Why Clean Eating Can’t Save Your Soul

Young woman drinking a green smoothie after training
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The idea of dietary detox—nowadays often referred to as “clean eating”—is not new. Ritualized self-denial exists at the core of basically every major religion, often in the form of periodic fasting or dietary restrictions. We express our commitment to spiritual regeneration by depriving ourselves of the pleasure of food. After all, what could be more appealing than a purified body—and the promise of Moral Virtue? Had Eve been able to resist the temptation of the Garden’s juicy apple, we would, perhaps, be living in a far more moral world.

A range of cultures has long attempted to schematize the relationship between bodily purity and morality. Medieval physiognomy, for instance, was centered on the medical system of humorism—the notion that the four humors of black bile, yellow bile, phlegm, and blood exist in every individual, each associated with specific temperaments, behaviors, seasons, and astrological signs. Humoral balance could be achieved only through scrupulous dietary choices, herbal medicine, and a cleansing process known as “bloodletting,” wherein leeches were used to draw out poisons from body and spirit.

The ancient Indian medical system of Ayurveda (which has seen a resurgence among the urban-dwelling yogis of today) relies on a related system of “doshas”—every individual is said to possess the three doshas (Vata, wind; Pitta, fire; and Kapha, earth) in unique configurations, which can manifest either in balanced or imbalanced expressions. Achieving balance requires the individual to commit to an individualized and typically quite disciplined dietary regimen. Humans, it seems, have long been convinced that there are toxins “out there,” and potentially within us, and that attempting to rid ourselves of them is a virtuous pursuit.

Despite our postmodern retreat into the disembodied world of iPhone-land, we also seem to be living in an age of unparalleled interest in our physical health. On June 26, 2017, the journalist Amy Larocca penned an article titled “The Wellness Epidemic” for New York pointing out how, in today’s world of luxury meditation studios, ayahuasca ceremonies, juice-cleansing, and sober morning raves, “wellness is not only a word you hear every day” but “a global industry worth billions.” Larocca criticizes the total corporatization of wellness, arguing that only the rich have the resources (and time) to concern themselves with chronic ailments like “maybe-kind-of-celiac disease” or one of the “million different autoimmune diseases with long, complicated names.” The number of Americans avoiding gluten has more than tripled since 2009, and going gluten-free has become a sign not only of one’s self-discipline, but an emblem of success and cultural know-how.

In a similar mode, Taffy Brodesser-Akner recently examined the politicized rebranding of the weight-loss industry in the New York Times Magazine—including how heavy-hitting brands like Weight Watchers and Lean Cuisine have had to replace words like “weight loss” and “dieting” with ideas of self-care and wellness, that mythical and artfully amorphous concept. “‘Dieting’ was now considered tacky,” Brodesser-Akner writes. “It was anti-feminist. It was arcane. In the new millennium, all bodies should be accepted, and any inclination to change a body was proof of a lack of acceptance of it.”

“Neither science nor medicine has ever found the perfect body. That has not kept people from looking for it.”

Larocca and Brodesser-Akner both observe that, for women, the word “wellness” carries cultish, pseudo-spiritual undercurrents, but still perpetuates the same perfectionistic pressures to conform that women’s magazines have espoused for decades. Now, however, perfecting our bodies has become couched in terms of self-care and self-empowerment, underpinning the quest for the Perfect Body with an even more insidious moral charge.

As the sociologists Charles Edgley and Dennis Brissett point out in “Health Nazis and the Cult of the Perfect Body,” the idea of perfect health and the perfect body is an impossibility, and yet it is the very quest for perfection that motivates us to continue clenching our fists. “Neither science nor medicine has ever found the perfect body,” Edgley and Brissett state. “That has not kept people from looking for it. If science has failed to locate it, current popular culture most assuredly has. It is slender, fit, and glowing. It does not smoke. If it drinks, it does so in moderation.” The fictional mythology of perfect health—the perfect body—renders the quest toward wellness ever-relevant, heroic, and conveniently adjustable to cultural context.

Thinness—now disguised as wellness—remains a definitional element of ideal womanhood, particularly among white, able-bodied, upwardly mobile women. Now, however, we’ve convinced ourselves that self-discipline is righteous, a part of something larger. As Marisa Meltzer pointed out in the New York Times, the very term “self-care” is having a moment, and the current usage is often underpinned by political aspirations. Specifically, many contemporary cultural references to self-care harken back to the words of poet and activist Audre Lorde, who wrote in 1988 that “caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.”

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Roxane Gay’s Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body typifies the current cultural moment, exposing some of the deepest assumptions we make about morality and self-control, particularly when it comes to the ever-fraught topic of women’s bodies and what we should (or shouldn’t) be eating. The book is an unflinchingly honest (and uncomfortable) account of Gay’s relationship to her body, to the trauma of sexual assault, to fatness, and to hunger, both physical and figurative.

After being gang-raped in the woods at age 12, Gay began relying on food to assuage her suffering. Surprisingly, however, Gay does not describe food itself as a source of comfort, but as a tool she wielded deliberately as a way to claim control of her body. Unlike archetypal weight-gain-and-loss narratives that cast overeating as a total loss of control, Gay’s story is about intentional self-protection. “I found ways to hide in plain sight, to keep feeding a hunger that could never be satisfied,” she writes, “the hunger to stop hurting.”

Given our culture’s extremism, it’s not terribly surprising that 20 million American women suffer from an eating disorder at some point in their lives.

In Gay’s own words, Hunger is “not a story of triumph”—it bears no resemblance to conventional first-person weight-loss memoirs that seek to offer #thinspiration. Instead, the book is messy, paradoxical. On one hand, Gay offers a critique of the “weight-loss industrial complex” and “anti-obesity propaganda” (exemplified by mainstream TV shows like The Biggest Loser) and questions the validity of the “harsh” accounts of America’s obesity epidemic. At the same time, she confesses deep-seated self-loathing and disdain for her own body, recognizing it as potentially fat-phobic: “I… live in a world where the open hatred of fat people is vigorously tolerated and encouraged. I am a product of my environment.” Let’s face it: We all inhabit this same cultural context—one that sees fat bodies as disgusting, lazy, even immoral. Thus, Gay asks, “What does it say about our culture that the desire for weight loss is considered a default feature of womanhood?” Given our culture’s extremism, it’s not terribly surprising that 20 million American women suffer from an eating disorder at some point in their lives.

In “Sublime Hunger: A Consideration of Eating Disorders Beyond Beauty,” the philosopher Sheila Lintott attacks the widely held belief that excessive dieting among women is primarily driven by beauty ideals (thin, of course, meaning beautiful). “Eating disorders are incorrectly understood as attempts to pursue cultural stereotypes of thinness and beauty,” Lintott argues, pointing out that many women who start to lose weight with the goal of beauty in mind “continue their attempts to manipulate and control their bodies long after the beauty-ideal has been surpassed.” So what is excessive dieting about?

According to Lintott, chasing after thinness can be understood as an attempt by women to experience the sublime, transcendence, a sense of invincibility, albeit fleeting. Resisting the urge to satiate hunger becomes an expression of power and self-possession, as we can prove our ability to “transcend our natural inclinations.” Since, as Lintott points out, there is “a relative lack of socially encouraged…ways women are invited to express their power,” thinness becomes a signifier of embodied freedom and strength. It says a lot about our culture that exaggerated self-denial—and literal disappearance—is a common and accessible way for women to express determination, strength, and success.

The anthropologist Sigal Gooldin takes Lintott’s ideas a step further in “Being Anorexic: Hunger, Subjectivity, and Embodied Morality,” arguing that the state of hunger constitutes “a sense of heroic selfhood” for anorexic women. There is an almost definitional sense of “achievement” one can access while sustaining the feeling of hunger—and resisting the temptation (read: necessity) of eating. “Part of disciplining the body is denial,” Gay writes in Hunger. To hunger actively—or to feel hunger and act on it—is to be voracious, gluttonous, hedonistic, just as Eve was in Eden. These “immoral” qualities are thus associated with what cultural critic Susan Bordo refers to as “the archetypal female” in her seminal book on anorexia, Unbearable Weight: Feminism, Western Culture, and the Body. To transcend the hungering model of femininity is to be heroic—to possess the strength to see beyond the “immediate everyday reality” of appetite and embody a more edenic sense of self.

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Perhaps, as Christopher Lasch argued in 1976 in the New York Review of Books, the neoliberal obsession with the “personal satisfactions” of the 1970s—self-improvement trends like therapy, hypnosis, jogging, and “the wisdom of the east” signified a “retreat from the political turmoil of the recent past.” Today, this dynamic continues: We grow increasingly inculcated with the neoliberal doctrine of solutionism (“there’s an app for that!”), dependent on technological innovation (“there’s an app for that!”), and fearful of climate change and other, increasingly alarming chaos in our world.

The heroic journey of deprivation in the name of health is always available and always relevant, providing promise, comfort, depoliticized progress.

We may not be able to stop climate change or nuclear war with a “disruptive” hackathon in Silicon Valley, but each of us can Show We Care—and constantly!—by avoiding the tempting demons of gluten, sugar, and GMOs in the name of health. The heroic journey of deprivation in its name is always available and always relevant, providing promise, comfort, depoliticized progress—a reprieve from the clamor of social, political, and environmental unrest.

The pressure to be well (read: thin) remains particularly intense for women. Saying no to the temptations of beer, French fries, and sleeping in (instead of morning spin class) is no longer about self-absorption, but about a spiritually ennobling and self-caring pursuit. And yet, as Bordo writes in Unbearable Weight, “Our culture is one in which Oprah Winfrey, a dazzling role model for female success, has said that the most ‘significant achievement of her life’ was losing sixty-seven pounds.” This remains our culture.

In a recent commercial for Weight Watchers, a company Oprah herself now partially owns, she soberly tells the viewer, “Inside every overweight woman is a woman she knows she can be.” This message essentially encourages all women to recognize their innate capacity to unleash their Inner Thin Woman. The campaign perpetuates an idea about hunger that is becoming increasingly popular and normalized: Thinness-as-wellness is not only a signifier of “success,” but also a deeper commitment to self-empowerment and capital-P Progress. The “anti-pleasure ethic,” as Edgley and Brissett describe it, represents a secular theology, an opportunity to create meaning. Wellness has endowed deprivation (and, by extension, thinness) with a sense of social and psychological meaning.

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Fortunately, critiques of wellness like Larocca and Brodesser-Akner’s are proliferating. The wellness-industrial complex can only grow so much without us at least trying to examine what we’re trying to avoid when we avoid gluten. Are the toxins we’re frantically trying to eradicate with green juice, Bikram yoga, and nouveau sweat lodges really the problem? My gut tells me no—though it’s been a while since my last juice cleanse. I get the feeling larger, more systemic anxieties are underpinning our current cultural fixation with detox.

We are a nation obsessed with the quest of self-improvement, guided by Puritanical ideals of morality, and today there are even more external resources—capital, the internet, information—to bring to this quest. Wellness is no longer defined as the absence of disease, but as an infinite realm of potential perfection. If we regard the potential perfection of our bodies as a constant possibility, we needn’t think of anything else. The wellness industry thrives on that mentality.

Wellness gives us all the false promise of a chance to play God. Given that our bodies are always ours, and always-imperfect, the dogma of wellness gives us full power to take a shot at omnipotence. But believing in the doctrine of clean living can last a lifetime if we let it, not to mention that it costs more money than most of us will have to our names. (A green juice, for reference, costs around $9. One class at SoulCycle is $34.)

In Oscar Wilde’s play A Woman of No Importance (1893), a characteristically satirical portrayal of the English upper class, the two characters Mrs. Allonby and Lord Illingworth have a brief conversation about health. “Horrid word ‘health,’” scoffs Mrs. Allonby, to which Lord Illingworth agrees: “Silliest word in our language.” This conversation can be read as somewhat of a warning—against what wellness could become if we continue to “buy in”—both philosophically and monetarily. In a vacuum, striving toward “well” bodies is not a horrid or silly pursuit. But if we mistake wellness for virtue, hunger for purity, a gluten-free diet for omnipotence, we obscure our perspective and displace valuable energy from the political to the personal.


JSTOR Citations

Health Nazis and the Cult of the Perfect Body: Some Polemical Observations

By: Charles Edgley and Dennis Brissett

Symbolic Interaction, Vol. 13, No. 2 (Fall 1990), pp. 257-279

Wiley on behalf of the Society for the Study of Symbolic Interaction

Sublime Hunger: A Consideration of Eating Disorders beyond Beauty

By: Sheila Lintott

Hypatia, Vol. 18, No. 4, Women, Art, and Aesthetics (Autumn - Winter, 2003), pp. 65-86

Wiley on behalf of Hypatia, Inc.

Being Anorexic: Hunger, Subjectivity, and Embodied Morality

By: Sigal Gooldin

Medical Anthropology Quarterly, New Series, Vol. 22, No. 3 (Sep., 2008), pp. 274-296

Wiley on behalf of the American Anthropological Association

Charlotte Lieberman

Charlotte Lieberman is a Brooklyn-based writer whose work often concerns feminism, the commodification of wellness, meditation, and mental health. You can read her prose in Cosmopolitan, The Harvard Business Review, Marie Claire, BOMB, Teen Vogue, and Guernica, and her poetry in The Boston Review, The Colorado Review, and Nat.Brut.

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