Spa treatments have gotten wild in recent years, especially in Southern California, where women pay big bucks for radical remedies like colonics, juice fasts, and a Gwyneth Paltrow fave—the life-changing V-steam. Taffy Brodesser-Akner dons a satin robe and asks: If this is the path to happiness, why am I so freaked out?
One’s vagina should be steamed in the upright position. In a room that’s lined wall-to-wall with real, actual jade, a woman (OK, me) dressed in a satiny, royal purple sheath that attaches just under the armpits—like the world’s least flattering strapless gown—sits atop a throne. The throne is wood and looks like a toilet, with a deep, dark hole in the middle. The gown goes over the body and the throne, creating a little biodome. Once you’re seated, steam from a container of mugwort tea and herbs rises and slithers up to its target. Meanwhile, infrared light is shot up at said same target (the vagina, in case you forgot), and it is those two things, the tea and the light, that combine to allegedly—big fat allegedly here—regulate hormones and “disinfect” the area. When you’re done, your nether region should feel new, like you just unwrapped it for the first time.
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The V-steam gained popularity when Gwyneth Paltrow featured it on her website, Goop, calling it “the real golden ticket.” It’s all the rage now, say the people at Tikkun Holistic Spa, meaning that everyone knows about steaming, even though, in the U.S., it mostly exists in this one underground facility in Santa Monica—Santa Monica being the Capitol of Panem for spa treatments. But it’s actually an old treatment, they say. Cleopatra did it, though there’s no word on where she got infrared light.
I asked my handler if I was supposed to feel different, and she told me, Oh yes, absolutely, that since she started receiving V-steams on the regular, for maybe five months now, she’s been in harmony with the world, like she’s gotten in touch with her power, like she just woke up to what she’s capable of after all these years.
By this point, such talk wasn’t so crazy to me. I’d been on what people in the detox industry call a journey. I’d had hot rocks put on my body in an effort to stimulate my lymph system and drain me of toxins, part of a procedure called the Bartholomew Method. I’d stood on Santa Monica Boulevard and psyched myself up to get a vitamin infusion in a juice shop, where you sit in one of those chemotherapy chairs and hook up to an IV. (Reader, I couldn’t do it.) And now this steam thing, all in an attempt to reach optimal health through innovative treatments, or at least figure out what their appeal is. Don’t get me wrong: The Bartholomew Method featured the best massage I’ve ever had. The steam itself was awkward but OK. But there was a juice fast and a colonic-palooza coming in a few days, and I was kind of dreading it.
Wellness is a big, active, growing sector in the health and fitness market. The spa industry, formerly known for massages, pedicures, and facials, has mutated to become a $16.3 billion giant that offers a dizzying array of options. There are now more than 21,000 spas in the U.S., with eager customers (most of them women) racking up 179 million visits annually. When the International Spa Association conducted its survey, spokespeople at four out of five spas polled said they would be adding new, more out-there treatments to their menus, things like energy work and breath work and snail facials and cupping and, yes, V-steams.
And here we get into questions of philosophy. My V-steam cost $50, which is a lot to pay for sitting over hot vapor. Is your money well spent on this stuff? It depends on what you’re looking for. It also depends on how much money you have and how you define wellness. Is a massage only supposed to feel good, or is it supposed to lead to a tangible state of bliss? Is it a pleasure of the now or an investment in tomorrow? At Tikkun, a woman who was getting her V steamed before I did asked, loudly enough for everybody in the waiting room to hear, “How do I know if it’s working?” It struck me as the wisest thing that anyone had said in days.
I know what people think about detox—that it’s a way to deal with an ultratoxic world. Even so, the true impetus for it seems to be something a little more subtle and even a bit nefarious: on Planet Wellness, despite all the oohs and ahhs about the glories of nature, there’s a general mistrust of the way the human body actually works, with natural systems getting overridden so that nutrients and herbs and tea and light and wishes can get inside you through avenues that weren’t necessarily meant to accommodate those things. It seems that the further we go with fancy and intricate treatments, the more we’re engaging in a ritual effort to make ourselves pure again. And this is something that has a lot of implications for how we feel about ourselves as women, particularly as we age. I don’t mean how our bodies look and work differently as we get older, but how we think of ourselves as whole people who have a history, people who have made mistakes, people who have eaten a cheeseburger on occasion, people who have loved the wrong people and have been imperfect in a way that feels unforgivable. In my journey through detoxification, I didn’t find that these treatments were just attempts to be young again. No, they were attempts to be new.
Let me back up. In the waning days of 2016, post-election and pre- any sign of hope or healing, I, jittery like a Chihuahua with anxiety and stress, accepted a story assignment to travel deep into the underbelly of spa territory, Los Angeles, to learn why a good old massage-and-cocktails afternoon no longer did the trick. In truth I maybe Secret-ed the whole thing. I’d been working so hard and traveling so much that the only way I could rationalize leaving my family again for something this indulgent was to take a paid gig.
And well, maybe I was toxic. Maybe we all are and that’s the problem. “On average, a human will have between 80 and 120 known toxic chemicals in their body,” says Bruce Lourie, coauthor with Rick Smith of the bestselling Slow Death by Rubber Duck, a book about the poisons that seep into our everyday life. Lourie and Smith write about new science focused on the mechanics of endocrine-disrupting chemicals, which are insidious and can lead to thyroid and reproductive problems and birth defects. These chemicals come at us from just about everywhere, in low levels that accumulate to become high levels, from our plastic coffee cups, our flame-retardant pajamas, our nonstick pans, not to mention what we eat and drink.
After reading Lourie and Smith’s excellent book, I could feel the toxins creeping through my system and promising me a life of compromised health. If you’re less neurotic than I am, you should at least consider that lasting health is in no way guaranteed to you, that the lottery of illness is nothing that can be predicted, at least not absolutely. “It’s like cancer,” Lourie told me. “Some people smoke all their life and never get lung cancer; some people never smoke and they get lung cancer. But we still know that smoking causes cancer.”
As I came to learn, there are different tiers of opt-in health. There’s regular health, which is like, say, me feeling OK when I wake up and also feeling lucky each week that I don’t pick up a virus or get diagnosed with a chronic or fatal disease. There’s maintained health, where you get regular checkups and do now mainstream things like acupuncture and herbs and supplemental vitamin D. Then there’s poor health. In this category, there are some people with the means to seek ultrahealth as the antidote to their poor health in hopes of getting back to regular health. If it works, they quickly become people who seek ultrahealth as their status quo—why wouldn’t they?
And that is the ugliest part of this whole detox business. It forces you to ask yourself who has the right to feel good and happy and healed and whole, and who can actually afford it. That’s the worst part.
The rest is not so bad.
After the Bartholomew Method, after the steam, after the aborted IV attempt, I made a pilgrimage 100 miles east to We Care Spa, in Desert Hot Springs. According to lore, We Care was founded by a woman who had an illness and no support network. She tried all the medicines and nothing helped, so she did what she observed animals do, which is: she went into the woods and she fasted and she healed. Only her woods were her very nice house, where the spa is still located, and she added colonics to the mix—a lot of them.
I first read about We Care five years ago, in a book about an anti-inflammatory cleanse called Clean, by cardiologist Alejandro Junger. Junger and other doctors, like bestselling author Joel Fuhrman, believe that our intestinal tract, where up to 70 percent of our immune system is located, is overworked and tired from breaking down all the food and chemicals we’re ingesting. Their theory is that fasting—consuming only a liquid diet for a certain amount of time—gives your intestines a rest, allowing your immune system to go about healing other things in your body. Many elite athletes and trainers have embraced something called intermittent fasting—eating only one meal a day, for instance—which they say forces the body to burn up stored fat to fuel performance.
As paleo and other popular diets seek to re-create the physical dynamism of our ancestors (who lived to about 35, FYI), holding steady on that whole thing about food not being readily available, the trend has become extremely and ridiculously profitable.
I had never really tried it, but the spa that Junger described set off a fantasy in my head: a place to hit the old reset button on all your organs and your life, which you’d do with a liquid diet, an aggressive series of colonics, plus various other treatments, and then more colonics. I would think about the spa from time to time with a certain kind of yearning. Finally, I was going.
I pulled up to We Care on the morning of December 23, finding an actual oasis in the desert. There were rock formations and saunas and infrared saunas and floating outdoor beds and meditation pyramids and statues of all the gods you can imagine, including jaunty elephants. There were winding paths and a meditative labyrinth.
I arrived under a cloud of headache and dysphoria from We Care’s strongly suggested three-day prefast precleanse program, which puts you off sugar, caffeine, and many other substances. I was immediately sent to a yoga class, which was just starting, and let me tell you, there is no yoga like yoga for people on a liquid diet. It’s so gentle and caring. We did a chakra meditation! We talked about our hips! I don’t think we did one standing pose.
Afterward I was shown how to make two different drinks out of mixes, one green and one brown. The green was for energy or something and it was not terrible. The other drink, the detox drink, was made with brown powder, cinnamon, olive oil, and alkaline water. You have to down the brown drink quickly or it turns into a very literal sludge. If you are even a little slow, it solidifies into a swamp thing and you have to start all over. Once the sludge is in your colon it can bind to all the crap in there and bring it on out. It’s useful but gross.
Later, at the orientation, we were told how the place works, particularly how our many, many colonics would work. The recommendation is to have one per day, unless you’re staying for a month, in which case maybe skip a day or two. Wikipedia describes colonics as water therapy used “to remove nonspecific toxins from the colon and intestinal tract,” but that definition does not do justice to the reality. A colonic is the act of getting a hose shoved up your ass to flood your colon with water, so that when the water comes out, so will the poop lodged in your colon. That’s how indulgent a spa We Care is. You don’t even have to poop on your own. They send soldiers in to liberate it. Sit back, relax, we got you.
At We Care, eating is not one of the attractions. You get by on a fast, consuming about 100 ounces of liquid per day—juice, teas like Blood Purifier and Liver and Kidney Detox, a very thin vegetable puree at night—because, we’re told, we all came in drastically, alarmingly dehydrated. You take some supplements. You select from a few à la carte treatments. And you spend all your waking moments obeying orders—showing up for the treatments on time, preparing the drinks, urinating endlessly, and trying the sauna, which will help you sweat out toxins. There are classes on nutrition; there are classes on intention and mindfulness; there are stretching classes and sleeping classes; there is a fire ceremony (no, really); and there is a very practical and useful smoothie class, where you get a sample of the smoothie made, which, let me tell you, by day three is the satisfaction equivalent of pizza and a margarita.
And then there was the considerable, ridiculous amount of time we spent talking about poop. We used words like eliminate and release. We referred to the poop itself as matter, which, sure, but isn’t everything matter? We talked about our colonics and we talked about ways to move them along a little better, to facilitate them. There were three separate machines in the main gathering area that helped facilitate the poop. A couple of them would shake you like a martini until it was jostled free. There was also a machine that you used by lying on the floor and putting your feet into slots. It dragged you from side to side, also to liberate the poop.
I don’t think I met a single woman who was there for the first time. There were two women in their early thirties who said they come regularly. “Detox is my way of life,” one told me. “And it works. Do you see how I’m not sick? I never get sick!” I told her that she was 30, that she had a lot to look forward to.
But most of the women were older and looked like they had a strong familiarity with maintenance protocols like foot Botox and dermal fillers. People were usually there for eight days. Some stayed longer—a woman in her sixties or seventies or eighties told me that she and her husband come for two weeks every year. I met a few women who came because they’d just gone through a divorce and needed the clock to stop for a minute while they considered their lives. One woman was there for the fourth time—she’d woken up with a bad taste in her mouth a year or so ago, and she’d been to all these doctors for testing and no one could tell her what was wrong. I heard a rumor that another woman, who was there for a week but had been there in August for a month, had an entire colonic room installed in her apartment.
On the second morning, I saw the woman in her sixties or seventies or eighties take a big tablespoon of castor oil from the refrigerator, swallow it, and chase it with a frozen lemon she sucked on.
“Have you tried the castor oil?” she said. I told her I hadn’t. “You should. It really moves things along.” The woman who led my orientation had warned us that at some point, someone would suggest we take castor oil to “move things along.” She said we should not, under any circumstances, consider doing this. We should only take the castor oil if our colon hydrotherapist suggested it. So I asked my new friend, politely, “Did your colon hydrotherapist suggest this?” She rolled her eyes and said no, indicating that I was some kind of baby for even suggesting that she, an adult, needed permission to take castor oil. I could smell the lemon on her breath as she said, “Are you here to eliminate or aren’t you?”
And somehow, by that point, I was. Maybe it was the fact that I finally had a moment to think. Maybe it was because I was filled with hope and resolve in a way I hadn’t been in years. Maybe it was because there is only so much being taken care of that you can experience before you feel like you actually are being taken care of. Which is a long way of saying: I took the castor oil.
I have a doctor friend who’s heard me out on all this and thinks I’m nuts.
“Where is any study substantiating anything that they’ve said?” says Albert Fuchs, an internist in Beverly Hills and a person I rely on for stone-cold medical opinions. I’d told him what I’d learned at the We Care digestive class, that allergies often happen because we don’t chew our food well enough. The teacher said we have to chew down to the consistency of baby food, because food particles can exit the stomach through the lining, a phenomenon known as leaky gut, and once the food enters the bloodstream, a healthy immune system will attack it as a foreign substance and create an allergy. See? I say to my doctor friend. That makes sense to me.
“So this hypothesis somehow has escaped our greatest allergists?” he says. Then he sighs. The thing missing from every claim I’d heard at the spa, he says, was observation, meaning a controlled study.
“There are lots of things that feel good that don’t have medical benefits,” Fuchs says. “I like to refer to those things as entertainment, and I don’t say that mockingly.” His example: movies. “Movies don’t have a medical benefit. They might relax you a little when you’re stressed, but I think movies are great.” He doesn’t understand why some things can’t just be fun or feel good without having to have a health benefit attached to it.
In a way, what Fuchs thinks or has proof of is beside the point. Alternative therapies exist on the far side of what he represents, and many people believe that’s fine.
And the medical establishment, well, it’s wrong a lot of the time—studies mislead or new wisdom becomes apparent. When people can’t find a cure through traditional means, they can often find different answers with alternative therapists and a different kind of reception. It’s important to realize that no one here is actually lying. In fact, this could be the only context in which the phrase alternative facts actually works.
“Certain alternative remedies give back control of suffering to patients, provide more intimate human connections, and in some cases produce more visible effects, lending credibility to the therapy,” says Travis A. Weisse, a science historian at the University of Wisconsin. “The doctor-patient relationship has been slowly eroding, not only with specialization and the fact that people now see panels of doctors, but because emergency rooms are slammed, there are insurance-coverage problems, et cetera. It can make a patient feel devalued.”
Science is fallible; science doesn’t know everything. Weisse cites an example: how the American Medical Association dismissed organic food and vegetarianism for years, despite growing data that showed concerns about pesticides and health problems from eating meat. People are warier of the medical establishment. As Weisse puts it, “It is possible, easy, and very common to both see a doctor and do a detox or other alternative remedy and hold both of those in your mind at the same time.”
I spent a lot of time trying to find quantifiable outcomes that would impress my friend Dr. Fuchs, or hard medical facts that would call out the alternative therapists. Bruce Lourie and Rick Smith did a series of experiments on themselves for their research, like testing their sweat for BPA and their urine for heavy metals. They tested their blood and urine before and after and found some of the detox treatments to be effective, including cleanses. But all a cleanse really involves, Lourie will tell you, is restricting intake and pushing through a lot more water than you think you need. I asked both Lourie and Fuchs about fasting. Lourie thinks it’s OK if you don’t do it too often; Fuchs basically rolls his eyes. “There are no proven health benefits from fasting,” he says. “There is also no long-term weight loss after fasts.”
But I no longer cared about the truth. I understood the magic of the colonic. I knew what it was like to feel empty now, and empty is a great way to think of yourself if you want to feel new and unsullied. I was through the looking glass. I had seen the promise of ultrahealth, all these women telling me over and over how their lives were changed by their relationship with We Care, and who can resist the idea that the small things wrong in your life have nothing to do with bad decisions or the way you can be unlucky sometimes? Who can resist the theory that it was a literal backup of poop in my colon that was keeping me down? Other cultures call aging wisdom. But we don’t want wisdom. We want fresh starts.
So yes, I went all in. I had a treatment in which my skin was brushed all over and rubbed down with magnesium, which is an anti-inflammatory, then wrapped in a burrito of the same material that Superman’s parents sent him to Earth in while I sweated out all my toxins. I was oiled and broiled and roasted and flipped and dredged. I was rinsed and scrubbed; I was coated and steamed. I was exfoliated as if I was the subject of an archaeological dig. I was moisturized to within an inch of my life. I was wrung out like a dirty washcloth till the water ran clear.
And then I took the castor oil again. I booked a reflexology session, and the man jabbed his finger into the bottom of my left foot and told me my colon was blocked up, and he went to work on it through my feet. He said it was like there was a marble in there, and I screamed—and in my scream I could feel it all start to work, like progress was being made. I doubled my resolve and sat on that vibrating machine and upped it to level 20, the highest level, which is an earthquake for your innards, and I did a guided meditation in which I could see the poop running from me, and in my poop I imagined that everything bad in my life was being expelled: politics, deadlines, carpools, my father moving to Florida, my mother’s arthritis, my mortgage, all of it, everything was coming out.
I imagined that all my stress would bind to the crap inside me and I could shit out everything that troubled me and maybe I’d emerge from it a clean slate, a version of myself that had not ever eaten a hamburger or drank too much. Maybe all my mistakes would be wiped clean. Maybe underneath the poisons that had invaded my skin I was someone who could do life better—it wasn’t too late, it couldn’t be too late. I could wake up very early and meditate. I could be faster and more efficient and check Twitter less often. I could exercise regularly and floss every day, twice even. I could learn to say “take care” instead of “buh-bye” at the end of a phone call. I could read the books that everyone else seems to be ahead of me in. I could never yell at my children and always be romantic and sexually available with my husband. I could have glowing skin and a poop routine that put all these people to shame. I would be new; everything could be forgiven. I would finally be new again and I could find a way to forgive myself for being human.
Because that’s what we were here for, right? We were here to eliminate, as the lemon lady said. We were here to hide in the woods while we got better. We were here to let it all out so we could start over. So we gathered and made this our full-time job. We shat out our sadness and our loneliness and our fears of what was happening in the world outside the spa. We shat out the fact that we don’t know why our marriages fail, why our bodies fail, why we rarely achieve the things we are supposed to. We shat out aging and uncertainty and the very many parts of life that are hard and we waited to see if it was working. But where did all this get us? I went home and was overdue on two assignments. It turns out that you can leave all your poop in the desert, but wherever you go, there you are.
On my last day at We Care, everyone I encountered did a double take. They told me I was glowing, and I ran to the bathroom to look and oh my God they were right. I looked beautiful and young. I had started thinking I was getting old and ugly, but now it was clear to me: it was just the poisons I ingested. In the cab ride after I left the spa, I thought of all the ways I would keep up my protocol, how I would not let this beauty and health leave me again. But I got to the airport and I was hungry and there was no plethora of vegetable juice or detox tea. There were only nachos and cheeseburgers, and I felt my glow draining from my face just being in the same dimension as those things. I got on my flight and the flight attendants were rude, and I got home and my husband said I looked beautiful and there was pizza waiting, and then a few days later I looked into the mirror and it was all gone. And suddenly I was back across the looking glass, back to being me, wanting to return to the spa and angrier than ever before that none of this had ever truly been mine.
But now I’ve been home for a while, trying to recalibrate myself into someone who could tell this story the way I was meant to, which is as an outsider: what it was like to be there, but also what it was like to never have truly been there, not really. But I haven’t been able to summon that.
Instead I find myself thinking about the people I met. I think about one friend I made, who was on her fifth visit, who braided my hair like hers when I told her how much I liked it and who told me that she was considering LSD microdosing. I think about the woman who did my digestive release, how she kneaded my abdomen, listening carefully for movement. I think about the colon hydrotherapist who put her hand on my head and told me to close my eyes and breathe. I think about the man who did my reflexology, how he was determined to stay until that marble was out—and when it was, I let rip a stream of gas that brought to mind the Hindenburg, and we both laughed as he shouted to the heavens, “Better out than in!” I think of the woman who stood over me during my V-steam. Once I was seated, she had said to me, “I want to tell you something while you’re here. I want to tell you that your life could be good now. I want to tell you that you don’t have to make it through your problems in order for your life to be good now. I want you to know that you have a power within you that is unique, and that is only yours, and that when you learn how to harness it, you are going to make a real difference in the world. You are really going to change the world, Taffy.” Can I tell you that when she said that, I sat there in my regal strapless gown, light and tea being flown through my lower orifices, and I cried?
I also think of the woman who conducted the fire ceremony on the night I left We Care, how she was just coming from a solstice ceremony and her car had been robbed of all her neat instruments and how she showed up anyway with a smile on her face to help us get through it all, even though it was still hard to think of those of us who could afford a few days here as the people with problems.
That night we all wrote those problems on small pieces of paper and we set them on fire and they disappeared into the air, poof, like they never existed. The woman stood over me with a rattle and she chanted, and I cried then, too. I cried for all of it, and I cried because whatever you think of detox and the people who sell it, they are mostly people who care very much for you and who know how fragile happiness and health are and who want you to have a good life. I cried because I wished the women at the spa with me, the visitors, would emerge from this place and they would have a good life, too, and that we could all forgive ourselves for being human and for having gathered experience. I cried because I knew that we interpreted our life’s worth of experience to be a kind of sullying, and that the men in our lives would never think that of themselves; the men in our lives aren’t capable of hating themselves the way we are. I cried because it was so sad to me that we have such little faith in systems that we couldn’t even trust the ones that were still working. But mostly I cried because it was time to go, and I had no mechanism for keeping this place close to my heart. I knew that I’d leave and never return, and that as empty as I felt then, I’d soon screw it up by getting full on the wrong things, and as time went on I’d revert to the person I’ve always been and return to seeing these vision quests as mostly silly and hilarious. And that is a shame, because I’m two months out now, and I can still tell you they’re not.
Taffy Brodesser-Akner (@taffyakner) writes for GQ and The New York Times Magazine. She lives in New Jersey.