This is the summer of the ick. An ick is a point at which your initial attraction to a person flips into a feeling of disgust. The causes are many and various, but once someone gives you the ick, all desire is killed. You only want to get away. You cannot ignore an ick, despite your better judgment. It is an unconscious gut reaction, picking up on a cellular incompatibility, by which I don’t mean they have an Android phone.
I felt a chill of recognition when I first heard the phrase. I immediately related it to my friends, who had all been using it for ages. One of them told me she got the ick off a boy who didn’t use pillowcases. Another from one who wore a lime green shirt. Another friend – for the sake of privacy we’ll call her Icarus – has experienced it many times, including once at the Prado in Madrid with her then-boyfriend. “We were looking at a painting of a fat little Bacchanalian nymph baby. I realised it was the spitting image of him,” she says. “We broke up shortly after, but I couldn’t tell him why.”
Icks strike me as a horror story. How can the laws of attraction contain such perversity? I’ve noticed how sometimes it is the very quality we were first attracted to in a person that can flip like this. Whether a physical quirk, their dance moves or their laugh, what once was cute can become unbearable. How do you get over an ick? Should you even try? Is there any guarantee it won’t happen after, say, 30 years of marriage? These questions and more are being repeated in living rooms across the country, sometimes inspired by, say, the wrong shoes or a weird metallic smell, some by Love Island, a reality show where the ick is king.
Quick cultural history: the phrase “Getting the ick” was actually coined for an episode of Ally McBeal, in which Ally tried to date The Biscuit. An early noughties Sex and the City episode, “The Ick Factor” carried the torch for a while. Yet ickiness entered the popular lexicon after it became a stock phrase on the island-based reality show. (Priya Gopaldas got the ick on a date with Brett Staniland because he was boring and didn’t flirt enough. You probably read about it in the LRB.)
For a time, I immersed myself. I scrolled through Instagram and TikTok, where users share their idiosyncratic turn-offs under hashtags like #theickisreal and #theickchallenge in their hundreds of thousands. As I did, I began to compile an unofficial taxonomy. The most obvious category was bodily. I saw his bumcrack. She pulled down her mask to kiss me, rather than taking it off. These closely correspond to the emotion of disgust, a safeguard against contamination. There were icks associated with obnoxious behaviours or beliefs. He votes Tory. He’s rude to waiters. Avoidant attachment styles showed up, in complaints that he texts back too quickly. He told his friends about us. Yet the most prevalent category was also the weirdest. Look up “Dumbest icks”. You won’t be disappointed.
When he sits on a bar stool and his legs dangle. Seeing him struggle to find the end of the Sellotape. Seeing him pull out his railcard when asked by the train attendant. The litany of humiliation is more fine-grained than observational comedy. It felt like a new form, one with the attentiveness of poetry to intangible indignities. Hard to explain, impossible to justify, immediately resonant. When he commands Alexa to do something and she ignores him. When he can’t open the ketchup sachet and has to use his teeth. When he uses the menu card to pick out the chocolate he wants.
Intriguingly, some people undergo elective ickiness, choosing to think of someone they fancy in undignified situations. They do this to take the shine off anyone who does not reciprocate their feelings. As an emotional hack, it’s brilliant. Imagine him trying to find a specific emoji but he can’t, and gives up because he’s feeling discouraged. Imagine him eating spaghetti, all red bits around his mouth. Imagine him trying to pat a dog, but the second before his hand reaches, the dog goes away.
Not everyone agrees that the phenomenon is real. At a picnic, my friend James tells me his theory that an ick is a self-created lightning rod for other dissatisfactions in the relationship, that haven’t yet come to the surface. “I believe in them. They’re awful and there’s nothing you can do about them,” chimes in his girlfriend. She’s never felt it for him, though, she adds. He hasn’t either, he replies, looking at her. They kiss for fully a minute, even though I’m right there.
It’s certainly arguable that situations don’t give us the ick, only people. If I really fancied someone, I’m pretty sure they could tell me they want to dress up as Eva Braun while sitting on the toilet. I’d probably be into it. It’s all in the eye of the beholder. I think about Hugh Grant in the film Notting Hill, trying to break into a private garden before falling on his arse and saying “Whoopsie daisy” twice. That is the definition of an ick, but not to Julia Roberts, or any sane person. It’s one of the most charming moments ever filmed.
I got a text. It was Icarus, who remembered swerving a boy after he… giggled at one of her jokes. She’s not proud of it. “It was a sort of childlike titter. My vagina immediately sealed over.” She admits this is perverse, as she spends all her time making people laugh. Her reaction doesn’t even agree with her politics. “I’m worried it makes me sound like a binary-gender stereotypes witch.” I privately recount all the times she’s made me laugh. Have I ever tee-heed?
It set me thinking about the politics of the ick. The politicks. For instance, are they gendered? The examples on social media are overwhelmingly posted by women complaining about men. But culturally, the behaviour has as often been associated with captious boy-men, like Chandler from Friends. Jerry Seinfeld rejected women on a weekly basis for having man hands, being too tanned, talking too high or low, eating peas one at a time.
I suspect the current trend is apolitical – a move away from the dominant dating rhetoric of toxicity, red flags and problematic behaviour. Icks are self-consciously trivial and, while humiliating for the ick-giver, hardly reflect well on the receiver, either. There’s fallibility on all sides.
This is what I find so touching about the infinite list of icks. We all put our underwear on one leg at a time; some of us fall over while we do it. Do you really want to be with someone who doesn’t show their railcard when asked by the guard? If you break up with someone because they scream on a rollercoaster, who’s the loser?
For balance, I should point out that there are videos posted by men, about the things women do that give them the ick. They’re funny, too. One of them was when a girl is called Amy Jones. It’s just a boring name.
While they were funny, scrolling the infinite list of icks also made me sad. When the top of the bus is packed and he has to go back downstairs. His hands were small. He said, “Rawr.” Normally, I love things that are sad and funny. But it was time to delve deeper, understand what was going on here. He used an umbrella.
“The ick is a projection of our own shame, through criticism,” says Jo Nicholl, a psychotherapist specialising in relationships, who hosts the Love Maps podcast. We tell ourselves the other person is childish, unsophisticated and without style, because that’s what we are aware of in ourselves and cannot bear. It makes sense. The close observational skills of the posts demonstrate a super-vigilance towards embarrassment. A thousand ways to be lame, graceless, and not fit in. How easy it is to get it wrong.
According to Nicholl, this mostly shows up in the early stages of a relationship, because that’s when we are most vigilant, scanning for flaws in our partner, second-guessing the criticism of our peers. Social media, unsurprisingly, amplifies this concern with how we appear to others, our tragic vanity and distance from perfection. When he takes a selfie and you see the reflection in the glasses. Nicholl also lays a fair share of the blame at the gates of Love Island’s Casa Amor. “They’re incredibly immature on that island, with not fully formed brains.”
But for people who are predisposed to pernickety little turnings away, and not proud of it, what is there to be done? Surely the experience is too visceral to overturn.
“You can absolutely get over an ick, because it’s coming from you,” says Nicholl. The medicine is not easy. Ick is short for sick, she reminds me. It’s baby talk, suggesting a childish engagement with adult relationships. Rather than treating an unexpected revulsion as an immediate deal-breaker, we could get curious about it. What are our associations? What do we feel? It’s telling us a story about ourselves and it will serve us to understand what that story is. (Fun reminder: it’s unprocessed low self-worth.)
So no one gives you the ick – you do it to yourself. It is your infantilisation, your fear of the animal part, your smallness, your ugliness. But there I go again. I don’t mean you, I mean me. We are all critical all the time, even if we never voice it. But that’s not all there is to people and it’s not the better part. As for emotional hacks, it’s better to feel the pain of someone not fancying you back honestly. To honour your heart’s choice, without fouling them.
Disappointment is a condition of being alive and not a minor one. If you do find someone you like, who feels the same way, do what you can to guard that tiny, intangible flame. Here’s the advice: treat an ick as a relational junction. You can turn left and keep looking for the elusive, perfect other who completes us. Or you can turn, terrified, towards real intimacy with a human being, accepting that attraction waxes and wanes like the phases of the moon. Because love of perfection is no love at all; that’s never where it shows up, thank God. Most of us are unheroic, occasional failures, some of whom keep a little trolley coin on their keyring. Our projects are necessarily small, our little caretakings pathetic hedges against catastrophes we cannot control.
I just can’t look at icks in the same way, now I know what they are. Before I stop scrolling, I do one final search, turning up the hashtag #reverseicks. The same attention to emotional detail, but in the service of feelings far more hopeful. Them doing something to annoy you, then running away while you chase them. Reading a book together and they get closer to you, to see the words. Him letting you write on his hand. We are what we pay attention to.
It is hard. Emotional maturity, is like, the worst. I’ve come up with a little poem to help:
If you get the ick a few weeks in, they’re probably going straight to the bin! If your stomach is turned after a couple of years, consider having compassion for the failing creature who has pledged their time and body to you, failing creature that you are. Compassion for yourself, your rage that you will not have all the things you wanted on this earth. And patience for the consoling knowledge that you can have enough, and be enough.
I’m not very good at rhymes. Oh, that’s a deal-breaker? Screw you and your poetry judgmentalism. I dump you first.
What is the ick?
We are masters of post-rationalisation. Psychotherapist Philippa Perry explains how this can affect our relationships
Human beings are story tellers. Over thousands of years, we have evolved with our language and our storytelling. We hate not knowing and we invent stories to explain the unexplainable.
Stories bond us together as populations, whether they are the histories that bind entire nations, for example religions or creationist accounts, or at a much more personal level, the theories we exchange in a gossipy way around the water cooler to explain why someone behaves the why they do.
There are lots of things we don’t know, even about ourselves, but we rarely dig deep within ourselves to explore these things, instead we prefer to settle on an instant explanation. When we experience feelings of disgust or suddenly going off someone, we won’t tolerate not knowing why, we just know, which is why our clever brains then come up with an explanation.
‘I just noticed his arms were ridiculously long, I could never have lived with those arms.’
We don’t feel we are making these things up, they feel real to us, but we are making them up. We are doing what some psychotherapists call ‘post-rationalisation’.
Roger Sperry was an American neuropsychologist and neurobiologist who was awarded a Nobel prize for his split-brain research in 1981. One of the things he discovered was that when the corpus callosum – the large bundle of more than 200m myelinated nerve fibres that connects the two hemispheres of the brain, permitting communication between the right and left sides – is cut (which was then the only cure for some forms of severe epilepsy), you were able to give the right side of the brain a message or a command, such as ‘Get up and walk around the room’, by introducing it to the left ear or the left eye (the right brain controls the left side of the body). If you then asked the left side of the brain why the subject had got up and walked about the room, the person would always come up with a perfectly reasonable explanation, such as ‘I thought someone had knocked on the door’ or ‘I wanted to get a drink.’ The subject never said, ‘I got up because you are experimenting on me and told me to do some weird stuff!’
Sperry’s research proved that we always come up with a story to justify our actions, and I think this can be applied to our feelings, too. We will always come up with something to explain what we feel.
In short, human beings are masters in the art of post-rationalisation, and what we need to do to evolve is learn to sit with not knowing the reason for a feeling. But that can be very tricky. I’ll let you know when I’ve mastered it!
Pick of the icks: here’s a few of our favourites
‘When they split the bill to the penny.’
‘When they hold the remote up high to change the TV channel.’
‘When they bite the fork while eating.’
‘When they hold a fish in a photo.’
‘When they Shazam a song from the back seat.’
‘When they wait for the shower to warm up.’
‘When the waiter says they’ve run out of what they want so they have to find something else on the menu.’
‘When they chase a pingpong ball.’
‘When they repeat a joke because they think nobody has heard it.’
‘When they run with a rucksack.’
‘When they walk angrily in flip-flops.’
‘When they own a pencil case.’
‘When they chase a piece of paper in the wind.’
‘When they clap when the plane lands.’
‘When they mix up their, they’re and there.’