Sin, Salvation and Celery Juice.
"It took me three days to recover from that ice cream. I felt poisoned"
".the rejection of sugar – of tobacco, drugs, coffee, TV, cholesterol, unfiltered water, synthetic fibre, irradiated fruit, red meat, whatever – enables one to march to the beat of a different drummer, made more attractive because one can also believe one is among the first to hear its tattoo."
(Mintz 1996 1)
Consider this word – DETOX.
Now consider the following definitions:
a) Rehabilitation from drug use
b) A brand of cleaning product
c) A means of clearing mind, body and soul of debris accumulated through modern living
d) Three days of carrot juice
Fifteen years ago, a) would have been the relevant definition, except for the most hard line of health food pioneers. Recently, however, detox diets have become the darling of the Sunday supplements and the subject of much water-cooler debate. Glossy magazines advise readers to detox their make-up bags, kitchens, relationships and working environments. What would once perhaps be described as 'faddy eating' or a typical weight loss diet has been transformed in the eyes of the world to what sociologist Frank Furedi has described as "a lifestyle of high-tech asceticism". Detox devotees agree on definition c). Sceptics would argue that c) when practically implemented usually turns into d).
But what is a detox?
Detoxicate: to rid (a patient) of a poison or its effects. (Collins English Dictionary)
'Poison' in the medical sense would presumably be a substance that could kill you. In the non-medical sense, poison is substituted for the ambiguous toxin. And toxins, apparently, are everywhere. The man-made, the 'chemical' (although presumably everything is made up of chemicals; never really understood that one), the refined, the processed, the stress-related – it has been argued that modern life is a merry-go-round of toxins. And the vagueness of the word 'toxin' makes it difficult to suggest otherwise.
The detox revolution has attracted much criticism from the medical establishment. Much of this is targeted at the vagueness of our understanding of the meaning, and indeed the benefits, of detox. Surely our bodies have their own built-in systems for filtering out junk? A spokesperson from the British Dietetic Association argues that,
"no scientific evidence proves that detoxing actually works or is needed for good health, or that the body is overloaded with toxins. Detox diets are based on the false assumption that our bodies need help in detoxing themselves. We are designed with sophisticated systems to break down and excrete waste. We can help our body withstand environmental toxins by choosing a healthy balanced diet rather than potentially problematic restricted regimes."
So why do people have faith in the power of detox? Eating and drinking to excess is one of the things that humans, and especially rich, western humans, do best. So it is understandable that we would want to spring clean now and then, to eat lightly but well for a while and perhaps take some exercise for the sake of our health. This would be equivalent of dusting the house and hovering. In comparison, a full-on detox, with or without the helpful assistance of a course of colonic irrigation, would be like stripping up the carpets and throwing out the furniture. There is a kind of puritanical zeal about the detoxing process, reminiscent of monks fasting or flaggelating themselves for their sins. Which of course is not to be condemned, but is hardly the basis of balanced, empirically tested nutritional advice.
It is perhaps this mix of the pseudo-scientific with the spiritual that makes the detox such an attractive, controversial and also deeply interesting phenomenon. Going on a diet has overtones of vanity, a slightly undesirable preoccupation with one's own appearance and waistline. To go on a detox, however, is to set one's eyes on the beyond, to look within oneself, to cleanse, to purge, to render oneself pure. Mere weight loss is a side effect of this truly spiritual process. Self-professed atheists talk of inner light and ex-smokers of purification. This added salvific element turns the detoxee from a dieter into a sadhu; elevated above standard social interaction through rejection of 'ordinary' food and drink, the detoxee appears to be concentrated on other, less 'worldly' things. Rejection of food groups can also be extended to people, furniture and even haircuts. Instead of chucking your boyfriend, you can 'remove a toxic force from your life'.
Indeed, the emphasis on the removal of unwanted bodies – toxins, psychic clutter, poisonous relationships – from body, mind or environment is reminiscent of the old Hebrew concept of the scapegoat. Traditionally used in the ritual of Yom Kippur (as explicated in Leviticus 16), a goat was symbolically laden with the sins of the community and sent out into the wilderness to die. In the detox, forces of evil are sent packing as the body is rid of its poisonous burden. The sins of the person are atoned for in an ultimate act of self-control, and carried off on the back of whatever is shed from the body (sweat, dirt, toxins), just as the sins of the ancient Israelite community were carried off on the back of the scapegoat, often symbolised in a leaf tied to the goat's back.
None of this would suggest that detoxes are a bad thing. In fact, it would maybe do all of us a bit of good to take a step back and carefully consider our lifestyles in a serious and reflective manner. But detoxes take on a moral aspect that is perhaps inappropriate. A detox is not a pilgrimage to Mecca. It is a simple and usually short diet, with quasi-spiritual trimmings. Those trimmings allow the detoxee to feel that they are embarking upon a self-renewing quest, and what is more, a necessary one. All of which would help them to stick with the diet and reap the alleged benefits of improved skin and temporary weight loss.
The jury is still out as to whether detoxes are actually any good. Word of mouth would suggest that they are in the short term – eating lots of vegetables and drinking water for a few days never did any one any harm. But the rest of the baggage that goes with detoxes should be viewed as an interesting social phenomenon and then left well alone. If you were feeling the lack of a spiritual element in your life, then presumably eating carrots for a while would be less damaging to your health and overall mental state than joining a cult. But for those of us who are happy to retain our toxic cynicism, diets will always be diets. And for those who still feel in need of a spring clean, well, there's much to be said for a spot of hoovering.