Thursday, March 10, 2016

Standing Up for What I Like

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.)


  1. Word.

    Perhaps part of the unhealthy "guilty pleasure" construct for cultural items is the fact that, in our society, people often define themselves and each other by their cultural affinities—and, especially (given how materialistic our society is), by their cultural acquisitions. So someone who likes Nickelback when it's not considered "cool" in his or her peer group doesn't want to be defined as a "person who likes Nickelback"—or a person who owns a Nickelback CD—and thus may conceal the like or disparage it—even to him/herself—as a "guilty pleasure." It would be so much easier, I think, if people could just say, "Hey, I like this book/music/whatever, but that doesn't mean it defines me." This is especially important given the complex relationships thoughtful people can have to things that they like with qualifications, or things that they like in some respects but feel conflicted about (for reasons deeper than "it's not supposed to be cool"). For example, I like a lot of humorous literature and comedy cinema from decades past; but those books and movies often include things that are very offensive to me (racism, sexism, homophobia, classism, anti-Semitism), and so there are disclaimers to my "fandom." I'm not going to apologize for enjoying what I love about them, but I also don't want to wear them like a T-shirt and say "this is who I am." And I think such nuances are often lost in American culture.

    1. P.S. I realize it might seem—especially because of the juxtaposition of our references to ownership, not to mention our references to T-shirts—like I'm saying the opposite of what you're saying. But I don't think I am. I agree with everything you said. I think the phenomenon of people being defined in a simplistic way for the things they own (in my material-possessions sense) is the other side of the coin with respect to people being pressured not to take ownership (in your self-integration sense) of things that are important to them, if they're the "wrong" things. I think it's all somehow part of the same societal dysfunctionality in this area—that there's too much categorical thinking and judging going on. (Does that make any sense?)

    2. Thanks so much for the thoughtful reply, Jeremy! I definitely think we're agreeing.

      And I think the way you've pointed to the role of "defining" is really insightful. If I'm using certain cues to show I belong or don't belong with certain people, then it's really important that I not like the "wrong" stuff.

      I also think it's important that you've brought up conflicted liking. When I was thinking about this post, I thought about talking about, for example, my liking of Kanye West, but I don't think that's a guilty pleasure. It's more that I think he's a talented artist with insightful things to say about race and really horrendous misogyny. As you describe, that's a different scenario...

  2. Even as long ago as when I was a teenager, I was struck by how what you liked (or at least professed to like) was assumed to define you, and how many people seemed to choose what they liked strictly according to how they wanted to be defined, and who they hoped to be grouped with. I suppose this is a manifestation of the age-old impulse to belong to a tribe. The difference now is how many different "tribes" we have to aspire to.

    1. This is another great point. I think lots of conflicts come about when one tribe has a different set of approved cues than another, too. That's definitely been a source of consternation for me.

  3. Oh! Food and guilt, food and sin... you are so right about this, Annabeth. This is part of what contributes to the epidemic of anorexia. I remember very clearly feeling that by losing weight, I was "pure" and "good".

    But then, some religions label any sort of pleasure as sinful and worthy of guilt. That seems so illogical to me. Why in the world would God (if you believe in him/her/it) give humans the capacity for pleasure if it was fundamentally wrong?

    Furthermore, why are the people who enjoy life to the fullest often the healthiest, happiest, kindest and most generous?

    1. Lisabet, your comment goes even deeper than what I was thinking about when I wrote about rejecting the idea of "guilty pleasure." You're right that the very idea of pleasure has often been linked to guilt, and that definitely raises questions. You're also right that the people I've always wanted to emulate seem very able to enjoy things and be generous—they don't seem very guilty about their pleasures! There's a lot here...

    2. There's always a lot in your posts.

      I'm surprised that Danish seem to associate food with sin, though. The Danes I know are pretty relaxed and not religious at all. Of course, maybe this reflects the particular individuals who compiled your word lists.

    3. I'm guessing it was actually Americans at work with the food lists. I think they were taking Danish words and fitting them into some sort of template, possibly that they use for all sorts of languages. Danish just happened to be the language I was studying.

      And I'm glad you find a lot in my posts! :)

  4. Interesting post, as usual. It's too true that taste is often seen as a sign of identity, and therefore a deal-breaker ("How can you watch/listen to/go see X? It's so childish/sexist/out-of-date").

    1. Absolutely right! And I find it hard to resist morphing myself to avoid fears of that.


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