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Avoiding “Guilty Pleasure”

By Debbie Koenig

About a month ago, I submitted an article to a high-profile food magazine I write for. My editor wrote back to ask me to reword a sentence. I’d used the phrase “guilty pleasure,” and this particular magazine avoids such terminology. I was surprised, since I’d clearly meant it in a winking, playful way, but I could see how it might be harmful in other contexts.

And then last weekend, I attended a food-world conference. The schedule listed a session intended for food writers and editors called “ ‘Guilt-Free’ Food: What Is Our Responsibility to Readers?” Naturally, I went. The opening remarks included a slide show of magazine clippings that paired the word “guilt” with food coverage. It showed more than one instance of “guilty pleasure.” Seeing them one after another like that made the problem clear. Why should any pleasure bring us guilt? And why should a magazine tell us when to feel guilty?

One editor on the panel, Faith Durand of The Kitchn, spoke eloquently about how dangerous it is to tie food into morality. When a publication says we can eat something “guilt-free,” it implies that if we choose to eat something else, we should feel guilty. It sets up one food as “good,” and another as “bad.” As we’ve all learned with Weight Watchers, that divide doesn’t really exist. We’re free to choose any food we want, as long as we account for foods with SmartPoints®. Instead, Faith said that The Kitchn aims for specificity and positivity, with titles like “Five Low-Sugar Ways I Bake for My Family.” 

I’ve been struggling not to feel guilty about my eating for my entire life. For many years, the shame that washed over me after I overate would lead to binges—I’d eat my emotions, then feel worse for having done so, then eat more to tamp down the next round of shame…. These days I still feel ashamed of myself when I eat my way into a bellyache, but I eat uncontrollably far less often than I used to. Most of the time, I’m able to take pleasure in what I’m eating and note when I’m satisfied. In a restaurant, I savor the “sinful” chocolate cake that follows a beautifully prepared meal of grilled fish and vegetables.

I’m glad that publications are taking their choice of words seriously. The way we frame things matters, even if we’re only speaking to ourselves. My new goal: to banish the phrase “guilty pleasure” from my vocabulary.

Follow Debbie on Connect @debbieskoenig
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