Saturday, April 29, 2017

This Is Why We Can't Have Nice Things (Because We Got Rid of Them All): Is "Minspo" a Problem?

I've mentioned a few times in previous posts that I've been exploring and utilizing concepts from the increasingly popular "minimalist" movement. I started listening to podcasts from The Minimalists (who are now probably best known for their documentary Minimalism. After it appeared on Netflix, there was a fresh wave of people turning to these ideas). While I occasionally found the content verging into sanctimonious territory, I'm pretty good at taking what works and leaving what doesn't, and a lot of what they were saying worked for me.

Adopting a minimalist framework helped me see my living space differently, make more conscious purchasing decisions, and put a name to a privileging of experiences and satisfaction with life over material wealth that had just been part of who I was for as long as I can remember. I wasn't cheap or a lazy decorator after all; I was just a minimalist. Voila!

I turned to several Facebook groups aimed at providing inspiration, support, and community for minimalists, and in many ways they do exactly what they set out to do: inspire, support, and bring people together. Of course, as with any belief system that gets truncated into Facebook posts, there is the constant in-fighting over who is or who is not "really" a minimalist and who is merely dabbling with the trend without engaging. Constant litmus tests pop up. Do you hang things on your wall? Do you paint with colors other than white, off-white, and eggshell? Do your children own electronic toys? Do your children own toys at all? Do you have pets? Do you use tampons? Do you use toilet paper?

Depending on who you are asking, there are people within these groups who will happily declare you NOT MINIMALIST if you answer yes to any of those questions. Of course, that starts a fresh wave of angry comments: "Minimalism means something different to everyone." "We're all at different places in our journey." "I thought that minimalism meant you minimized your negativity; you're not being very minimalist right now, either."

The flip side of this (and one that I'll attest to being more personally sympathetic to) is when people (often new to the concept) come into the groups and ask a bunch of questions about how to properly declutter. "How many socks should I own?" "How many forks?" "How do I declutter more effectively?"

Many long-term members of the group will get frustrated and say that minimalism isn't about decluttering but about making a long-term commitment to a simpler, more intentional way of living. The decluttering posts, in their opinion, detract from the philosophical aims of the movement and turn it into a superficial heap of decorating advice rather than a holistic way of interacting with the world.

This decluttering/simplistic aesthetic can become something of a competition, and there are people who clearly take pleasure in seeing how far they can push the idea. It generates memes like this one:

Recently, there has also been a lot of criticism of minimalism as a fad that ignores its own privilege. The Guardian calls minimalism "another boring product wealthy people can buy." Many people have questioned the way that minimalism co-opts markers of poverty and makes them trendy.  This post likens the moral superiority expressed by some minimalists to slut shaming for consumerists and says that it expresses "the shitty idea that one has to be poor in order to advance spiritually." (Of course, there are plenty of long-standing religious traditions that say exactly that, but I guess isolating them from the larger belief system and wrapping them up in Pinterest boards changes the delivery.) 

All that to say that there are feelings going on here. As I said earlier, I've gotten pretty good at taking what I want and leaving what I don't when it comes to dabbling in any self-helpy online communities. I did the Paleo diet for a while, realized it was way too strict (and honestly, at times cult-like) for me, so I took the parts of it that worked and left the rest. I have joined groups about positive parenting, but when the conversation jumps off the deep end into what does or does not constitute child abuse and shots have been fired from all sides, I typically just politely find my way out. If I do get involved in these debates, it is usually because I feel interested in the tension of the debate itself rather than because of a deep investment on one side or the other. After all, it's from the tension that we usually find the most interesting answers. 

Still, I have to admit that at times the presentation of minimalism as a movement gets a little hard for me to swallow even as the actual practices have undoubtedly, meaningfully, and probably permanently changed the way that I live my life. The more I tried to unpack why that was, the more I kept thinking about fitspo. 

If you don't know what fitspo is, you can read a few of my posts about it here and here. Basically, fitspo (an abbreviated portmanteau of "fit" and "inspiration") is any of those social media memes that are designed to inspire people to fitness. They grew as an alternative (and ostensibly healthier and more positive version of) "thinspo" which of course stood for "thin inspiration." "Thinspo" was harshly criticized for promoting deeply unhealthy body image and contributing to disordered eating and obsessive exercise. Fitspo, what was originally supposed to be an answer to these problems, pretty quickly devolved into "thinspo with muscles." It used many of the same rhetorical approaches to "motivate" through tacit shaming and to portray isolated, unrealistic, and idealistic versions of "fitness" that were so limited as to be unattainable. Many body positive bloggers started taking on fitspo to point out its flaws, producing "corrected" versions like these:

The more that I thought about the way that minimalism is getting watered down in its delivery, the more I kept thinking about these problems with fitspo. I believe that fitspo has the potential to do a lot of good. I have personally seen many inspiring, thoughtful, and meaningful examples of fitspo that do not root themselves in shame and competition. I started collecting a lot of them on this Pinterest board as well as discussions about what makes a "fitspo" image (in my opinion) a positive one. 

Basically, I could narrow down the criteria for a "good" piece of fitspo like this: 

  1. Holistic- Our bodies are complex, connected entities. Fitness is not chiseled abs. Fitness is not flexed biceps. Fitness is not rounded glutes. Fitness is the way that you use the body you have in the time and space you inhabit to accomplish a goal. 
  2. Diverse- Images that show only one way to be fit are images that ignore reality. People have different kinds of bodies with different levels of ability. They can all be "fit" in different ways since they all have to inhabit time and space and accomplish goals. 
  3. Motivating- It wouldn't really be "inspiration" without pushing the reader toward action. 
I personally find motivation for fitness through images that show bodies in motion, people taking action. I don't need to look at the visual synecdoche of isolated body parts. 

Images like this one reduce the person pictured to an object. The readers are asked not to see inspiration in the work that person did to achieve the desired results. Instead, the readers are asked to put themselves into that person's body. This is why the person is headless. This is why the camera is focused on the person's glutes and legs. Those aren't supposed to be her glutes. That's supposed to be my ass. And if I don't look like her (which I am never, ever, not ever, not in any way going to do), then I am failing. That's a lot of failing. 

On the contrary, a holistic image that shows a full human being and their body in motion operates differently. 

This image comes from the Feminist Fitspo tumblr. This woman also has flexed muscles, but they're flexed not because she's posing for the camera but because that's what muscles do when you are actively using them. The rhetorical impact of this picture is not a request for me to read myself into her body. That is her body. She maintains her agency and individuality (and her head). I can be inspired without being asked to cannibalize. I can see someone else using their own body to do something amazing and then ask myself what amazing things I can do. Instead of a competition, it becomes about opening up possibilities. 

Back to minimalism. Is "Minspo" a thing? 

Here are some screenshots from the Pinterest board "Minimalism," which has 90,000 followers. 

This is a pretty typical representation of what you'll get if you're looking for minimalist inspiration on Pinterest: pin after pin of white walls, simple furniture, and empty spaces. 

I'd call this "Minspo." I think that it's serving the same purpose as "fitspo" in that it aims to inspire people to adopt a minimalist lifestyle. Just as fitspo can have different rhetorical aims, so can minspo. 

In many ways, those images of all those white rooms are similar to the isolated body parts of some "fitspo." Just like the dissected abs, these images show a tiny part of someone's living space in an incredibly staged way that isn't reflective of the way people actually live. Just like these fitness bloggers demonstrated that their staged photos and "real" photos are vastly different, I'd venture to guess that even the photos of minimalism that were taken in real homes (rather than staged studios specifically for this purpose) are carefully curated snapshots of an artificial moment. 

We all do it! I am much more likely to photograph that birthday cake I made from the angle that shows the shiny, perfectly smooth icing rather than the one that shows where I got impatient and melted it by putting it on too fast. I'll take cute picture of my son and then crop out the pile of laundry behind him. We want to display the version of our lives that we think reflects the best of it. That's normal. 

But what happens is that these images become so pervasive when we scroll through page after page of them that we start looking at them through a different lens. Just like the disconnected body parts of fitspo invite us not to be inspired but to place ourselves within them, too much time consuming those dissected pieces of a living space turn them from an inspirational suggestion of decor and into a judgment of our own spaces, spaces that are not staged photography sites but real life houses with human beings living in them. 

There is another kind of "Minspo" you might find, which is simply text images with quotes designed to inspire you to own less. Joshua Becker, a minimalist blogger at Becoming Minimalist, has a Pinterest board filled with these

Taken on their own, things like "own less. do more." and "'Tis Better to Donate Than Accumulate" are simple maxims that can help fight a consumerist onslaught of marketing. It's a way to ground ourselves and remember that many of the "needs" placed upon us by corporate interests aren't really needs at all. I've personally found these messages motivating, and I can name at least a dozen things that I didn't purchase (but probably would have in the past) since I have worked to become more intentionally mindful of what I do or don't buy.

The problem with these images comes when we immerse ourselves in them too long and too often. Mantras can morph from inspiration into shame. We can begin to look around our homes and see these words pop up in our minds.

Many people in these minimalist groups mock (often light-heartedly) older generations for hoarding unnecessary items because they grew up in a time when "waste not, want not" was the pervasive societal message. They got that message fed to them not through Pinterest boards, but through the necessity of economic realities. In many ways, minimalism is growing out of similar motivations. Younger people tend to be embracing minimalism at increasing rates, and I think a lot of it has to do with facing an economic reality that has made it obvious we won't be living the "American Dream" as it was sold to us. The suburban sprawl of 4000 square feet McMansions isn't sustainable or affordable for many of us. A lot of us are looking at crushing student debt for degrees that we can't use because the job market has changed so rapidly. Automation promises to make obsolete many careers that were once safe paths to the middle class. In some ways we're not so much seeking out minimalism as embracing our realities.

Still, too much time spent submerged in this kind of "inspiration" starts to change the way you think. Suddenly you may find yourself "decluttering" every weekend for months on end. You might find yourself feeling resentful of objects in your home. Many people in these groups report fights with spouses who are not okay with getting rid of as many things. Some threads devolve into competitions over who can throw out the most bags of things in a day.

Much like a fitspo binge that leaves you pinching fat rolls in the mirror and obsessively counting calories, this isn't good for you. The point of getting inspired is to make your life better, not worse. If you leave a page full of inspirational quotes feeling like a failure, they weren't actually inspirational quotes--even if they would have been for someone else in another context.

What makes me sad about this is that I have seen many people declare they're convinced they'll never "make it to minimalism" as if there is some end goal. As if getting rid of just five more pairs of socks will unlock some achievement badge. As if once you finally finish removing all your extra cookie sheets or painting that last blue accent stripe white, you'll be "done" and can officially wear your Minimalist Pin to the club events.

This is as silly as thinking that the last five sit-ups or the last three pounds or pushing yourself to the risk of injury in order to shave the last ten seconds off your running lap are going to somehow make you eternally "fit."

I didn't get into it in this post, but the exact same phenomenon--complete with the inspirational posts we tend to share on social media--could also be applied to healthy food choices.

These are journeys. Lifelong ones. Turning to these communities can be a great way to get some advice on how to make a guided choice within a framework that makes sense and inspires you. But if you end up spending too much time there and immersing yourself in that language day after day, you run the risk of losing sight of the fact that this is but one facet of a complex life. Turn to these groups and memes for a moment (except those horrible fitspo ones that turn you into dissected abs and biceps; I advise not turning to those at all). Then move on. Come back when you feel the need for inspiration, and turn away any time your feelings of motivation and excitement start to turn to feelings of comparison and shame.

This is your life, not a race. The only end is the final one. Spend your time wisely.

Saturday, April 1, 2017

"Next Year": When I Decided "Being Present" Wasn't Just BS

In my many attempts to gain some order over my life and fight off the ever-present dragons of anxiety, I've often been given advice to be "present-centered" or "live in the moment."

Most times, I smiled blankly and nodded, feeling as if this advice (whether coming from a friend, a motivational piece of writing, or a mental health professional) was akin to telling me my lungs would work better if they "just stopped needing oxygen."

I'm a planner. It's central to my identity to have a sense of the future and what I'll be doing in it. I love designing curriculum for my classes down to the minute details. I like organizing lists of possible summer camps for my daughter and color coding them to determine the best fit.

I distinctly remember a conversation with my husband after a particularly rough day of living life where I was sitting on the bed and opened my computer to look at my Google calendar with all of its to-do lists and color coordinating activities. "Ah," I said out loud. "This is the calmest I've been all day long."

"Really?!" He was incredulous.

"Yeah, looking at my calendar makes me feel so at ease."

"That is literally the opposite of how looking at a calendar makes me feel," he replied.

It was an interesting insight into the dynamics of our relationship, but it is also a clear picture of how I function. I like my time to be planned, ordered, and controlled. I hate being late, and I want meetings set weeks in advance so that I can come to them prepared and confident. My brain often focuses on the future, and I've always thought that advice to do otherwise was asking for trouble. After all, my future-focused brain had allowed me to accomplish a lot. It was at least partially responsible for success in my education, career, and family. All of those areas of my life had required planning and the ability to map out ways to achieve complex, multi-faceted tasks.

My spirit animal, Leslie Knope.

My husband and I bought our first home eight years ago when we were 23. We reasoned it was a "starter home," as the terminology goes. It has three bedrooms (though one doesn't have a closet, so I think it's technically a "bonus room") and one bathroom. It is about 1400 square feet. 

When we first moved in, it was just the two of us and two cats. We added a dog that first year. We told ourselves we'd probably move again in about three years.

We added our daughter two years later. We told ourselves we would move when we were settled into our new role as parents. "Next year. We'll move next year." 

Things kept moving along. We even put our house on the market once, but we didn't put much effort into it (more out of laziness than anything). We didn't get any interest, so, "Next year." 

We looked into options to rent it out instead. In the meantime, we didn't hang pictures or paint walls. We didn't replace carpet or fix up the yard. We weren't sure what we were going to do with it, and it felt like a waste of time and energy. "Next year." 

Then we added our son in the past year. Surely moving with an infant seemed silly. "Next year." 

We're now a family of four in a space that many of our professional peers would deem "too small" for our needs. 

When we first moved in, there were rooms we never even entered. Beyond our own bedroom, the other two were simply storage, and not well managed or maintained storage. We basically just threw stuff in there and shut the doors. When our daughter came, we crammed all that stuff into the bonus room and shut that door. When our son came, we finally had to deal with it. In the end, we kept almost nothing from that room, and why would we? If it could sit untouched for more than five years, we obviously didn't need it. Over the past two years, we have donated, recycled, or trashed most of the things we don't use. That process isn't complete, but most of the things in my home now serve purpose and are intentionally placed there. It's a nice change. 

As I mentioned in an earlier post, I've been reading about minimalism quite a bit. In my dabbling, I've found several people talking about downsizing. In the extreme, this has led to the "tiny house" movement as a way to push back against a notion that bigger is better when it comes to living space.

While I do have general ecological and sustainability concerns as a human being aware of my impact on the world around me, I am not looking to join a tiny house movement or push myself to the extreme in avoiding consumption. I just want to make my life simpler and more enjoyable. 

But reading all of the discussions about the housing question in these minimalists groups and writings did start to raise some questions for me. 

Houses are getting bigger, even post-recession. This 2016 NYT article explains that a third of newly constructed homes top 3,000 square feet. The average is 2,687. Even as the size of families has been steadily falling and reached a low of 2.5 in 2016, the number of bedrooms in newly constructed houses has grown with nearly half having four or more. 

Couple that with the social media pressure of being "Pinterest-worthy," and that's a lot of space to not only inhabit but decorate and fill (and heat and cool). 

Getting rid of many of the superfluous items in our house and rejecting some of the pressure to refill those empty spaces has done a lot to alleviate my ongoing struggles with housekeeping, and that has made me recognize that my "too small" space isn't really too small at all. Sure, we're cramped by the standards that have made homes twice the size of ours average, but the more I examined our habits, the more I realized that we don't actually need more space. In fact, there is a lot to suggest that much of that extra space is actually being used as storage. And even with vastly larger homes, the storage rental industry is booming, with many people paying a monthly fee on an indefinite basis to have even more storage for their stuff. What is the likelihood that all of those people (1 in 10 have rental space) are actually going to their storage sheds and using those things on a regular basis? It seems much more likely that those items are just sitting there, untouched, waiting to become fodder for reality TV. 

All of this reading and reflecting on the role of possessions, the value of space, and the way that cultural norms regarding housing size standards across the world, I began to question the internal pressure I was putting on myself to leave our "starter home." Once I began questioning, I realized it wasn't actually internal pressure at all; it was entirely external. I wasn't unhappy with my space. I wasn't feeling cramped or frustrated (though I would definitely appreciate a second bathroom; a project we're now planning to embark upon). I didn't think my kids were suffering with small rooms. 

Instead, I was asking myself what other people would think. We already live in a neighborhood far more run-down than most of our professional peers. We already chose to stay in the city when most of the people we knew had left for the suburbs when they had kids (and trust me, I understand the choice; the school situation alone is enough to drive you mad.) Were people questioning why we hadn't moved? What would people think when I invited them over? Could I have people over at all if my kitchen table only seats four? If my daughter has a friend come play, will that friend go home and tell her parents our house isn't nice? 

Those were the questions that were making me want to move, and those questions are ridiculous. So what if I have to throw crappy dinner parties? I have good, real friendships. They won't care. I bet they're also not questioning why we live where we live, and if they are, so what? I know why I've made the choices that I have, and I'm not spending my day worrying about why they made different ones. I wasn't hearing the voices of real people; I was hearing the voices of imaginary ones, and so a decision was made. 

I'd be damned if imaginary people were going to run me out of my house! 

We're staying put. Perhaps eventually we'll decide that this house really is too small: when both kids are bigger, when we decide we have to have more furniture, I don't know what the future holds. But for the foreseeable future, this space is plenty, so we're staying. No more "next years." 

Once I made that decision, it was like a switch was flipped inside of me. That very next weekend, I printed pictures, bought frames, and hung things on the walls. Two weeks later, I asked my mom to come help me paint all the rooms in the upstairs, rooms that had been the same beige color since we moved in nearly a decade ago. I'm making plans now to landscape the mud pit of a back yard so that we could actually, I don't know, use it to hang out? 

I started living in my house. 

Before that, I had been merely waiting in my house, waiting for some fictional "next year" to start my "real" life. But this was my real life, and it was fine. It was better than fine. It was pretty good. 

Suddenly, all that advice to "live in the moment" made a lot more sense. By loaning out my happiness and contentment to a hypothetical future, I was robbing myself of peace and gratitude. I was constantly looking at my surroundings as a vehicle for something better instead of recognizing the good I already had. It wasn't until we made the decision to stay put that I really felt invested in and committed to my space, and once I did, I started making it reflect the appreciation and love that I really do feel for it. What if I had done this years ago? I lost out on a decade of being happy and satisfied with my home, and I have no one to blame but myself.