Come January, the term ‘detox’ is revived as a favourite platitude in commercial culture, which perpetually finds new ways to help us cleanse by consuming yet more. A pre-emptive commitment to a post-Christmas cleanse can justify the very indulgence that demands the latter- be it on mulled wine, mince pies, or sheer materialism. In its purest definition, detoxification is a means of restoring equilibrium by purging toxins. However, in recent years this transient practice has become a sustained way of life. Modern consumer culture has provided us with no shortage of excess baggage to acquire and expunge: we can detox our diets, wardrobes, skincare regimes, digital visibility and even detox our detox, according to the numerous variations of the wellness regime. The flourishing of such brands as ‘The Detox Kitchen’ and Gwyneth Paltrow’s ‘Goop’ testifies to this perennial detox culture, nourished by the rising popularity of plant-based, gluten/dairy/wheat-free and raw foodstuffs. Along with clean eating, home detoxification has recently won cultural favour. Famous Japanese ‘cleaning consultant’ Marie Kondo’s bestseller, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up extols the virtue of purging everything from your home that doesn’t ‘spark joy.’
In its many forms, today’s detox regime thrives on the modern vogue for coding luxury through less (less cooking, less adornment, more minimalist designs, and so on), yet the seeds of detox can be traced well into the ancient world, when it was no less shrouded in myth than it is today. As early as 1500 BC, the Egyptians were pioneering colonic irrigation, the Pharaoh having enemas administered by his own ‘Guardian of the Anus.’ Ayurveda, which translates from Hindu Sanskrit as “life-knowledge,” has advocated various forms of fasting, blood purification and intestinal purgatives from c. 3000 BC to this day.
Despite its dubious mandate in the archaic sciences, detoxing has more recently evolved with a fixation not on the past, but on the new. Detox programmes promise the ‘magic’ of new methods and ‘discovery’ of cutting edge research, much of which holds our frightful modern world accountable for our oblivious intemperance. On the Goop website, Paltrow quotes Dr. Alejandro Junger’s rather ambiguous warning that our “environment and food system is overloaded with toxic and synthetic chemicals,” demanding we rush to saunas, dandelion and kale juice, and herbal laxatives.
Visibility typically lies with the process of detoxification itself, rather than the toxins. Beaches, kaleidoscopic smoothies, workout shots and granola bowls constitute the prevailing iconography of cleansing. Before and after shots, too, abound in digital detox culture- although these tend to resemble rather challenging ‘spot the difference’ puzzles. Social media has provided new incentives for adhering to one’s regime (or at least, appearing to), as well as a new semantic framework for the notion of detoxing. Linguistically, detox is often interwoven with vice. #avocadoporn and #foodgasm have become ironic terms for #cleaneating. Detox is also visually constructed as a form of indulgence, in mainstream advertising and particularly on Instagram. Evian ads have playfully cast their water as a wine bottle, or, less subtly, depicted a naked woman sprawled at leisure across the snowy French Alps, implying that to “detox with evian” is no less to engage in luxuriant hedonism. On social media, chia pots laden with fruit and nuts- not forgetting the sumptuously understated crockery and rustic tableware- communicate decadence as much as dietary deprivation.
Detoxification has always had its own display value. In Ancient Rome, bathing was both a curing ‘cleanse’ and a profound showcase of the patron’s wealth and prestige. Privately owned baths were lavished with mosaics, stuccos and fountains. Distinct entrances affirmed the hierarchy of men, women and slaves, with admission fees to the thermae helping to filter the common crowd. Our contemporary detox draws on a more implicit elitism. Its methods are notoriously expensive, socio-economically filtered before they can be filtered on Instagram. The term has tremendous commercial capital in the beauty market, while a Vitamix- the holy grail of clean-eating culture- markets at around £400-£650.
What are we really buying, when we buy into the detox? The very idea of meaning, perhaps? Borrowing from religious practices, we’ve superseded malicious spirits with synthetic chemicals, and replaced divine icons with consumer goods. Instead of ascribing medical knowledge to the gods, as in early Ayurvedic treatises, we derive it from talk show hosts, celebrities, and their doctors. To the converted, the body is sacred, and the proud display of one’s regime conveys a cogent message of self-worth. Where personal identity is mediated through consumer signs, detoxing signifies material wealth, refinement, virtue and discipline. In an age so abundant with calorific, chemically enhanced foods, self-nourishment is easily re-formulated as deprivation.
It might be true, then, that certain specifics of the contemporary world necessitate the ‘magic’ of the modern cleanse. Crucially, however, it is above all the idea of the detox with which our culture- not our digestive systems- is intoxicated.