As you can imagine, Irritable Bowel Syndrome makes a lot of things difficult, from food choices and eating in restaurants, to getting to and from work, or, in extreme cases, even getting up the courage to leave the house. But there are also so many little things that become challenging. Recently, for example, because of my IBS, a visit to the gynecologist took on a whole new dimension.
I don’t know many women who enjoy going to the “lady doctor”. I do have a friend who regales me with tales of flirting with hers, but for me and for most females I’m acquainted with, it’s just an incredibly awkward, sometimes downright uncomfortable situation. You’re pantless and underpantless on an examining table with your feet in stirrups, prone, while someone dispassionately pokes and prods around inside you with metal instruments, cotton swabs, gloved fingers, and, if there’s a problem, even a sort of microscope. Don’t get me wrong: of course seeing the gynecologist is important – I can’t imagine how many women’s lives have been saved because of early detection of cervical, ovarian, or uterine cancer. But it’s dehumanizing nonetheless. As I lie there, I often find myself relating to one of those cows with milking machines hooked up to their udders, and shudder. ….And then am told sternly to hold still and relax.
When you have IBS, your life and fears revolve mainly around your bottom. You especially don’t like people you’re not intimately connected with, just hanging out down there. I always arrive at the gynecologist’s office on edge, which makes my stomach pretty fragile. I bring Wet Naps in case I have to use the bathroom before my appointment. But what if something happens during those agonizing minutes when the doctor’s between my legs? It’s a haunting thought. Much better to just focus on images of cows being mechanically milked.
A few days before my gynecologist appointment, my boyfriend had a health scare. Like pretty much all people with IBS, stress makes my symptoms worse. The health scare plunged me into a more intense bout of my illness, which included getting bloated after meals. Bloating is a common issue for a lot of IBS sufferers, but it rarely affects me. Now, though, my stomach was getting ridiculously distended whenever I consumed food, only deflating an hour or more afterwards.
I didn’t think anything of this when I arrived at my appointment. Instead, I was actually congratulating myself on having eaten breakfast, something I normally wouldn’t have done if I had an appointment, work, or other commitment, but which I’d recently promised I’d start doing, for health reasons. I’d eaten breakfast, and I felt pretty okay. I took out a book I’d brought, and read in the quiet waiting room, occasionally peeking outside the window at the distant view of the Eiffel Tower. It was a long wait. As time went by, I actually felt calm.
Amazingly, that calm continued during my examination. I was only told to “Relax” once.
Then, something a little jarring happened. My gynecologist looked up from between my legs and asked, “Did you gain weight?”
As she took off her glove and went to wash her hands, I tried to figure out what this meant. The question surprised me for a few reasons. For one thing, I’ve been seeing this gynecologist for years and am probably the only neurotic, fast-talking American girl she’s treating, but when I’d come into her office, she’d asked me my name, as always, and briefly reviewed my dossier, seeming surprised by some of the things she’d found there. That she couldn’t remember me wasn’t shocking – after all, she has a lot of other clients. But if she couldn’t remember me, I thought, then how did she know whether or not I’d gained weight?
If the weight gain were dramatic, like if I’d come in there looking like Violet from “Willy Wonka” after she turns into a human blueberry, that would, of course, be understandable. But while the impact of that aforementioned health scare, as well as some other bad news and stress related to remodeling our apartment have made me put on some weight, it was, I knew from my daily weigh-in, only two pounds.
Maybe the most puzzling part of it all was, what had clued her in? The only part of me she’d really given more than a cursory glance had been…down there. Could you tell something like that by looking at a woman’s private parts? Everything I’d ever read or studied said “No”, but maybe it was a gynecological secret?
The doctor returned, and I sat up on the examining table. “I-I have gained a pound or two,” I said, “but – how – Did you see it from my face?”
The doctor shook her head “Perhaps a little bit. But you are really thick around the middle. That’s not normal at your age.”
As someone who’s been “thick around the middle” since about seven, I wondered at the idea of there being an age for that.
But I also suddenly understood what might have caused her shocked reaction. “Oh. I – well, I did put on some weight, but what you’re seeing down there is bloating. I have intestin irritable,” I said, using the new name for IBS, which in French was previously known as côlon irritable, “and it causes bloating after I eat a meal.”
Unfortunately, like many people in France, my gynecologist didn’t seem to have heard of intestin irritable. Also like many people in France, she didn’t mince words when it came to weight. “You will try to have children soon. And when you start, you must be as thin as possible. You do not want to be obese.”
“Oh – of course,” I said. “Don’t worry – I’ve had a bad couple of weeks, but I’m exercising and watching what I eat now, and I should be back to my normal weight soon.”
“Don’t eat any sugar or fat,” my gynecologist admonished, which I agreed didn’t sound like an unreasonable piece of advice, until she added, “for at least six months.” How overweight did she think I was?
I started to say that not eating chocolate for even six days would be impossible for me. But then I looked at her, a slim, no-nonsense stick of a woman, and I didn’t think she’d understand.
“Well, I will be careful,” I told her, getting off the operating table and heading to her desk for the wrap-up and birth-control-prescription-refill portion of the visit.
“No – wait – I want to weigh you.”
She’d never asked to do that before.
Although I felt mortified, a bigger part of what I felt was outrage. All this for two pounds! I hated that she would make anyone feel bad about their weight, especially for such a small change. I didn’t think that what the doctor was telling me was purely for medical reasons, either. It wasn’t just her, of course; French culture in general is extremely hostile towards weight gain, especially if the person who’s gained weight is a woman. I wondered spitefully if she would have said anything to me if, say, I was a smoker, something many French people are. Here, smoking is rarely, if ever, overtly disapproved of. “I’ll show her,” I thought, stepping onto the scale. When the dial settled into place, I nearly crowed in triumph. I read out the number to her – a number well within my weight range. The doctor said no more about it.
When I got home, I immediately ran to the toilet. Afterwards, my stomach had shrunk considerably. It almost made me want to go back to the gynecologist’s, just to prove my point. Almost.