One of the few things that brings me more pain than clutter is realizing I am a cliché. So you can imagine the emotional turmoil caused by Marie Kondo’s Tidying Up phenomenon.
My love of organization has deep roots. I grew up in a tools-on-a-pegboard, boxes-as-drawer-organizers house. In elementary school, I set aside entire Saturdays to reorganize my room: moving my bed to the opposite wall, rearranging my doll clothes, sorting my books (by size! by color! by author’s last name!). As an adult, I limit my exposure to The Container Store and the downstairs section of Ikea for both my financial and psychological health.
So a few years ago when I heard of Marie Kondo’s book The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, I scoffed. What kind of greenhorn needed a book to learn how to rid their lives of clutter? Then last Saturday night I found myself on the couch, immersed her new Netflix show.
I expected to feel smug and, at first, I did. Her suggestions — pile everything together before sorting, keep common items in accessible areas — were farm-league, the mother’s milk I was weaned on. After three episodes, I felt validated: of course it’s normal that I MacGyver cardboard-and-duct-tape dividers to separate my eyeliners from my shadow brushes. After episode five, I headed toward bed, but detoured into my closet. While immensely satisfying to fold my t-shirts in her ingenious you-can-see-them-all way, it was perhaps not the healthiest 1am pastime.
The next day (before I emptied everything under the bathroom sink) I posted a photo of my handiwork with a little joke about my obsession. And dozens of my friends admitted to the same. What struck me was that these confessions were overwhelmingly from women, particularly white, middle-class women in their 30s and 40s. There’s a selection bias in that most of my social media friends fit that demographic, but generally speaking, men were dismissive, younger folks skeptical and older ones indulgent: “I’ve been rolling towels for years. Is this a new thing… again?!” my mom asked with a winky emoji.
This realization that I am doing exactly what huge crowds of other (white, middle-class American) women are doing threw me into a spiral of angst. I have spent much of my adult life justifying — to myself as much as others — that I am not the minivan-driving, West-Elm-shopping, rueful-joke-about-husband-cracking, soccer-mom stereotype that one might assume from looking at me. I am — or try hard to be — my own unique and special flower, immune to the exacting standards that we (white, middle-class American) women have been taught we must meet in order to be acceptable.
Except I’m not, of course.
In our teens and 20s, these unspoken-yet-unbreakable expectations were played out primarily on our bodies: our weight, our eyebrow shape, our hair-free nether regions, the very specific skirt lengths required to be sexy enough but not too sexy for each unique occasion. (This explains why so many young women need five black skirts: the length that’s right for work is prudish for a first date and too conservative for dinner with friends plus you need a different one for club-hopping and a one long, flowy one for casual gatherings).
But as we reached our 30s and 40s, most of us made peace with — or gave up on — our bodies. The field of play changed to our homes. The lifestyle porn industry — from Pinterest to Real Simple to Pottery Barn — prescribed exactly what our homes should look like, from the vegetarian ramen (just 40 minutes!) to the ingenious cord-management solutions to the clutter-free living room we must maintain despite the shoes and toys erupting out of the tornado of toddlers or teens we share the space with.
Enter Marie Kondo in all her pocket-sized perfection and soothing beige-couch pep talks.
Of course there was a collective (white, middle-class American female) gasp of excitement. Here is the magic bullet! If I fold my socks correctly, I will feel a sense of control! If I can walk through the garage without tripping, I will have a happy household! If I keep only clothes that spark joy, I will be enough! (Let’s leave aside that if I kept only clothes that spark joy, I would own 25 pairs of shoes, 14 shirts and not a single bra which is an impractical way to move through the world).
But my challenge is that, even after realizing the problematic psychological underpinnings of her solutions, I’m still all in on tidying up. Even while processing the unfairness of these expectations (see: who’s to blame for toothpaste caked on the counter in a bathroom she never uses), I’ve planned to spent this Saturday culling the komono under the bed, sorting spices and triaging the unnecessary number of spatulas jammed in the utensil drawer.
Because it feels good. Whether it’s nature, nurture or the shaping of society, I like uncluttered spaces. Objects have psychological weight and it is freeing to send unused alarm clocks and old tents to Goodwill, to thrown out the lipstick that isn’t a great color on me, to say thank you to the sweater that seemed like a good idea in the fitting room but I don’t actually like. I was giddy when I discovered that science backs me up.
But my realization that this is deep societal programming is helping me hold these expectations lightly, to recognize that I could possibly (occasionally) take it a little far. To wit, as I bagged up extra craft supplies to take to his art teacher, my son asked in that charmingly-facetious middle-school way how often he needed to move off the couch to avoid being swept into the AmVets bin.
I paused before answering, just to keep him on his toes.
I’ve struggled with my addiction to lifestyle porn before.
And both “Tidying Up with Marie Kondo: How do you neatly store and fold gender biases?” and “Tidying Up with Marie Kondo is inadvertently about women’s invisible labor” are brilliant reflections of the gender dynamic within Tidying Up.