Guilty Pleasures

We all have activities we love or foods we crave that we think of as “guilty pleasures”, things that aren’t good for us, or that we feel would embarrass us if anyone else know about it, but that we enjoy anyway.

Maybe you like reading “airport novels”, or chick lit, or true confessions. Maybe you love double-fudge chocolate chunk ice cream with chocolate sauce and chocolate sprinkles, or gummy worms, or expensive imported truffles. Maybe you cry in cheesy romantic comedies, or obsess over 1960′s B-movies, or scream like a little girl in slasher pics.

Whatever it is, your pleasure is tempered somewhat by guilt. Some guilty pleasures make us feel guilty because they’re so bad for us — fattening foods, time-wasting games, IQ-sucking sitcoms. Others aren’t necessarily bad for us, but we fear for the effect on our reputations if word got out. They make us look “low-class” or “non-intellectual” or “unprofessional” or “immature”.

The guilt ultimately arises, though, from the pleasure itself. Our modern society, with it’s “work work work ethic” and deeply-bred commitment to constant self-improvement — through dieting, through “extreme” sports, through self-help books, through a never-ending stream of products and media that all promise a “better you!” — holds pleasure in rather low esteem. It is seen, at best, as a reward, though a somewhat disreputable one, for the success of all that work work work.

But more often it’s seen as a luxury, and a dispensable one at that. The poor are held in contempt for their continued willingness to own DVD players, the rich for their decadence. Food, we are told, is solely for the nourishment of the body; sex, we are told, is solely for the reproduction of the species. Pleasure for pleasure’s sake is to be avoided, and those who seek it are to be shunned.

Hence the guilty pleasure — the thing we do just because it makes us feel good. It’s shameful to seek after the “empty calories” of the sugary snack, fluffy novel, or childish hobby. It’s a betrayal of the fundamental principles our society is built on.

It’s time to strike the phrase “guilty pleasure” from your vocabulary.

The idea that those things that distract us from the “real” work of living should be held in contempt is, of course, good for those who profit most from our work, but it’s no good for the rest of us. Work is good, of course — things need to get done — but work without pleasure is for automatons, not human beings. Indeed, it is the “guilty pleasures” we should feel least guilty about, because they re the things in which we are more fully our own people.

Behind the concept of the guilty pleasure is a demand for conformity. Don’t eat that, watch that, read that, do that, be that. It is an insistence that there are certain things we’re supposed to eat, watch, read, do, be, if we are to be taken seriously as adults. It is an insistence, in fact, on being “normal” — or even worse, “average”.

I defy that.

I hear you thinking, “But certainly, if something’s unhealthy for you, and you do it anyway, you should feel guilty about it — it’s the only way you’re gong to stop!” And sure, if your diet consists solely of guilty pleasures, if your reading is entirely guilty pleasures, if your life is consumed by the quest for ever-more guilty pleasures, that’s a problem. If your guilt stems from your concern over a lack of willpower or discipline that is causing you real harm, you absolutely should be dealing with that. It’s probably not the guilty pleasure that’s to blame, though — you need to work out some balance in your life as a whole.

But more often, our guilty pleasures are an exception, a small part of a life that’s otherwise already well-balanced. Which is to say, you can probably afford to indulge in a guilty pleasure or two without any guilt. If it gives you pleasure and isn’t likely to kill you, by all means, dig in!

Same thing with the rest of the guilty pleasures. If your guilt stems from the fear of what other people would think if they knew, and you’re no longer in middle school, you need to deal with your lack of self-confidence, not your appreciation of Top 40 music.

As with so much else, it boils down to a question of balance. If your life is chugging along just fine, thank you, and you just happen to have an inordinate fondness for Troll dolls, I say know yourself out. On the other hand, if your eating habits or entertainment preferences leave you unprepared to deal with your life — or if they’re the only consolation in your life — you need to give some serious thought to discovering more nourishing pleasures — or building a more nourishing life.

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