A Million Meals

Caring for children in today's confusing food environment

Toxic Bodies, Toxic Attitudes

Why our national obsession with internal "cleansing" is wrong

As most of my friends know, I am not a fan of “cleanses”—at least not of the dietary kind. I have my reasons, some of them curmudgeonly, some based on facts, and some, frankly, based on my own temperament. Yet somehow, despite my vocal disapproval, these cleanses have become not just wildly popular, but big business. What were once recipes passed from person to person—the “Master Cleanse” involved large quantities of lemon juice and bowel-irritating cayenne pepper, I believe—have morphed into beautifully packaged bottles of juice occupying their own proprietary refrigerator at my local supermarket. And these bottles of juice cost…wait for it…ten dollars. Each. How does a company (Blueprint, in this case) get away with charging this for a 16 oz. bottle of juice? By making all kinds of health claims for it, based on the fuzzy concept of “cleansing.” Of course, it’s illegal to claim actual medical benefits for any product that isn’t FDA-certified as a medicine, so these marketers have to be pretty sly about what they say, using words like “Renewal” and “Excavation” while also promising you’ll “fit into your skinny jeans again.” Wait, are they promising their customer will lose weight? Or are they just joking around? You be the judge.

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It truly makes me burn to see what suckers we are when it comes to our desperation to be “healthy” or lose weight. Of course you’ll lose weight if you stop eating and drink only juice for however many weeks the cleanse prescribes. But will that weight stay off? Or will you drink a ten dollar bottle of juice every time you get hungry instead of eating…for the rest of your life?

I abhor the way marketers have seized on this idea that we are “toxic” in order to sell us products that are at best placebos and at worst actually harmful to our health. I don’t deny that there are many foods I myself consider pretty toxic, from mass produced fast food with its “pink slime” to Twinkies and their inscrutable ingredient list of unrecognizable chemicals (including rocks and petroleum byproducts). But I draw the line at calling my own body toxic. What goes on in our digestive system may not be pretty, and I’m as squeamish about fecal matter as the next gal, but our bodies have a very sophisticated way of handling waste. As long as what you put in isn’t poisonous, the gastrointestinal system is pretty fabulous at sorting out the good from the bad. And thanks to indoor plumbing, both the world we live in and our external bodies are as sanitary as they’ve ever been. Yet there’s this idea floating around out there—and rapidly gaining traction—that we ourselves are what are toxic. That all those cupcake binges and late-night pizza runs and cigarettes and alcohol have made some kind of permanent stain on our bodies, and that once we expunge that mark we will be healthy again. Unfortunately, there’s absolutely no evidence that a diet of juices will expunge our excesses as well as we might wish, as today's piece in The New York Times attests.

The idea that we need to be cleansed is rooted in a guilt that is quintessentially American. We have long been locked into a love-hate relationship with all our pleasures, especially the bodily ones, and a predictable internal conflict is the unpleasant result. Our country was founded by Puritans who exalted the repression of desire and bodily pleasures. We’ve just changed the scarlet letter from “A” for adultery to “T” for toxic—or is it “U” for unhealthy? The resulting paradoxes around us are multiplying. Our fast food nation is also making Blueprint a $22 million dollar annual profit. The people who see Bloomberg’s pennies-per-ounce soda tax as an attack on individual liberty are happy to pay monthly fees to Weight Watchers.

But why does this bother me so much? After all, the millions made by the brilliant inventors of Blueprint are no skin off my back—they’ll never get a dollar from me. And my cleanse-loving friends are perfectly wonderful people whom I hold in high esteem—I would no more tell them what to eat or drink than I would let them dictate those choices for me. What bothers me, more than the cynical way juice cleanses (and all supposedly healthy foods that are marketed as such) exploit our anxieties, is how they validate and magnify them. Don’t women—the primary market for cleanses, I imagine—have enough self-loathing on their plates already?

I also found a connection in a recent piece by a blogger friend on the conflict she feels each time someone remarks how much her baby girl resembles her. Instead of the uncomplicated pleasure that compliment should produce, it dredges up lifelong feelings of self-hatred. Now, understand that this is an amazingly accomplished person: an Ivy League graduate, a mother of four, a brilliant writer and a beautiful woman. And yet being told her infant daughter looks just like her instantly resurrects feelings of insecurity about her appearance. It ruins what should be a lovely moment for her and her child. And she is hardly alone with these feelings—self-hatred, especially surrounding appearance, has become a defining trait of American women (see the recent Dove commercial that went viral). It may be too late for us to rescue ourselves, but it has to stop before we infect another generation of girls with the erroneous belief that they will never be pretty or thin--or "healthy"--enough.

Ultimately, trying to put my finger on what bothers me so much about “healthy food” fads in general, and our current national obsession with food restriction in particular, it’s located in the link between hating the way we look and believing our bodies are toxic. Yes, we can all improve the quality and variety of what we eat, but when it starts to become a primary life goal, priorities fall seriously out of whack. We also set a terrible example for our children by accepting yet another burden of self-criticism to add to the load we schlep around already. Not to mention falling once again into the hands of companies whose real goal is profit and not our welfare. Why not take those dollars to your local farmer’s market and get enough fruits and vegetables to last you a week? Gulping down gallons of expensive juice instead of meals is not going to solve our national food problem--though it’s an excellent example of capitalism at its finest; rather, it adds to the perception that we need to starve ourselves to be good enough, and that our bodies are our enemies. That’s truly toxic.

What I’ve cooked:

 

Zanthe Taylor, M.F.A., is a former dramaturg and English teacher who is currently raising two daughters in Brooklyn, NY.

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