment that describes itself as “the world’s first SHITLESS hot sauce.” Shitless! All caps! The Happy Mammoth, a company that sells all sorts of supplements, is running an ad on Instagram with an illustration of a woman holding a large pile of feces captioned with “DO THIS TO RELIEVE STUCK POO.”
Perhaps I’m a prude. I did, after all, grow up in a time when the absorbency of menstrual pads was tested with blue liquid on television and fiber supplement commercials only promised “regularity.” But I’m finding myself a little grossed out by our current emphasis on shit, and not just for the obvious reasons.
What is most exhausting about much of the gut health sentiment is that it is intrinsically tied to diet culture. Products that promise to “minimize bloat” are products that are promising to make your body smaller. Some green juice cleanses insist that they can help you lose as much as five pounds of digestive waste in just a few days, a decidedly disordered approach. At its core, the gut health craze is about weight loss, not health. The brands and the influencers don’t care about your gut health or your digestion. They care about locking you into a cycle of being obsessed with your digestion so that they can sell you a product that promises to fix it.
It is true that, on some level, we do have to talk about poop. It’s a fact of life, and there have been very real strides made in terms of awareness about digestive conditions like Crohn’s disease and irritable bowel syndrome, both of which have been stigmatized due to their connection to unpleasant digestive symptoms like gas and diarrhea. But there has to be some middle ground between not shaming those folks for their bodily functions and a world in which brands feel totally okay asking me whether or not I’ve taken a shit today in an Instagram poll.
We also forget that our digestive systems are engineering marvels, and healthy ones are generally capable of handling the problem of “stuck poo.” They are capable of breaking down the McDonald’s french fries and occasional salads that we eat into their constituent parts, directing those essential nutrients to the exact places in our bodies where they’re needed so that we stay alive. It’s an impressive feat, and one that we forget when there are companies who stand to earn millions of dollars from making us believe that our bodies are not working well enough.