Have you ever been head over heels smitten with someone and then they do something, or you notice something, and it simply makes your skin crawl? That “something” can really be anything: being kissed by a pair of extremely chapped lips, seeing their face from a strange and disturbing angle, or watching them swear at their mom. The bottom line is that all of a sudden, and all at once, you are repulsed by them — any power they held over your imagination evaporates on the spot.
This phenomenon usually occurs early in a relationship (and can even lead to its end), before you’ve developed a bond of love that allows you to accept someone’s flaws and imperfections. There is also, I’ve recently found out, a name for it: “the ick.”
Today we’re talking about “the ick” because it has come to TikTok, where teenagers are sharing their own icks. But the ick was not born on TikTok, nor is it something only teenagers experience. It’s an actual psychological thing, and we’ve probably all dealt with it at some point or another.
Here’s what we know about the ick: Where it comes from, why we experience it, and whether or not it’s telling us something that we should pay attention to.
What is “the ick”?
“The ick” is essentially a turnoff. It’s that cringey, unsettling feeling you get in your guts when someone you were previously enamored with becomes wholly repulsive to you. “The ick” is a blanket term for that feeling, which is usually brought on by a very small but specific thing — a quality, habit, or event that repels you from the object of your desire, sometimes for good.
For example, a friend of mine tells me she once ended a relationship after her boyfriend of one month brought his diarrhea-afflicted dog on a romantic walk. “It took watery shits all up and down the beach,” she said, “and I remember him bending over, grunting softly with effort, while fumbling to scoop the shit into his plastic bag, all while trying to maintain a conversation … I knew I never wanted those sweaty, ineffectual hands to ever touch me again. I dumped him a week later.”
Humorous examples of the ick can also be found across TikTok. “I ghosted a guy once because I saw his butt crack when he got out of the car,” wrote user @breoniguess. “Fortnite flossing,” commented another. “When he’s at a dance and everyone’s dancing in like a huddle and he’s on the outside trying to get involved,” wrote a third.
There are also more serious, character-focused icks: “When they make insecure jokes about sensitive topics,” wrote one person. “When he’s rude to strangers,” wrote another.
Where did the term come from?
From the sociocultural treasure chest that is the U.K. version of Love Island. “The ick” was first coined by Olivia Attwood, a contestant on the reality dating show in 2017, who used it to describe the breakdown of her relationship with fellow contestant Sam Gowland. She explained the concept behind the the scenes:
“When you’ve seen a boy, and got the ick, it doesn’t go,” she said. “It’s caught you, and it’s taken over your body. It’s just ick. I can’t shake it off.”
Since then, “the ick” has become a term that’s frequently revisited in the Love Island universe — “Is so-and-so catching the ick?” It was most recently used by Leanne Amaning in a January 2020 episode to explain why she broke up with fellow contestant Mike Boateng after only two weeks.
How and why does the ick happen?
After Amaning resurfaced the ick concept, the Independent investigated the feeling’s cerebral roots. It spoke with psychologist Becky Spelman, who said that the ick tends to take place “after a period of mutual attraction, and before the relationship has had time to mature into a settled, long-term situation.”
She added that the feeling might arise when we find “our unconscious mind reacting to some fundamental incompatibilities between us and the person to whom we were so recently attracted … Because of the initial rush of attraction, we’ve chosen to overlook these fundamental incompatibilities and to pursue a relationship with them. However, when there are serious incompatibilities, problems will emerge at some point.”
Is “the ick” good or bad?
A bit of both. First, that the ick is even a thing is evidence that we, humans, are surprised by our fellow humans when they reveal themselves to be one of us. We expect perfection and are surprised to the point of visceral disgust when we see something as stupid as an unwiped booger, or are shocked when someone departs from the personality we have given them in our heads.
The TikTok icks speak to this latter point — picture: “him sitting in a bath”; “his shirt getting stuck on his head and him having to pull harder”; “him taking a selfie”; “him pooping”; or “him having to repeat a joke because no one heard it the first time.” These are all examples that involve vulnerability, ego, and in general, being a real person. Really, they’re trivial when it comes to assessing a personality, and shouldn’t be things that make us not like someone.
On the other hand, icks seem like a good and harmless way for teens, especially, to feel less overwhelmed by their crushes. Of course, icks can be experienced by any gender, but the fact of the matter is that teenage boys rarely are anything less than totally disgusting, and girls are still conditioned to overlook or even treasure their most loathsome qualities.
For instance, persistent body odor, condescension, overconfidence, and disrespect are things endemic to most teenagers, but in girls they are considered to be totally abhorrent. Acknowledging icks, in this way, is a good way to stop idealizing the young (or older) men we are crushing on, because society already does a great deal of that without our help.
And as Spelman noted, icks can be a useful tool for recognizing things that may indicate larger issues around personality or values; for example, if you get an ick after seeing someone be rude to a food worker or other person in a serving role, it’s probably worth noting. (Indeed, although I didn’t know it at the time, I’ve found icks to be a very helpful tool in my personal emotional recovery following a breakup.)
So pay attention to your icks, and maybe share a few with others. If anything, icks are a good reminder that we’re all human, and humans, at the end of the day, are nothing if not one big, interconnected ick.