Men rarely know, women consider it dogma. The Ick – a noughties phenomenon revisited via TikTok – has resurfaced in the cultural zeitgeist in a big way. But what’s it all about? And what’s the pettiest way it can engulf your central nervous system, asks Kate Demolder…
You know it when you see it. Or, maybe when you feel it. Or perhaps, when it feels you. It bursts your banks, a sentient flood of emotion, rushing through you, claiming and destroying everything in its wake, until your gut shrieks “kill it before it lays eggs.” You were a decent person before. Kind, caring, generous – everyone says so. You even liked Tubridy! – until a virus so potent polluted your personality, shirking all possibility of goodwill as a result of utter detest.
This is The Ick. If you’re not familiar with the phrase, you’ll be familiar with the feeling; a social phenomenon, essentially a rapid-fire turnoff, relegated to those whose attraction to a current or prospective partner flips to become absolute disgust.
It’s triggered in an instant, by something innocuous and petty, and dries all possibility of cumming for the rest of your adult life (with this person). “His inability to merge lanes triggered The Ick in me,” a friend once told me, “when his glasses steam up in a warm room,” another dog-tired woman wept, “the thought of him sitting quietly on a train,” the list goes on. It’s flippant, unfair and often notwithstanding, but it’s also involuntary, a commodity of self-protection and a(n albeit unfair) marker that this person is not who you’re going to fuck forever.
Let’s consider the science. ‘The Ick’ as a concept first rose to public prominence by way of season 6, episode 14 of Sex and the City dubbed The Ick Factor. Carrie is ick-ed by Short Man Petrovsky’s overbearing and saccharine gifts, further leading her into the arms of her Meant To Be man Mr Big. This is perhaps a gentle pushing of The Ick onto an unwilling audience (the ‘00’s were a helluva drug). The real Ick – full of the putrid, grit-filled, riotous activity real women not on HBO experience – eventually flooded the zeitgeist in all of its glory by way of Olivia Attwood of Love Island season 3 fame. Attwood, a woman who too has coined phrases like “Dick Sand” and “I couldn’t be a firefighter, my tits would melt”, used the phrase to describe the breakdown of her relationship with fellow contestant Sam Gowland. It’s unclear which element of Gowland’s character caused Attwood (who said his ex would describe him as “good at first then boring”) to take arms, but for this, he can neither be blamed or pitied, for when this feeling sets in, The Ick acts as a parasite and your mind, the host. “At the end of the day, like, when you are seeing a boy and you get the ick, like, it doesn’t go,” she told cameras at the time. “And it’s one of those things, once you’ve caught it, it’s like, you know, it like takes over your body. And it’s like… it’s just ick.”
The Ick began for Julie*, 28, with a self-tape. “He’s an actor,” she said. “Very narcissistic, into his appearance and kind of thought he was cooler than people realise, but that dickhead-y attitude is sort of what drew me to him. He would also practise different accents around me and almost … expect me to join in? Which was annoying and weird, but the sex was still good so I could compartmentalise. Then he showed me a self-tape he took for an open audition and I could no longer look at him the same. Even after we ended, I had to mute him on social media because his face would actually make me sick.”
Julie’s experience is a perfect example of The Ick; a grotesque aversion directly correlating to a very small but specific thing. “Saying ‘mmm’ too much,” Amy* shared, “Permanent TSB banking,” Kevin* proffered, “imagining him in one of those gowns at the barbers,” another woman shared. The concept has ricocheted back into public resonance, like most things, by way of a TikTok trend, where actual children are contemplating throwing their phones into the sea in order to halt communication between themselves and their ick-adjacent other.
While attempting a gracefulness that acknowledges insensitivity, The Ick can be incredibly mentally beneficial to those who surround it. No group meeting I’ve ever attended has been brought down by sharing ick stories. “When he couldn’t get the waiter’s attention,” a friend once shared, “picturing him turning on the shower and waiting for the water to heat up,” another alley-ooped. Saying that, more serious, character-focused icks also exist: “When they make insecure jokes about sensitive topics,” wrote one person. “When he’s rude to waiters,” revealed another.
As Attwood, subsequent Love Islands and TikTok’s resurrection of the concept shows the persistence of The Ick is not to be snubbed at, the Independent investigated the feeling’s cerebral roots, speaking with psychologist Becky Spelman, who said that it 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.”
It essentially likens The Ick to the crossroads at which you either pursue a relationship with this person or relegate them to ‘not meant to be’. The Ick, too, acts as evidence that we, humans, are surprised by our fellow humans when they reveal themselves to be one of us; ie feral imperfect shits. We expect perfection and are surprised to the point of visceral disgust when we see something as innocuous as calling it “drinky poos” or are shocked when someone departs from the personality we have given them in our heads.
The TikTok obsession speaks to this latter point — picture: “his glasses steaming up in a warm room”; “his shirt getting stuck on his head and him having to pull harder”, “an insecure voice-note technique” or “repeating 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.
Also, fundamentally, humans are disgusting. We puke and piss and shed and everything else deemed societally revolting – not to mention the myriad of personality-adjacent idiosyncrasies (panic, stress, second-guess) we need, evolutionary, to survive – that may cause any of us to be, if anything, biologically ick-adjacent. We’re also told that our rolemodels should be shit-less, puke-less and beautiful/pure/skilled enough that they can profit from it, so, it makes sense that we eventually would wholly disgust one another just by being alive enough to consider never seeing each other again, like good, puritanical sociopaths.
Also, as too noted by Spelman, icks can be useful for recognising conflicting issues regarding personality types or values; for example, if you get an ick after seeing someone be misogynistic, it’s probably worth noting. Same goes if they’re quick to have a temper or cruel to their parents.
So pay attention to your icks, and maybe share them with others. If anything, icks act a reminder that we’re all human, and at the end of the day, we are nothing without them – even if that is a terrifying thing to consider. Mmm.