The Cleanse (Femininity, Detox Diets, and the Myth of Purity)

Last week, when writing about extremism and dietary identities, I linked to the popular detox program called “Clean.” I returned to the site for some further research and was suddenly struck by the promotional images.

This diet “cleanse” is clearly not just marketing a set of powders, supplements, and recipes, but a carefully curated lifestyle. The target audience is an already slim, affluent woman, whose spotless kitchen (chrome accents, of course) is sleek and modern, but whose dining room table is looks like it could have been hewn from a tree (one that just fell all by itself, not one that was cruelly chopped from its roots) just days ago. Her friends are also pleasantly slender and their casual lunches are carefree and serene.

Nothing about this woman suggests extremity. Her smiles are all quite contained, her style is non-committally crunchy, she probably does gentle yoga in workout gear from lululemon. The diet itself, though, is quite extreme. Replacing two meals a day with a 63 calorie shake and sticking to a strict elimination diet for lunch, the cleanse promises full body “detoxification” (although it is unclear exactly what toxins are being “flushed”). It seems to be more than that, however. Clean appears to promise purification- moral, spiritual, physical, and aesthetic.

The surfaces in the promotional material gleam as brightly as the central model’s white skin. She is pristine (lighter in pounds and dollars, as the 3-week kit of supplements costs $425).

These visual signs become overt when such celebrities as Gwyneth Paltrow share their testimonials, praising the program’s power to provide “mental clarity

Eliminating dairy, eggs, gluten, red meat, processed foods, most oils, nightshades, condiments, alcohol, sugar, and caffeine, the diet relies heavily on fruits and vegetables and such ingredients (commonly lauded by the nebulous entity of the organic, hippie, food conscious movement) as lentils, green tea, nuts and seeds, and coconut oil. These dietary suggestions, however, do not come attached to an environmentalist or animal-rights agenda. Instead, they promise “lightness” and “release” (interesting code for bowel movements, so often taboo for women to speak of) and a motion toward “the CANI principle — Constant and Never-ending Improvement.”

The language of the program treats food like an addiction, speaking in delicate terms about various “triggers” one might have and the ways in which eating can often take place during emotional times. While these issues are quite real, the target audience does not seem to be those who are struggling with such addictive behaviors as binge-eating disorder or compulsive over-eating.

Instead, it seems as though this program (and I am only using this one as an example because of its commercial success- there are countless other programs with similar messages) is marketing a kind of physical and emotional lightness that is particularly aimed at white women. There is frequent talk of being calm and balanced, not allowing the extremes of emotion to govern your actions or appetites. Self-containment is prized.

The Clean Manifesto is also full of admonishments to question one’s impulse to eat. If one stops and thinks about it, is one really hungry?

Hunger will fall away and a sense of serene “empowerment” will take its place. This is the dangerous kind of “empowerment” women are told will arise when they turn their desire to control their environments back in on themselves. Such scholars as Susan Bordo have long theorized the relationship between patriarchal control and anorexia and evidence has been found linking the prevalence of fasting/eating disorders with historical and geographical incidences of loss of female control.

While a 3-week detox diet is by no means necessarily disordered eating, the language and imagery of the Cleanse is striking in its emphases on purity and self-containment. The diet doesn’t just market health; it markets a particular brand of femininity.

Next week, I’d like to explore some of the relationships between masculinity and fad diets (perhaps delving into the paleo diet or examining the phenomenon of the raw food dude), but it’s worth noting that all of the testimonials offered on the Clean website and the models featured are women, but that the diet itself was created by a man and the two other founding partners are also male (and their mini-biographies are well worth a read!)

Just a little food for thought…

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