When a Cleanse Is More Than Just a Cleanse

Well, this is about as interesting as it gets, especially during a season that so revolves […]

David Zahl / 11.26.13

mick-stevens-yes-but-it-s-naturally-toxic-new-yorker-cartoonWell, this is about as interesting as it gets, especially during a season that so revolves around food. In the past 48 hours, I’ve been forwarded not one but four separate articles about the religiosity inherent in the juice cleanse phenomenon. It would appear that, after receding for a number of years following the boom in the early 00s, juicing has come back with a vengeance, especially in affluent circles. While each of the articles takes a slightly different angle, all of them agree that when someone pays close to $10 for a small bottle of green liquid, there is something deeper going on than nutrition. Two in particular are worth highlighting here. The first, and probably most relevant, was published back in June in The New Republic, Judith Shulevitz’s none-too-subtly-titled “The Idiotic Cleanse Craze and the Modern Theology of Juice Fasts”. Whereas the Wall Street Journal suggests that juicing has more to do with status than health, Shulevitz goes further:

These new cleanses are “religion without theology,” my friend Ruby quipped. But now that I’ve read [Alejandro] Junger’s Clean, the best-selling text of the cleansing movement, I’ve decided I don’t agree. Clean is theology all the way down. As in many a devotional text, fasting is presented as a way to embody a purer social order.

We live in an age of what William James called “medical materialism,” so instead of fretting about a fallen world, we speak of a poisoned one. In a modern version of original sin, the corruption of our environment is so thorough that it defies individual efforts to transcend it: “Even those making good lifestyle choices still shower with city water, eat meals at restaurants, and live, work, and shop in buildings that have been cleaned and fumigated with toxic chemicals,” writes Junger. We might add to his list other features of daily life that we suspect may be dangerous but haven’t been banned by the authorities: cell-phone signals that may lead to brain cancer, endocrine disruptors that drive our hormones crazy, probably leading, again, to cancer. Distrustful of our surroundings, we try to close ourselves off to malign influences and to purge them. It is no accident that Clean dwells obsessively on defecation and elimination. Junger wants us to flush out… “toxic waste,” even mucus, which he says has “a dense and sticky quality; it resonates with and attracts dense, toxic thoughts and emotions.”


That the purity aspect of Health extends beyond the physiological to the spiritual/existential is hardly breaking news, but it’s still astounding to hear it framed so theologically. Cleanse guru Alejandro Junger even invokes Christ and Moses as juicing role models! A few months after The New Republic piece, New York Magazine ran Vanessa Grigoriadis’ “Juice Heads: How the Newest Liquid-Nutrition Cultists Are Mastering Their Intestines” in which she builds on Shulevitz’s thesis with devastating insight:

Food is the focus of an enormous amount of modern moralism, and there’s nothing that speaks more to our binge-and-purge commercial culture, with our stuffed storage units and speedily evolving fashion trends. The backbone it takes to drink juice and only juice is perfect for New Yorkers, where a big part of life is discipline: getting up every day in a challenging place, grocery shopping without a car, dragging the kids on the sidewalk, forking over a hundred bucks for supper with a smile. One communicates one’s self-worth to others through one’s commitment to the ideals of the city, with success and skinniness at the top of that list.

Juice cleansing is also a marriage of three things that Americans love: hygiene, health, and morality. We, more than any other country, are suckers for anything that promises positive hygiene. We spend more on soap, shampoo, Purell, deodorant, and random gels, sprays, moisturizers, and creams than we do on our foreign cars. To be unclean used to be a metaphor for other sins, like adultery or coveting others’ wealth; now it’s a revulsion in and of itself…

gwyneth_0But in our achievement-focused culture, I know how satisfying and pleasurable it is to feel like one is getting rid of gook, even the ­invisible kind. “One of the claims of ­juicing is that it’s good for your immune system, but in a million years I can’t believe that juicing for three days does anything for your immune system,” says Barbara Kass, a psychotherapist in Brooklyn. “We want to control as much of our lives as we possibly can, to ward off the awareness that you can’t control everything. Letting go of things you can’t control is a key to mental health. And that’s what people can’t do.”…

With juice, you can wash everything away, all the things that make you feel helpless. You can’t control the trajectory of your career in an unstable new economy, or where your kid gets into school, or if the city will flood again—that’s happening way over your head. You are above it all. You spent the money on the juice (and the exercise, and whatever else), and you will be a success. There’s no reason to be anxious, because you have everything under control.

Can I get an amen? Nothing about this is limited to juicers of course (or Paleo diehards or Pure Barre advocates, etc). As we never tire of saying, everyone is religious, regardless of whether or not they go to church or believe in God. If our body isn’t serving as our, er, temple, some other venue invariably is. The spread on our table or the harmony in our family room this Thursday for instance (or the number of attendees at our next conference!). There seems to be something in our DNA that craves a sense of righteousness, that won’t allow juice just to be juice, that’s instead hellbent on subordinating anything and everything to our self-justification, even ostensibly good things like nutrition and fitness.

Okay, you say, if worship is not a case of “if” so much as “what” (as our beloved DFW once claimed), why begrudge people their juice? On the list of available liturgical practices, it’s not exactly human sacrifice. Fair enough. But let’s not kid ourselves that it’s benign. Writing for Slate, Katy Waldman put it this way, ht BPZ:

The cleanse mentality is more than just judgmental and irritating: It’s dangerous. Making each meal a drama of discipline, deprivation, and control? Floating along on a superior high that isn’t really about how much weight you’re losing (but actually kind of is about how much weight you’re losing)? Seeking to express your achievements, be they moral, social, or financial, in the most visible terms you can manage?

If this were a sermon, the text would come from Matthew 6, and I’d take this as my cue to talk about imputed righteousness. I’d talk about the one who came not for the healthy but the sick (and went out of his way to feed the hungry/thirsty), and God-willing we might all walk away feeling a bit of comfort, maybe even some seasonally appropriate gratitude. Who knows, I might’ve even closed with a prayer for the next time we reach for that sleek, sustainable bottle, that we might find ourselves thinking not of juice but of… blood. Thankfully, this isn’t a sermon–I sure wouldn’t want to spoil anyone’s appetite. At least not this week.