by Annabeth Leong
When I look up “guilty pleasure” on Google, I get this result: “something, such as a movie, television program, or piece of music, that one enjoys despite feeling that it is not generally held in high regard.”
Despite my tendency toward guilt, I reject the concept of the guilty pleasure. I believe in owning what I like. When I stand up for that, I’m standing up for myself.
It interests me that this definition is so focused on cultural products (movies, TV, and music). My first association with “guilty pleasure,” probably thanks to advertising, is chocolate. I’ll talk about food first and then get to culture.
So, I have been studying Danish for the past six months or so (I am planning a trip to Copenhagen). In the course of that, I’ve encountered a lot of word lists, and these often turn out to be unintentional packages of cultural assumptions. I was studying a list of words labeled “Food,” and suddenly found myself learning a lot of Danish words that I personally would have filed under “Religion:” “temptation,” “sinful,” “guilt.” I was in a very practical mindset—I wanted to learn food words so that I can order things in restaurants when I get to Copenhagen—and so the intrusion of these moralizing words really rubbed me the wrong way. A chicken sandwich isn’t temptation, it’s a piece of food. Neither is a piece of chocolate sinful.
I think it is a sickness in our culture that we’re putting these religious words onto the act of eating. Health and morality are becoming conflated, and health is taking on a twisted form in the process. For example, there seems to be a widespread belief that you can tell whether someone is healthy by looking (for example, by judging whether or not the person is fat). That, however, is scientifically incorrect. I’ve read many studies about how thin people sometimes have trouble being taken seriously by doctors who assume that they are fine because they’re thin. On the other side of things, there are plenty of fat people who are healthy in all kinds of measurements (cardiovascular health, etc), eat well, and exercise.
A little over a year ago, I got very sick with vertigo and lost 30 pounds in about a month. While visiting my doctor to talk about my illness, I mentioned the weight loss because I was concerned about it. A drop that sudden seemed like it might be dangerous in some way. His only response was to say that he wished he could get vertigo, too! That, for me, was a powerful illustration of how twisted our culture has gotten about food and weight.
There are some great books on this subject. One that I’d recommend is Linda Bacon’s Health at Every Size. Bacon talks about the importance of listening to your body when eating.
There is nothing inherently wrong with eating ice cream. It’s probably not a good idea to eat when you’re not hungry because that hurts, but if you wait until you’re hungry I don’t see what’s wrong with eating whatever you want (unless you have a disease such as diabetes). I like a wide variety of foods—from french fries to kale to hot wings to lentils to chocolate to chia seeds and beyond. I wouldn’t call any of them a guilty pleasure.
I spent so much time on food because it’s of great concern to me that there’s so much misinformation and moralizing out there about it. It bothers me that people feel so free to shame each other over food, body size, health, and everything related, and I feel that comes up even in supposedly benign phrases like “guilty pleasure.” I have been stunned by food packages that say things like, “Great taste without the guilt!” I am disturbed that the ideas of great taste and guilt have been so closely married.
I also wanted to talk about culture, though. It’s worth thinking about why I might call certain things guilty pleasures, and why I reject that.
At one point in my life, I might have called reading romance novels a guilty pleasure. I snuck them in the bookstore where I worked, but never had the courage to come out and purchase one. And that’s very much because of the definition I quoted up top—my idea that romance novels weren’t held in high regard.
But why weren’t they? I bought stacks of pulpy science fiction and fantasy novels and felt absolutely no guilt about doing so. It wasn’t a writing quality issue because I wasn’t ashamed of reading poorly written speculative fiction.
Honestly, I think sexism is the answer here. Romance novels are for the most part written by women, and as such they have the reputation of being trashy, unrealistic, and stupid. Some of them certainly are—but so are some of those science fiction books I was reading, too.
When I started to get wise to that, I realized how important it was for me to stand up and claim what I liked as a smart person and as a woman. I made myself go to a brick and mortar store and buy a stack of romance novels (until then, I’d only been willing to buy them online or through e-readers). The first time I did it, I felt foolish and ashamed. I followed up by reading the books in public, on an airplane, at a tech conference. I noticed how that made me feel. I made a point of doing these things until I stopped feeling weird about them.
If I’m going to read it, I’m going to own that I read it. If someone tries to make me feel guilty about it, I have a lot of questions for them.
Then there’s music. I identified as a goth or as a cool kid for a lot of my life, and as such I never listened to pop music. When I was getting divorced, though, I went through a period of exploration, questioning why I did or didn’t do various things, why I identified in various ways, and so on. In the process, I discovered that I loved Kesha. Immediately, I noticed people trying to shame me for listening to her music, which they perceived as shallow or lowbrow. Again, I asked myself why. You’re not going to tell me that every Bush or Foo Fighters lyric is deep and meaningful, and yet I never felt shamed for listening to those bands… Interesting.
So again, I decided to stand up and own that I liked this. I used to tell people that Kesha made my spirit music. I went to see her at Lupo’s in Providence, at the very first concert where she headlined. I saw her again on her Warrior tour—twice, actually—and bought VIP tickets the second time. I came out covered in blue and gold glitter and felt amazing because that’s how it feels to embrace your real interests without fear. I wear her shirts proudly. That’s not a guilty pleasure at all.
(As a side note, Kesha is of even greater importance right now because of the horrible situation she’s involved in with the producer “Dr. Luke.” She is fighting against sexual harassment, abuse, predatory contracts, you name it. I absolutely believe that dismissing her and her music as lowbrow or silly contributes to an environment where the concerning details of her case aren’t taken seriously. Kesha’s art has meant so much to many people, including myself, and she’s being very brave in a situation where there’s a serious power imbalance. It feels more important than ever to refuse to accept any shame in relation to her work.)