“I was fully unhinged one day and bit into a Tide Pod because I was tired of wanting to so much.” Sydney, a 22-year-old student confessed to me, followed by a relieved sigh of someone who had just unburdened a shameful secret from their soul. I gave her an empathetic pat on the shoulder and left her to smoke her Marlboro Red in peace so she could deal with whatever feelings this sudden confession to a stranger would stir in her.
Indeed, her admission of biting down on a Tide Pod as if it was a Ferrero Rocher had roused indecent memories of one of those not-so-rare occasions when a highly infectious strain of stupidity had humanity in its grip.
2018 was a wild and heady time when the possibility of nuclear Armageddon hovered ominously in the air, two high-profile sexual predators finally got locked up, and people took to a peculiar diet of Tide Pods. Hold on a minute, what?
The ghastly internet phenomenon which became known as the Tide Pod Challenge centred around vapid teenagers, who talk like their Lucozade got spiked with Adderall and whose mobile phones are like a prosthetic addition to their hands, daring each other on social media to eat these deceptively delicious looking laundry pods. The best part is that many did it as well, ending up either in the hospital with severe poisoning or in a coffin bound for the dirt.
So, my question to that rogue portion of humanity who are giving the rest of us a bad image, is, why? Well, the answer is obvious.
You’ve seen what Tide Pods look like; they scream “EAT ME!” Who wouldn’t want to munch on something which looks like fresh fruit juice swirling inside day-glo gummies? And I’m sure they’d taste just as delicious as they look if they didn’t contain a concentrated cocktail of laundry detergent and fabric softener; intoxicatingly lovely to clothes, toxically poisonous to the human digestive system.
This stupefyingly literal take on Clean Eating wasn’t just isolated to 2018 either. The Centre for Disease Control (CDC) flagged Tide Pods as a health risk in 2012 after more than 7700 reports of children aged five or under eating them. Feeling the profits of their lucrative brand slowly sinking in ruin, Procter and Gamble, the owners of the Tide brand, coated the pods in a disgustingly bitter chemical which would deter kids from eating them, also an additional layer of defence in the form of child-safety features on the packaging, making it harder for children and their trespassing cravings to get into.
It wasn’t just children however, who fell for the delicious charms of this forbidden fruit. Adults of average or above intelligence, were also falling for its duplicity, as attested by US senator Chuck Schumer’s perturbed comment,
“These pods were supposed to make household chores easier, not tempt out children to swallow harmful chemicals. I saw one on my staffer’s desk and wanted to eat it.”
It was only in January of 2018 that things got out of hand and poisoning yourself for likes and shares became a trend among teenaged social-media junkies. Common sense and past news coverage had already turned not eating Tide Pods, or anything underneath the kitchen sink for that matter, an unspoken rule. But as many bizarre internet challenges have proved, common sense doesn’t fit into them. In the end, only 86 recorded cases of teenagers eating Tide Pods directly because of this challenge that year surfaced, which thinking back to it seems a measly number compared to the magnitude of the challenge’s presence.
Once the moral panic went into a tailspin, Tide played what they thought was an ace up their sleeve and released a video on Twitter with some American Football player, Rob Gronkowski, who had nothing better to do at the time, urging people to use Tide Pods only for laundry. It’s meme like levity was perfect to penetrate to the airheaded teenage throng who were tempted by the internet spirit to eat these Tide Pods.
The question remains, why did teenagers bamboozle themselves by eating something which would make them throw up their intestines?Two distinct forces are at play behind the Tide Pod Challenge; the first being an insane craving to eat things that are not food, the second, the disconcertingly conformist nature of internet “challenges”.
It was in quest to get to the bottom of the first reason that I conversed with total strangers and asked them to share stories of the time they ate something which didn’t class as food. People with eclectic eating habits such as Mary, 20 and studying fashion. “I was beyond fussy with every real food as a child, but enjoyed a whole plethora of stuff including sponges, bar soaps, Styrofoam, puffy wallpaper and kitchen towels. I have no idea why I was this way, looking back I wonder how my mum coped with such stress-inducing behaviour.” She got a trifle defensive, and rightfully so, when I asked if she had ever eaten a Tide Pod. “I was weird as a teenager, but I wasn’t dumb. I was tempted by it though, I mean… who wasn’t?”
To compensate for the trauma of birth, I was a reasonably normal child. I stayed away from strangers, looked both ways before crossing the road and didn’t put anything in my mouth which didn’t belong to the basic food groups. That’s not to say that my journey through childhood was free of temptation. A bright salmon pink eraser which emanated the sweet scent of fresh strawberries was my favourite item out of my stationary box during early dysfunctional high school. No opening of the pencil box would be complete without me taking a long sniff from the eraser. Just as the full-bodied aroma of strawberries took hold of my brain, the desire to take a bite out of the eraser would follow. But I knew I shouldn’t.
As if answering the questions which impinged on my childhood most, East-London barista, Ryan, 25 tells me, “I had an eraser that looked a bit like a strawberry when I was 4 or 5, so I took a bite out of it thinking it would taste like strawberry. Spoiler alert: it didn’t.” I threw him the customary question about Tide Pods and a slight grin crept upon his face while his vacant eyes searched for a memory. “I didn’t personally eat those things, but I did dare one of my friends to eat it while we were really drunk. It actually sobered him up because he spewed for quite some time after eating it, and then he went straight back to drinking with us as if nothing happened.” If you’re only as good as the company you keep, then Ryan is a golden person.
Erasers aren’t the only item of stationary which are frequently enjoyed as a delicacy. 29-year-old typist, Anna had an inexplicable taste for paper clips during high school. Apart from always having one between her teeth like some sort of toothpick some people keep in their mouths because they think it looks cool, “I said I wanted to [eat one] as a joke and my teacher told me not to and started lecturing me about distracting the class, so I said ‘really? Here’s an actual distraction’ and swallowed it.” She goes on about her recollection of 2018, “I honestly didn’t care much for this Tide Pod challenge. I thought it was a waste of time and those who were stupid enough to eat them got what they deserved. There will always be idiots among us.” After shaking her warmly by the hand for sharing my exact thoughts, I left her on the platform to get on my tube.
A similar story of classroom defiance came from Patrick, taxi driver in his thirties. “A teacher threw a piece of chalk at me. Without breaking eye contact I picked it up, bit it in half, chewed and swallowed.”
“What did he throw the chalk at you for?”
“I was joking about eating the homework he gave us.”
“You must’ve been quite hungry that day man”
“I was, plus I had pica” he said while looking back at me from the front seat while we waited at a red light.
The more people I talked to, the more a certain word which I had never encountered before got thrown around. “Pica” is defined in the 5th edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders as eating non-food, non-nutritive substances for a period of over a month. This preternatural craving for objects is commonly seen in pregnant women, children, and adults on the autism spectrum. Like Leah, 37, teacher, who had some dangerous cravings during her pregnancy. “I stopped myself from drinking it, but when I was pregnant with my youngest, I craved Tide laundry liquid. I craved it so much I would have to sniff it to help resist the urge to drink it.”
“Didn’t sniffing exacerbate your urge to drink it?”
“It sure did, but I knew I wouldn’t drink it.”
“Did you ever get the craving for Tide Pods?”
“Not really, my pregnancy cravings have been very particular and different each time. That’s three times now. But outside my pregnancy, no I never craved anything that isn’t food. I mean I’ve got kids, if I started eating candle wax or my bedsheets, then what sort of model would I be setting for them?”
Indeed, why bother with proper food when everything is technically edible? Music student, Brianna, 23, used to be a human piggybank. “At around 4 or 5, for a solid six months I would swallow pennies for no reason other than they were laying around.” I told her that by consuming the very thing which we use to consume in society, she was pushing the culinary into the sociological without even knowing it. “Thank you! And to answer your question, yes, I did eat a Tide Pod but I spat it back out immediately. I didn’t bite into it, the taste was to gross that I couldn’t eat it, not that I was intending to swallow it.”
“What made you put it in your mouth in the first place?”
“Nintendo Switch game cards are covered in some solution which gives it a really terrible taste. It’s to stop kids from eating it. I’ve licked a Switch game card and I couldn’t unpucker my face for minutes afterwards. They put a similar thing on laundry pods, I just wanted to see if they tasted similar.”
Eyes wide with surprise I asked her, “Were you really that bored?”
“All in the name of science.”Perhaps to some extent we can suppose that Pica plays some part in the bent rationalisation behind the eating of Tide Pods. But it’s only when the second force behind this phenomenon comes into play does it become a bit more tangible.
Internet challenges have been circulating like a sexually transmitted disease for the last decade. With phones being bestowed upon teenagers earlier on with each successive generation and open access to the internet, the gap between a person’s presence on social media and in real life begins to close. As the half-life of trends decrease, and a new one replaces the old as soon as it expires, it becomes quite a herculean task for the regular user to keep track of this blistering vortex of contemporariness. These internet challenges, thus, become an “I was here”, fostering interaction with users and encouraging them to actively take part in the trend and pollinate it further. To be recorded, shared online in hopes of it going viral, these challenges range from harmless at best – eating bananas really quickly followed by chugging Sprite to trigger a vomiting reaction, swallowing a spoonful of cinnamon, walking around the house blindfolded for a whole day – to life threatening at worst – snorting a condom down your nasal cavity hard enough to be able to pull it out of your throat, holding a penny to the exposed metal prongs of a half connected plug to make sparks go off, rubbing salt on your hands then pressing an ice cube on it to cause burning frostbite, dousing oneself with lighter fluid and then lighting up like a torch, and of course, eating Tide Pods. Most internet challenges which sit on the nigh-suicidal end of the scale have caused moral panics among the concerned adult population which has often led to platforms like YouTube and Facebook hunting for videos to take down which spread the damaging trend further. In cases like the Fire Challenge and Penny Challenge, Fire and Law enforcement authorities in Colorado and New York, USA issued announcements begging people to stop.
Leslie, a 21-year-old art student told me she “ate a bunch of tadpoles, just to show off.” Could showing off account for such delusion as setting yourself ablaze and hoping for as many Facebook likes? As these challenges uses the dare as its primary weapon, there is definitely a level of one-upping across each iteration of the challenge, raising it new heights of foolish danger.
This theory seems to fall flat against the Blue Whale challenge, however. This twisted phenomenon, heaved up from the pits of the internet, was considerably isolated in Eastern European countries. Originating in Russia in 2016, this game requires two people, a master who over the course of 50 days orders the slave to carry out certain tasks. These tasks, starting off quite innocuous, begin to intensify, slowly involving humiliation, self-harm, violence, with the ultimate goal of suicide on day 50. There was a sudden spike of suicides in Russia, however the causal link between the suicides and the challenge has been questioned. I know all this because my girlfriend who grew up in Poland took part in this challenge.
“My friend from high school and I decided to take part in it. I was the master and I had to command her every day for 50 days. She did everything I told her until one day I asked her to take a cold shower. This was during the winter, so she said she didn’t want to take a cold shower. But then she asked if she could cut herself instead.” I had to take a long sip of my wine at this stage of the narrative. “She was so ready to cut herself, begging me ‘please don’t make me take a cold shower, I’ll cut myself instead, please’ and I realised that I didn’t want to take part in this anymore. It became too dark and so I released her from this game.”
One thing became painfully clear to me from my girlfriend’s story, these challenges are more than about conforming. Dark insecurities too, drive such people to reduce themselves to the level of spectacle just to be a part of something. These teenagers are generally disillusioned, feeling left out from their physical worlds, hence they take part in these imagined communities. It is almost akin to a cult, total self-imposed obedience driven by their fear of being left out of the trend, and their fear of shame from other teenagers who will think them uncool or out of it.
Time will tell what new freak of a trend the chaos machine of the internet will throw into the hands of unwitting teenagers with suggestible brains.
34-year-old receptionist Keerthika tells me about her search for petrichor. “I ate mud, cement, wall peelings, fuller’s earth and chalk during my teenage years because ever since I was a kid, I wanted to find something that tastes like the smell of rain. I’m now 34 and I’m still trying to find it.” Each new internet challenge is the possibility of a fresh hit of dopamine, it is their petrichor, bringing the usercloser to whatever they’re rationalising their actions over; impulse, curiosity, conformity, acceptance or belonging.
Indeed, humanity is far too diverse to diagnose why some of its members took to eating harmful chemicals which look unmistakably like juicy jellies, so until psychology can come up with a good enough answer, let’s just chalk it down to natural selection doing its job.