The View From London

12.23.135:45 AM ET

The Year In Guilty Pleasures

Tis the season to self-indulgence! From Bailey's to Bridget Jones, Emma Woolf rounds up Britain's most hedonistic holiday impulses.

I should be cleaning the flat. I should be working on my next book. I should be volunteering at a local food bank. I should be at an Italian evening class, or maybe Russian. I should be clearing leaves and branches from my storm-strewn balcony. I should be de-junking my wardrobe and taking unwanted clothes to the charity shop. I should be at a yoga class, practising my Standing Bow. I should be spending ‘quality time’ on my relationship. It’s practically Christmas: I should be at a carol concert, buying last-minute presents, decking the hall with boughs of holly, or baking something festive. There are a hundred and one things I should be doing. And I’m curled on the sofa, reading the new Bridget Jones novel (Mad About the Boy) sipping Bailey’s Irish creamin a large tumbler, over ice.

Would this be less enjoyable if it wasn’t so decadent: are naughty pleasures all the more pleasurable because of the guilt? Is the guilty feeling a legacy of more religious times: is this linked to self-denial or the Protestant work ethic, or is it something more modern, the relentless quest for self-improvement? Does guilt serve some purpose, to keep us on our toes, to keep our hedonistic impulses in check? If these private indulgences don’t cause any harm to others, why do we feel bad anyway?

It seems that humans are alone among the animal kingdom in feeling bad about feeling good, so perhaps there is some evolutionary purpose to guilt. Animals do what comes naturally, and without going to extremes (although laboratory rats, given unlimited cocaine, do over-indulge). Cows chew the cud all day long, cats bask in the sun, pandas munch on their bamboo stalks, apparently without beating themselves up about it.

Our language is peppered with references to virtue and sin: we speak of being virtuous (i.e. dieting) and being naughty (i.e. chocolate brownies). Women in particular alternate between good behaviour, when they eat salad and go the gym, and bad ‘blow-out’ behaviour. Most weight-loss regimes are based on this all-or-nothing principle, notably intermittent or alternate day fasting. The blockbuster of 2013 was the 5:2 Diet, another version of the 80:20 logic, whereby if we eat healthily 80 percent of the time, we can indulge for the remaining 20 percent.

We’ve internalised the message from advertising and from education, that self-discipline is painful but desirable, and that instinctive, sensual enjoyment is risky. Being dull-but-good will lead to a smaller waistline and a place in heaven, whereas pleasure makes us fat and sets us firmly on the road to perdition. The slogan ‘naughty but nice’ was coined (weirdly by the bestselling author Salman Rushdie, then a young copywriter) to sell cream cakes to 1970s Britain.

The season of extreme self-indulgence is fully upon us. So, what is it about guilty pleasures that cause us pleasure and guilt? Why does swigging Bailey’s in my cashmere jogging pants feel so damn good—and  how do the rest of you get your kicks? Some reader responses:

* Dancing around the kitchen when Miley Cyrus comes on the radio

* Haagen-Dazs crème brulee ice-cream and the QVC Shopping Channel

* Floral crockery: my collection continues to expand. I can’t help myself

* Starbucks’ Eggnog Latte: calorific mugful of ridiculous delicious creamy calories

* Getting steaming drunk after work on a Friday

* Marmite on toasted soda bread: pure comfort food!

* Jewellery. No one ever proposed, so I bought myself a beautiful ring for my 40th. Is that bad?

* Wasting my time on Twitter

* Shining up my collection of leather brogues: deeply therapeutic, and I love the smell of shoe polish

* Going to local beauty salon for a full overhaul: highlights, waxing & spray-tan. Chav-tastic!

* Eating marzipan while listening to Michael Buble’s Xmas album

* Watching Pretty Woman for the millionth time

* Browsing the Daily Mail’s sidebar of shame—less a guilty pleasure, more an addiction

* Swirling peanut butter and Nutella straight from the jar with a spoon

* A cigarette on a Sunday evening, with a glass of single malt (I gave up smoking 10 years ago)

* Black Forest hot chocolate and marshmallows while writing Xmas cards

* Googling well-known women: their ages, kids, marital status, basically snooping into their lives.

* A filled-to-the-brim bubble bath. Not eco-friendly I know, but my favourite place to read and unwind

* Going to my sister’s place with Smirnoff Ice and the latest celeb gossip magazines

* Painting my fingernails in all the colours of the rainbow (I am 53 years old)

Miley Cyrus? Peanut butter and Nutella? Nothing like sharing the shame to make one feel like a paragon of virtue.It’s remarkable, how very innocent, almost childish, many of our pleasures are: ice-cream, dancing to cheesy music. It’s also notable that eating has replaced sex as our primary transgressive act—of the guilty pleasures I received from readers, the majority related to food. These days, we’re more ashamed of our unrestrained carb cravings and wicked lust for chocolate than our wanton erotic thoughts or impure carnal desires.

Afriend and fellow writer tells me she’s allowing herself one of those Eggnog specials every afternoon, ‘but only during December’. Later that day she emails: ‘OMG EggnogLatte contains 579 calories—apparently this is more calories than a double cheeseburger, and more than a quarter of a woman’s recommended daily intake. Also 75g of sugar. I fear I have done irreparable damage… should I take up running?’

We might as well enjoy this brief indulgent interlude because we’ll be paying for it soon enough —already January looms, full of penitence and treadmills, and not much pleasure. Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays! I’ll be back in a few weeks with your New Year Resolutions and a burst of 2014 optimism.


Click here to view previous installments of The View From London.

Emma Woolf is the author of An Apple a Day and The Ministry of Thin. Follow her on Twitter @EJWoolf.