Thora Birch as Enid in Ghost World, 2001
A few weeks ago I went to see The Kids Are All Right, an amazing movie, which just happened to be playing at a massive thirty-screen multiplex that had recently changed ownership.
The first sign that things were different occurred when we pulled up, and there was no longer a sign of any kind telling people what was located inside the building. Instead, there was just a piece of large poster board with the name of the theatre painted on it in thick black paint. Now remember this is a thirty-screen multiplex, and it just had this poster stuck to the front.
I knew immediately something wasn't right.
When we were waiting in line at the ticket booth, we also noticed that there were a half dozen employees flitting around with artificial smiles on their faces, asking customers if they needed help with anything. It felt like we had died and gone to Stepford.
But the weirdest thing of all happened when we got to the front of the line.
Every single person who bought a ticket was rewarded with a coupon for a free medium-sized drink and a small bag of popcorn. At first I thought these coupons were being passed out at random, but soon it became obvious that EVERYONE was getting them.
Initially I was excited about our luck—I almost never splurge on popcorn or drinks at the movie theatre. Not because I don't want them, but because they cost so darned much.
(If you haven't been to the theatre in a while, you should know that you can no longer get a small drink and a small popcorn for less than ten dollars, which means this theatre was passing out the equivalent of ten bucks to every viewer.)
But not long after I got my free snacks, I started to feel differently about them.
As we walked to Screen 22, I looked around and considered all of the other moviegoers. Some were big and some were small, some were pretty and some were not, but despite our many differences, we all had the exact same thing in our hands: a small popcorn and a medium drink. It felt like the theatre owners were using some kind of mind control to make us all do the same thing. It felt like we were pod people. And suddenly my free popcorn and soda seemed rather grotesque to me.
In the theatre, I ate some of my popcorn and drank some of my soda, but it wasn't the same—my enjoyment was half-hearted, and I barely finished a third of what I had. I just didn't want it anymore. It was like I was experiencing the same thing people always say about country clubs: nobody wants to be a member of any club that will have them. And I didn't want any part of an unhealthy snack that someone had just handed me, free of charge. Not only did I not really want it, I was also hyper aware of how gross it was—the yellow chemical sludge* known as butter movie theatre land was collecting inside the crevices of my artificially colored popcorn like an environmental disaster.
At the same time that I was disgusted with the food, I was also disgusted with myself—Had I really longed for this stuff on so many occasions before? What was it about this crap that had appealed to me so much? In that moment, I had no idea why anyone would voluntarily pay for such a snack even though I'd done it more than a few times myself.
The result was that I wanted to eat less popcorn and drink less soda—that night and every day since then. And it made me wonder if part of the appeal of eating something so unhealthy is that we're not supposed to eat it.
When I was sixteen, I had jaw surgery that left me unable to eat solid foods for six weeks. In the time leading up to the operation, my doctors told me that it was one of the only times in my life when I could eat whatever I wanted because I'd be losing a lot of weight during my recovery. For a few days, I ate junk food 24-7: Twinkies, Doritos, Mac 'n Cheese. But after a day or two of that, I got sick of it and went back to my normal diet.
I think that's exactly what happened at the multiplex that night—since I was allowed to eat whatever I wanted, I didn't really want any of it anymore. Of course, that made me ask myself, what would happen if I let myself eat whatever I want all the time?
I've always believed that indulgence is an important part of a healthy lifestyle, and I've always known that if you deny yourself something you want, you'll only want it more. But I've also believed that giving into those temptations every once in a while helps you keep your cravings in check. But maybe—just maybe—if we gave into them whenever we wanted, they would lose their appeal forever.
I wish I could say I believed it was that simple to kick the junk food habit, but I'm not entirely convinced. But I will say this: I'm staying away from the yellow chemical sludge as long as I can.
*That's what Enid (pictured above) called it in Ghost World.