“The Master Cleanse” And Other American Problems


Yesterday, Chelsea Fagan tweeted about the Master Cleanse, bringing up important questions about its role as a “cleanse” as opposed to a socially acceptable form of an eating disorder. I thought it was a very interesting point of contention. For all those who don’t know, the Master Cleanse is a detox regimen used for ten days where one consumes 6 -12 glasses of a drink made of water, freshly squeezed lemon, cayenne pepper, and maple syrup through the day. And there is a salt water flush one does in the morning. Of course in the USA, you can tag “cleanse” to anything and call it a day. People will buy into it largely because we have a societal complication of how we talk about health in relation to body images, and with regard to thinness as the standard for health and “ideal” body images.

I find food consumption and issues relating to food consumption to be extremely complex in this country. The production of food, the consumption of food, diets, fad diets, cleanses, and how all of this relates to health and images of beauty is fascinating. But as an individual of African identity, it is something that I consciously try to stay away from. That is, the perceptions and sometimes the practices of how many Americans view food and health and beauty is something I consciously resist. Granted this country’s greatest export is its culture, so these perceptions transcend these borders, and I’ve known this even before I lived here.

I openly responded to Chelsea that I had tried the Master Cleanse for three days. It was very impulsive and a part of me wishes I didn’t but the secret is out. Only very few people knew I tried it and I didn’t tell a lot of my friends because I didn’t want to deal with the kind of reactions I thought I would get. They would go somewhat like this, “Why? You’re in great shape! You don’t need to lose weight!” “Are you okay? Do you need to see someone?” Or something along those lines. I didn’t try the Master Cleanse to lose weight. If weight loss and appearances were my goal, I would have opted for something else because I appreciate athletic definition, and that cleanse, like many cleanses, would make you lose muscle mass.

But I did try it for its original purpose – to cleanse the insides of the body. Having read enough adequate information and material about it, I thought, “Why not?” Because for me, when I go on a cleanse or when I change the way I eat for a specific period of time as I did being a vegetarian for over two years, weight loss is not the intention or the goal. But I know that is not how it would be perceived.

The truth is from my perspective, United States American culture has an unhealthy obsession with food which feeds an unhealthy obsession with thinness as the standard for health. Thus, I usually find there are extremities regarding the conversation of food consumption and health. Either you’re skinny or you’re cleansing and dieting or being excessively restrictive in your food intake in order to be skinny. Or you’re eating crap, being inactive, and “letting yourself” become a tub of lard. This is at least what it sounds like to me and  I find the whole conversation of “either/or” confusing and exhausting.

I like love food. I always have and I always will. But since my teen years, even as a very active person, I have always fasted or cleansed in some way. I was raised to believe that fasting and cleansing is good for a person – physically, mentally, and spiritually. But I know that fasting and cleansing does not have the same cultural connotations in this country. Telling people I do this, leads people to believe that I probably have some food disorder that I am not even aware of. But while I have cultural and sometimes religious reasons for fasting, mostly, I fast these days when I need a change in negative habits.

When I tried the Master Cleanse earlier this year, it was towards the end of summer. And this past summer was a summer of Moscow Mules at midnight and chocolate-chip pancakes at 4 a.m. And as I was heading back to school and was experiencing a litany of injuries that restricted how active I could be, I knew it was time for a change. I started reading about the Master Cleanse and I went for it. But due to really low iron levels, I had to stop after three days. Granted, the longest I have ever just plain fasted (consumed water but no food) was three days so my body may just not be cut out for that.

The truth is fasting or cleansing gives you a healthy perspective on food if you do it for the right reasons. Assuming of course, that one does not have any health or food-related disorders to begin with. In those few days, you gain a lot of discipline and I have found this to be true, time and time and again. I think one of the reasons many religions and many cultures across time have encouraged fasting is because if you can be disciplined about what you put inside your body, it will extend to other areas of your life as well. Spiritually, I find it to be good for being compassionate; and as an experience of solidarity to those who suffer from hunger. When I fast during Lent for example, I always incorporate not eating a particular kind of food. Every time I desire that food, whatever it may be, I put money away to be given at the end of Lent to a Church program that benefits a local or global community in need.

I do think a lot of people turn their bodies into a wasteland by not being attentive to what they consume and how they consume. But I also think a lot of people turn their bodies into a regimented machine by being so restrictive in what they intake. My point is that moderation is always key, and it is always possible and available. That is, on the assumption that one does not suffer from food and health related disorders to begin with and has a healthy and moderate perspective on food consumption.

Do I think the Master’s Cleanse is good for the United States culture? Probably not. As Chelsea pointed out, it becomes something socially acceptable but negative in its intention and its consequences. It becomes a “diet” used solely for weight loss. And many times, this is in the hope that the consequence will be a body-type deemed favorable by this culture’s morose and non-inclusive discourse on what is beautiful and what is healthy. It’s interesting how the vicious cycle of our food consumption and health and beauty rhetoric is related to our food-related and body image health disorders that affect so many people’s perception of themselves, each other, and of food – as a biological need and a social construct.

How did we get here? I don’t know. What I do know is there needs to be a cultural change in how we perceive and consume food because it is directly related to our health, body, and beauty issues. And I sincerely doubt that we will ever solve one without being attentive to the other.

image – t r e v y