The ‘Cheat Day’ Selfie Pop-Up in LA Is Cute but Toxic
LA's newest selfie pop-up exhibit turns our unhealthy relationship with food into one long photo op.
Photo by Rozette Rago
Countless exhibitions designed to be Instagrammable, often referred to as "selfie museums," have become a major trend among millennials and gen z's looking for the perfect #feelingcutebutmightdeletelater pic. They're decked with colorful backdrops and props, and are filled to the gills with photographers offering to take your photo.
Los Angeles Art District’s newest pop-up selfie space, “Cheat Day Land,” is no exception. The floors are concrete, and the the interstitial spaces are evident—teal velvet is pinned taut between rooms, piping is visible in the ceiling. This one is a pop-up, and it feels temporary. But the art style itself is delightful, and posting with backdrops and props is incredibly fun in a way that belays the existential dread at the heart of a space designed specifically for photos. This one, at least, does not purport to be a museum. It’s easy to get swept up and intoxicated by the rush of capturing a great moment, and there is no better place to stage a colorful photograph.
Cheat Day Land, “the ONLY pop-up dedicated to your favorite cheat meals” according to their website, was dreamt up by five siblings. The core idea came from Rubi Rymenmy, who was inspired by interactive museums during a trip to Japan. Her siblings Yolanda, Enrique, Manuel, and Nick have decked the roughly ten rooms in the space with their whimsical art. You can see their vision. It's lush and edgy; a meeting of murals and pop art. One of the most visually pleasing rooms is a recreation of a Mondrian painting, dripping like wet dough. Cheat Day Land will be open through the month of October, and if you choose to go, you can grab snacks related to each room’s themes.
The best rooms are infectious celebrations of foods as backdrops and interactive spaces. There’s a cereal bowl filled with plushy stand-ins for sugary cereal, perfect for iconic ball-pit photos that were popularized by the Museum of Ice Cream and Color Factory. There are donut swings, a slide that links a toilet to a massive poop emoji, and a pair of buffalo wings styled like the other grammable angel’s wings murals found in Los Angeles. So many of these interactive moments are revisitations of childlike joy. Actions that are no longer acceptable to do without pretense, as an adult, become acceptable in order to take a photo—like jumping into a ball-pit or going on a swing.
But the framework of a “Cheat Day” and reification of these foods being “improper” is, frankly, rotten at its core. These foods are a “cheat” because the consequences of guiltlessly and regularly eating them—which is to say, the appearance of fatness—is considered unacceptable and unflattering. The space personifies many of our country’s incredibly toxic relationships with food, and this contradiction of celebration and guilt makes it hard to enjoy the exhibit without being repeatedly broken out of it.
In a number of rooms, there are written reminders that these foods are forbidden. A beautifully lettered script in the chocolate room reads: “Chocolate comes from cocoa which is a tree. That makes it a plant. Chocolate is salad.” It's not clear how anyone will feel comfortable eating in there. Part of the donut exhibit invites participants to sit inside a donut box—and if you take that photo at a certain angle, the box looks nearly three dimensional. Writing above the box reads: “calories donut count on the weekend.” There was also an incredibly discomfiting “prison cell” themed room, with food themed paper doll cutout prison jumpsuits. These moments were the empty calories.
The plethora of hired photographers also made the experience quite uncomfortable. It was impossible to traverse the space without being congenially asked if you wanted a photo. By itself, the ask is no big deal to turn down—in volume, and repeatedly, the insistence becomes stressful. They seemed to be targeting women in particular.
Luckily, no one in the space seemed to see it that way. Patrons were excited to take photos, pose exuberantly, and broadcast their love of foods that have such strong currency in the world of social media. No one was thinking too hard, and perhaps in an honest-to-God selfie exhibit, we aren’t supposed to be. But, in that line, it would be very easy to pivot the whole affair slightly, turn it into a straightforward celebration of these foods we love, guilt free. You can find a million versions of the donut or a slice of pizza on an influencer’s social media feed or in your local Urban Outfitters, made into pillows and iPhone cases, or emblazoned as patches on oversized denim jackets. These foods are popular, and people will take flattering photos regardless. The selfie museum is a celebration of fun—and why not let us celebrate enjoying food outright?
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