Sunday, January 1, 2017
‘An action is virtuous,” wrote St. Thomas Aquinas in “Summa Theologiae,” “due to its being directed by reason to a noble good. And this is true of fasting. For we fast for three purposes: (1) to restrain the desires of the flesh; (2) to raise the mind to contemplate sublime things; (3) to make satisfaction for our sins. These are good and noble things, and so fasting is virtuous.” Glory to God in the highest!
“As I write this, I am finishing the amazing three-week-long ‘Clean’ detox program detailed below,” wrote St. Gwyneth of Paltrow on her appalling website. “This program allowed me to work and exercise regularly, something I cannot do if I am on a liquid-only detox. I followed it to the letter and I can report that it worked wonders. I feel pure and happy and much lighter (I dropped the extra pounds that I had gained during a majorly fun and delicious ‘relax and enjoy life phase’ about a month ago).” Glory to Goop in the highest!
With the New Year naturally arrives a moment of rueful stock-taking, a wincing glance at the scale, ironclad permanent self-improvement resolutions destined to endure until approximately midweek.
But, urged on by the crazy celebrities we consult for lifestyle advice, and being Americans, we sometimes go to strange extremes to punish ourselves in the name of improving ourselves. While mortification is nothing new, the reasons underlying it today are competitive, not devotional — status-seeking, braggadocio, one-upmanship, vanity. Anything you can eat, I can eat less of; I can chastise myself better than you. Call it the Culture of (Self) Denial.
In an age of mass affluence, excess becomes vulgar. Gold chains around the neck, and extra inches around the waist, were once coveted but now seem vulgar to the most discerning and envied classes. Sending out signals that you are not merely wealthier but better than the average person becomes ever trickier. Increasingly, it’s experience rather than possessions we use to flaunt our superior status.
This week, lots of your fellow New Yorkers will be off on “wellness retreats” such as the celebrity-beloved one called the Ranch at Live Oak, Malibu, where, according to Lonely Planet, “It’s a week of tough love. Nothing is optional: not the pre-dawn wake-up calls for morning yoga, not the 16 km to 21 km hikes every day, not the four hours of fitness classes, and not the super-strict diet (no meat, wheat, sugar, dairy, caffeine, alcohol or processed foods). Participants, no more than 16 at a time, may suffer migraines or vomit on the trail and still the instructors push them to keep going.”
Thanks, but if I want to induce migraines and vomiting, I’ll save the plane fare and go watch “Collateral Beauty” again. Celeb fans of the Ranch and its sister property at the Four Seasons Hotel in Westlake reportedly include Mandy Moore, Julianne Hough, Lea Michele, Brittany Snow and Rebel Wilson.
Given that everything is, actually, optional at the nothing-is-optional resort (after all, the only thing they can really do to you is kick you out), the primary appeal seems to be exclusivity: Only 16 guests at a time! From the whole world! Even the toast of 2008, the airplane-bathroom-sized downtown eatery Momofuku Ko, served more than 16 guests a night. Who knows, maybe Lea Michele will be one of the other 16 guests. She can hardly fail to become your best friend after such an intimate shared experience.
Conspicuous self-castigation need not involve going to boot camp to reshape your booty. The star of “Divergent” and “The Fault in Our Stars,” Shailene Woodley, eats clay in the belief that it’ll adhere to heavy metals and cleanse her body of them.
Clay is “one of the most healthy things you can put into your body,” she told a blogger at the website Into the Gloss. “I first heard about the benefits of eating clay from a taxi driver. He was African and was saying that where he’s from the women eat clay when they’re pregnant.” Woodley also told New York Magazine that she constantly drinks iced tea containing a packet of “instant chaga, a mushroom-based powder.” “It tastes like dirt,” she said. “But I like the taste of dirt.” Repeatedly announcing all of this to the public serves a purpose: Hey, pathetic non-movie stars, you aren’t disciplined enough to retrain your palate to savor a mouthful of soil? You’ll never be as gorgeous as me.
If a non-celebrity repeatedly eats inedible substances, we call this the mental disorder known as pica. Pregnant women are especially vulnerable in conditions of extreme poverty, where eating soil may be a desperate move to obtain calcium and other necessary minerals. I’m guessing that, growing up in Simi Valley, even someone as dense as Woodley could have figured out how to take in calcium without going full earthworm. But Woodley’s bizarre eating habits were presented, nonjudgmentally and without comment, as just another lifestyle choice in outlets such as InStyle and Time. That’s how lunacy spreads. You’ll hardly be surprised that doctors say arsenic, bacteria, fungi, lead (a heavy metal!) and other toxins are commonly found in clay and soil.
What’s even harder than eating dirt? Eating air!
Madonna was linked, in a Dolce & Gabbana ad campaign, to chatter about the “air diet,” which sounds a lot like fasting with an added element of psychological masochism. Not only do you not eat, but you torture yourself by pretending to eat, holding up forkfuls of your favorite foods but then putting them down uneaten.
In 2008, Demi Moore told David Letterman she uses “highly trained medical leeches” to suck blood out of her skin and detoxify herself. Paltrow, back in 2004, gave a huge boost to the ancient Chinese practice of “cupping,” using hot cups placed strategically all over the body to create suction meant to remove still more toxins and restore the flow of “qi,” the life force.
Naturally, after undergoing this painful process, Paltrow turned up on a red carpet wearing a backless dress to show the world.
Cupping is still going: members of the US Olympic swim team, notably gold medalist Michael Phelps, displayed their cupping welts at the 2016 Summer Games. It’s as if the agonizing training that goes into creating an Olympics-caliber body is not enough: The athletes have to display visible signs of suffering to differentiate themselves from ordinary humanity. That toxins can be physically sucked out of your body by hot cups is, of course, hard to believe, but experiments suggest that those who swear by the practice may be experiencing a placebo effect. If you believe something works, your body might actually be fooled.
That kind of magical thinking — that abusing your body will give you the edge over your fellow humans — pervades Paltrow’s Goop-y thinking, as she makes clear with her many dubious claims about the supposed benefits of “detoxing,” “cleansing” and steaming her vagina.
But the yearning for transcendence through self-induced trials is really just a ruse, a way of reveling in your own awesomeness.
Writing in The American Conservative, Rod Dreher noted that a reader pointed out that leaving work at 4 p.m. to pick up the kids, or attend a school play, might be tolerated but isn’t respected. Leaving early to train for an Ironman triathlon — a masterwork of self-punishment — is, however, deeply respected.
And yet the former involves giving of oneself in the service of others; the latter is simply self-gratification. What purpose is there to competing in an Ironman triathlon except winning the right to brag about it before, during and afterwards?
“The pain and struggle of triathletic and similar training is what is confused with ascetic agon in our culture,” Dreher wrote, quoting his unidentified correspondent. “However, ascetics are supposed to learn that their ego cannot be transcended by ascetic struggle; only healed, eventually, by grace. It’s so easy to become egoistic in trying to overcome the ego.”
So easy that today’s imitators of selfless, ascetic practice are not only dubious but often laughable. Consider the Brooklyn performance artist Genevieve Belleveau, who dubbed herself “the new ascetic” when she shaved her head, thus “borrowing from the visual vocabulary of the Christian monk,” according to her entry on a website, Cargo Collective. So in keeping with asceticism she renounced all worldly fame? Nah. She kept her fans posted about her social-media fast on Twitter and has been chasing attention nonstop, tooling around in an RV she dubbed the “Mobile Monastery,” making videos of her projects and giving pretentious interviews in which she frames herself as a sort of priestess of the Church of Me.
She told the art blog Rhizome, “You can spend all night looking at pictures of yourself in the hope of representing yourself to the god figure that is the Other, the eye of the Internet and the audience whose attention we are constantly seeking to capture.” If your idea of self-abnegation involves spending all night looking at pictures of yourself, you’re doing it wrong.
The rank reek of hypocrisy clouds the air around the neo-ascetics. The blogger Mr. Money Mustache, real name Peter Adeney, who has created an online persona of extreme and punitive voluntary thrift, won the full profile treatment in The New Yorkerlast February. Living in a small town in Colorado, Adeney boasted of drying his laundry in the sun, of relying so heavily on his bike and feet to travel that he burns only 2 ¹/₂ tanks of gasoline a year in his small car, of scrubbing the floor with a giant sponge because owning a mop would mean a profligate misuse of space.
All of this self-denial was in the service of liberation from ordinary working life and consumerist addiction to unnecessary products, Adeney said, yet The New Yorker dryly noted that he earns $400,000 a year off his blog, taking referral fees from major corporations such as Geico when he plugs them on the site.
Raking in piles of money but refusing to spend it doesn’t sound like a higher order of consciousness than materialism. It just sounds like avarice. Which is more regrettable: coveting money as a means to a more comfortable and enjoyable life or accumulating it for its own sake?
No one is more laughably hypocritical than the mistress of Goop. Paltrow’s site is a high-end department store — it hawks $72 scented candles and $375 jeans — disguised as a friendly, sympathetic guide to finding simplicity and happiness. The passing references to costless activities such as meditation and achieving inner harmony are as meaningful as the “free gift” the ladies at the perfume counter promise in order to reel you in.
The title of the new book “Goop Clean Beauty” — published last Tuesday, just in time for your New Year’s resolutions! — neatly combines the twin obsessions of today’s chatter-and-chastisement class. Getting “clean” means desperately purging all those nasty toxins that supposedly haunt our everyday life by the self-flagellatory choices of applying hot glass to your skin, inviting leeches to feast on your epidermis or having a bowl of clay for lunch.
But it’s all in the service not of real self-abnegation, not a yearning to remind yourself how small you are in the grand scheme of things or a Lenten desire to build closer bonds to the Almighty. No, it’s all part of an insatiable quest for “beauty” — do every nutty thing Gwyneth does and you’ll surely look exactly like her.
Never mind that she looks that way mainly because her mother is a beautiful actress and yours probably isn’t.