Reclaiming The Pumpkin Spice Latte: My Journey To Seasonal Self-Acceptance

“I’d like a, uh…” I trail off, my eyes darting around the small Starbucks beneath my office. What I am about to say next is of great shame to me. “Pumpkin Spice Latte, please,” I mutter, my voice quiet. I collect my “coffee” and scurry back to my office, where my colleagues are, thankfully, unaware that the drink in my cup is no regular latte. Rather, it's a beverage that has come to symbolize all that is supposedly reprehensible about my (young, white, female) demographic. It’s a stupid, silly stigma, and one deeply rooted in sexist double standards. And yet, somehow, it continues to plague me.
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It's probably safe to say the Pumpkin Spice Latte (PSL) backlash peaked about three years ago. But even now, as we come upon the concoction’s 15th anniversary, I’m not alone in my pumpkin spice shame. “Do I give the barista a fake name when I order? Sometimes. Do I pick up my cup while performatively exclaiming ‘they must have heard my order wrong!’ Maaaaaybe. Does that mean I’m ashamed of liking pumpkin spice lattes? Yeah, probably,” comedian Vickie Eisenstein, who filmed herself taking a bath in a tub filled with PSL to celebrate getting 20k YouTube followers, jokes to Refinery29 by email.
The PSL has been so roundly mocked, dissected, and imbued with negative associations that it hardly requires explanation as to why anyone would be reticent to order one. In 2014, John Oliver proclaimed that "pumpkin spice lattes taste like a candle tastes.” The drink has been the subject of so many tweets and internet jokes that there is a page dedicated to it on the site Know Your Meme. In American Babe: A White Girl Problems Book, Babe Walker, a fictional amalgam of every spoiled, self-obsessed white girl who ever existed, proclaims: “I have never and will never order a Pumpkin Spice Latte from Starbucks.” If even Babe, a character expressly created to mock privileged white girl stereotypes, rejects the PSL as too basic, well, it’s understandable why the rest of us might, too.
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Since its debut in 2003, the PSL has become loaded in much the same way rosé or avocado toast or cupcakes or Cosmopolitans are. And while many of the memes and jokes about PSLs are admittedly amusing (I mean, they don’t not taste like candles), they’re also rooted in a long-standing cultural dismissal of women’s tastes. In a 2017 Taste article, author Jaya Saxena describes the phenomenon as it pertains to the backlash against rosé. “When men enjoy something, they elevate it. But when women enjoy something, they ruin it,” she writes, later explaining: “When those foods blow up, we judge women for falling for the marketing or trying to jump on the bandwagon, and we assume that because they like something other women like, they don’t have minds of their own.” This general sense of disregard for the palettes of women channeled through the PSL has even begun to besmirch the fine season of autumn, just by sheer association.
To be fair, none of this is really the end of the world. There are myriad larger issues facing both women and society as a whole than whether or not some feel shy ordering a certain type of latte because it has been mocked on the internet. That is, by definition, a first world problem. And yet, it does feel like the Pumpkin Spice Latte is ripe for reclamation. As someone who generally wants to appear “cool” I publicly reject the PSL. But as a feminist who believes there’s nothing inherently wrong with wine coolers and Millennial Pink and all the other “girly” stuff that we’ve been conditioned to feel ashamed for liking, part of me wants to order a Double Grande-sized PSL and shout about it from the top of the Empire State Building. Actually, that sounds like it would probably give me a really bad stomach ache, but you get the idea.
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After all, the PSL is not only a somewhat unfortunate cultural touchstone-slash-punchline, but also the inspiration for a lucrative, ever-expanding market that now includes not just the obvious candles, cookies, and bath products, but inexplicable offerings like pumpkin spice dog treats and pumpkin spice deodorant. Weird, yes, but apparently also profitable! Starbucks, meanwhile, refuses to release revenue numbers for the PSL, but in 2015, Forbes estimated the company rakes in about $100 million a year from the lattes alone. That’s a whole lot of love for something that so many people supposedly can’t stand.
Fascinatingly, the coffee chain's most famous seasonal cash cow almost never happened. According to a 2013 article from Quartz, many higher-ups at the company thought its overpowering flavor “didn’t put Starbucks coffee in the best light” and lobbied to scrap it. From the very start, the PSL has been misunderstood.
When I polled the denizens of Twitter — ground zero for PSL mockery — on their feelings about the beverage, most of the women who responded to me seemed to be out-and-proud drinkers. This surprised me. “I’m going to continue drinking them while wrapped in my comedically [sic] large blanket scarf and taking pictures for Instagram in an apple orchard — let me live my basic life,” said Sara Ann, who spoke to Refinery29 via Twitter. “Nowadays everything is ‘basic’ so you might as well embrace it.”
Might as well, indeed! “It's just pumpkin, why would you be embarrassed about a flavor? If someone is oppressing you because you enjoy the flavor of pumpkin, you need to get new friends,” agreed Ramona, who also spoke via Twitter. So what’s my problem? Am I the only one still sneaking around and depriving myself for fear of fulfilling a sexist, tired-out stereotype? Is everyone else out sipping warm, fluffy-topped, perfectly spicy-sweet coffee beverages without me? It certainly sounds like it.
Ultimately, the only person standing in between me and my flavored coffee beverage of choice is me. If even men can apparently move past the stigma, certainly I can as well, even if, physically speaking, I do happen to fit the bill for stereotypical PSL drinker. “Scroll through Instagram on an autumn day and your feed will be full of cute, skinny blonde girls in ripped jeans with Starbucks cups and enough pumpkin emojis to fill a whole pumpkin patch. It’s easy and fun to make jokes about yourself. Might as well invest in Starbucks stock and join in,” offers Eisenstein.
Tomorrow, as the PSL once again reemerges to both squeals and eyerolls, perhaps I’ll once again find myself in line to order one. Only this time, I’ll approach the barista with pride rather than shame; conviction instead of cowardice. Maybe I’ll even dust off my old Ugg boots and take a trip to the pumpkin patch. This fall, I say, let's embrace the Pumpkin Spice Latte, in all of its overhyped, ultra-commercialized, candle-tasting, cinnamon-dusted glory.
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