I get massages several times a month. My shoulders always hurt, and so I enjoy them. Likewise, I take pleasure in housing a pint of Rocky Road ice cream from time to time, which is almost obligatory when I binge on cringy rom-coms. And, yes, I pay far too much for some lady to spend two hours gluing fake eyelashes onto my face about once a month. I figure I can afford it because I've given up my gym membership since leaving home to travel full time.
And, no, I don't feel bad about any of it. But there was certainly a time when I called these things — my massages, ice cream, rom-coms, lash extensions, gym sessions, travels, etc. — my "guilty pleasures." That's until I really stopped to ruminate on what that means. The conclusion to which I ultimately came: Calling something a "guilty pleasure" is sexist.
Here's some food for thought.
1. Feeling guilty places shame on us for receiving pleasure.
Women, in particular, are shamed for experiencing, let alone embracing, all kinds of pleasure. We're too often considered "sl*ts" for enjoying sex and intimacy, or "b*tches" for feeling passionate about our careers, or "crazy" for the love we feel for certain others. And it doesn't stop there. Rather, we're also "fangirls" for the enthusiasm we feel for music or "insane" for our desires to pursue traditionally male-dominated fields of study. The list goes on.
In short: Women are taught to tolerate life as passive conformists. And any woman who dares to be an aberration of the "norm" should feel guilty for, in Layman's terms, feelin' herself. Ergo, we feel guilty for pleasure because we've been programmed to appease others before ourselves.
Calling whatever it is that you enjoy a "guilty pleasure," then, reinforces the radical, unfounded notion that women are undeserving of pleasure.
2. Keeping "guilty pleasures" holds us back from expressing our honest, whole selves.
A "guilty pleasure" is, typically, something in which we indulge in our solo time, and that's because we feel, well, guilty for relishing in whatever it is. Inevitably, then, we incumber our own pleasure, as we forbid the freedom of our expression — unless we are alone.
Even when we're by ourselves, doing anything from catching up on a series to practicing self-love, we hold place for judgment because it's been instilled in us, especially as women, that we must be or behave in specific ways. In the back of our minds, we think to ourselves that we really shouldn't be doing this or we really should be spending our time some other, perhaps more productive or more constructive or wiser, way.
For women, in particular, we've only ever known a world that too often strips us of our voices and of our expressions. There are unjustifiable expectations of us to be society's idea of "a woman," and what we should and shouldn't do to achieve that. When we stray from that, both research and real-life experience suggest time and time again that we face social penalization.
Therefore, calling whatever it is that you personally enjoy a "guilty pleasure," perpetuates a sexist culture of conformity.
3. What we tend to call "guilty pleasures" are typically associated with society's notion of femininity.
The term "guilty pleasures" tends to summon thoughts of what society deems "feminine" — watching reality television, reading romance novels, practicing self-care in the form of spa treatments and the use of cosmetics, etc. Seldom do we talk about what society considers "masculine" pleasures, such as watching football or spending a day barbequing "guilty pleasures."
Of course, what's feminine and what's masculine is entirely subjective. I take issue with defining anything as one or the other. Labeling ourselves (and our pleasures) as one or the other assumes that we are binary, and gender expression is a spectrum — after all, I believe that we are all made up of feminine and masculine energies, as well as everything in between.
That said, we're still at a point in society at which we are largely working together to unlearn these restrictive labels. And, as such, we still have preconceived notions of what's "feminine" and what's "masculine," and what we consciously or subconsciously, collectively deem "masculine" is rarely considered a "guilty pleasure."
And that's not okay.
AnnaMarie Houlis is a feminist, a freelance journalist and an adventure aficionado with an affinity for impulsive solo travel. She spends her days writing about women’s empowerment from around the world. You can follow her work on her blog, HerReport.org, and follow her journeys on Instagram @her_report, Twitter @herreportand Facebook.