What’s The Meaning Of Detoxing?

The Death of Detoxing

The rising demand for evidence has rendered detoxing somewhat of a mockery recently. Just the mere mention of our almighty livers these days is met with #micdrop and a standing ovation, which is pretty encouraging given that not so long ago it was tiny waists owed to skinny teas that amassed the same kind of public adoration. Of course, that isn’t to say that many aren’t still fooled by the phoney concept of detoxing. The inexorably annoying claims of unqualified healthy-eating celebrities still crop up weekly in the media, but unlike before, they’re now met by enraged dietitians and nutritionists hitting back on each and every pseudoscientific falsity with hard-line facts and an entertaining thread of ridiculing.

I’ve grown accustomed to taking most of what I read about health on the internet with a very large pinch of salt, and my days of dabbling in ‘raw,’ ‘real’ and ‘natural’ are absolutely behind me, so I’m often there with the rest rolling my eyes at any suggestion that our bodies can be cured of accumulated toxins by slurping on pulverised vegetables for a few days. But wrongful claims aside, there’s an important reason for why we, and especially those who want to educate others on nutrition, shouldn’t dismiss detoxing as just a current farce.

To contextualise my line of thought, I recently reviewed a panel discussion between a group of registered nutritionists sharing their views on the detox trend. During the talk, one mocked that the word ‘detox’ means absolutely nothing, to which the rest chuckled in agreement. Yes by all scientific accounts, they would be right. There’s no evidence that the so-called methods of detoxing by superfoods or colon cleanses will do anything tangible except leave your bank balance depleted. But that doesn’t mean that detoxing means nothing. Nothing ever means nothing.

A Dictionary On Detoxing

The earliest documented definition of ‘detox’ supposedly arose in 1867, in the form of ‘detoxicate,’ derived from the Latin toxicum (poison), meaning to deprive of poisonous qualities. The medical definitions, ‘detoxify,’ and ‘detoxification,’ as in to remove toxic chemical substances from the blood, weren’t documented until 1905. Though the medical definitions took authority, notions that link morality and illness were long established and not so easy to untangle by this point. People were already using restriction, fasting and purging to remedy their supposedly unwell, poisoned and sinful soul.

In a warped scenario where health meant purity, purity meant restriction, and restriction cured corruption, somehow ‘detoxing’ became synonymous with virtue and a pathway to a better self. As we know from modern-day fad movements such as ‘clean eating,’ these beliefs have all but faded. Therefore, whilst the methods of ‘detoxing’ in the world of wellness may not fulfil their purifying promise on the physiological front, that doesn’t mean the reason people invest in them now aren’t still legitimate.

Detoxes operate on a promise of repentance by inciting insecurity over food and toxins. They problematise our bodies by shaming our exposure to chemicals, making us feel bad for overindulgence and in need of an urgent remedy. Then they hold out the golden ticket. They offer a way to bypass life’s intrinsic guilt. Detoxes are the solution to the very fear they create and so, regardless of whether they actually work on the body, they do the job of making people feel a little less condemned, if only for a little while. Then, when guilty messages creep back in, it’s time to detox once again, creating a vicious, expensive and dangerous cycle.

How Implicit Meanings Intoxicate Us

By simply focusing on clinical definitions, we fail to address the way cultural meanings also influence our attitudes, emotions and actions around health. The religious undertones and connotations that prevail in the discourse of detoxing are what drive people to seek a miracle quick-fix. Therefore, these too need to be tackled. We need to understand and better relay that health is not a signal of morality and the things we consume do not dictate our worth.

Flooding ourselves with ‘goodness’ and flushing our bodies of ‘toxins’ aren’t misinformed quests for health. They’re a consequence of disordered attitudes towards our bodies and food. And so, until the notions of guilt and shame around food and lifestyle are diminished, people will continually seek out products and practices that ease their conscience, no matter the science behind them.

Detoxing is much more than a meaningless marketing fad. It represents a sad sickness in our society, where we’ve been made to feel so insecure about our bodies, so worried for our morality and so fearful of the world around us, that we’ll clamber on anything to cope and repair. Though narratives of morality may not seem important on a clinical level, they have just as much impact on our physical and mental health, and we must remember that when we try to spread awareness on the subject. Debunking myths is a great first step, but think very carefully before delegitimising a wide cultural problem that desperately needs attention. If we’re to stop another wave of guilt-driven ‘detoxing’ from surfacing once the current are dead and buried, we need to explore the whole definition.


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