TikTok Girlies, You’re Not Actually Bloated
On a medical level, according to Rabia de Latour, MD, a double board certified gastroenterologist and therapeutic endoscopist and assistant professor in the department of medicine, at NYU Langone Health, bloating is a symptom where patients feel that their abdomen is fuller or tighter than usual. “Bloating is mainly caused by the accumulation of gas in the digestive tract,” says Anju Malieckal, MD, a gastroenterologist at NYU Langone Health and Assistant Professor, Department of Medicine at NYU Grossman School of Medicine. “Water retention due to underlying medical conditions can cause bloating as well.”
Cassie Madsen, MS, RD, a registered dietitian nutritionist and owner of Madsen Nutrition & Consulting LLC and Gut Health and Nutrition, says that it’s perfectly normal to experience some increase in the size of your belly as the day progresses. “Most people start the day with a flatter tummy and experience a little bloat as the day progresses,” she explains. And because bloating itself is a symptom, it can be caused by a variety of things, says Dr. Latour. “This includes intestinal gas, a large meal, constipation, poor gut motility that causes foods to stay in your stomach longer (gastroparesis) which can result in a large amount of food in the stomach from subsequent meals even if the patient doesn’t report having a huge meal,” she says. “Although it is burdensome for the patient, it is not overly concerning from a danger standpoint.”
It’s also common for women to experience bloating in their menstrual cycle. “It is thought to be due to water retention due to hormone fluctuations, and the uterine lining is thickened, so some people do feel a fuller abdomen in the days leading to one’s period and sometimes a few days into it,” says Dr. Latour.
Much of the gut health content being posted online, though, is less about this science and more about achieving a flat stomach. This, agrees Madsen, is a result of diet culture. “It is shaming a natural, healthy process within our bodies,” she says. “It is almost always unhealthy to focus on bloating, unless you are concerned about an underlying health condition.” Madsen believes bloating is a huge topic of conversation online in part due to social media and perfectionism, but she also thinks it may also be related to the surge in attention to gut health, with research on the gut microbiome currently exploding. “While I do think that IBS is very common, I feel that is it an overused term,” says Dr. Malieckal, who says many patients can avoid bloating and other GI symptoms by ruling out a food intolerance.
Georgia Sky, a.k.a. Bawdy Queen), an Los Angeles-based actress and creator who aligns with the fat acceptance and body acceptance movements, says that being bloated has become the idea of being “temporarily fat” so these bloating videos continue to push the beauty standard of staying thin. “When the message is brought up by thin creators, it further pushes this standard that having a stomach is bad — but it’s OK [when] you have to eat and it’s temporary,” she says. For this reason, even thin creators showing off their bloat in an over-exaggerated manner — think bending their bodies like a contortionist to show their “fat rolls” to be more relatable — is less of a revolutionary act than many people think it is.