I recently had a conversation with a friend about the minimalism lifestyle as it exists in popular culture today. Minimalism as a way of living has been around in many forms, under many names, for a pretty long time.
Though I didn’t always have a name for it, minimalism has always been attractive to me in some way. I have the unfortunate fate of being an environmentalist, a habitual thing-collector, a crafter, and a chronic illness sufferer. Those things don’t go very well together, and minimalism seemed like the perfect solution.
Pinterest pinners love minimalism. There is an endless buffet of images that – if you’re like me – satisfy some weird and almost sensual craving for simplicity. I’ll admit, it’s kinda weird that so many of us flock to the internet in search of less stuff.
There can be benefits to downsizing: you’re buying less stuff, which could save you money and help the environment; you may spend less time cleaning and organizing and more time doing things you love; and there may be some other psychological benefits to having a tidy space.
However, in my voracious consumption of minimalist images and guides, I noticed that certain flavors of minimalism have emerged that reflect a disturbing obsession with purity and, often, a lack of awareness of the privilege of even being able to subscribe to a minimalist philosophy.
Minimalism and privilege
I am not alone in feeling a little oochy about this. In “Minimalism is the New Luxury Hotness,” Tracy Moore (Jezebel) points out some of the holier-than-thou, almost competitive aspects of the minimalist trend and its appeal to a somewhat limited layer of the socio-economic strata. She writes:
“More significantly, getting rid of things requires the having of things. If minimalism is a kind of voluntary thing-poverty, then real poverty is involuntary minimalism. Some fans of minimalism have considered such accusations and insist they aren’t true, that anyone can “pause, breathe, and decide to live life differently” and that minimalism isn’t just for rich people and we could all just not buy an iPad, especially when our old Macs are working just fine.”
I think Moore paints a somewhat black-and-white picture here by saying that “real poverty is involuntary minimalism,” however, she later grants, “I’m not saying that people in poverty can’t act deliberately or that there’s no way out, but there is a bootstrap mentality that often goes with success—I pulled myself up, why shouldn’t other people?”
Similar concerns appeared in an NBC News article featuring Sasha Abramsky, who argued of contemporary minimalism: “It makes all of these assumptions about equal environments that don’t hold…As long as the big-picture inequalities remain, a conversation about minimalism … is going to end up blaming poor people when they stay poor.”
Our life situation matters when considering minimalism. I often read advice from minimalist adherents that tells people to get rid of things they don’t think they only use very rarely, because they can always “buy it later.” What if you’re not sure you can afford to buy it later? And what about keeping things around to repurpose them later if you can’t afford to buy something new? There’s a big difference between being creatively frugal and being a hoarder.
When minimalism becomes materialism and obsession
Another criticism of the modern minimalist movement is its drive toward perfection and purity, and the potential for a renewed obsession with material goods—just in a different way.
Blogger David Crandall equates extreme minimalism with materialism, pointing out the intense focus on what possessions you own, exactly how many, and whether or not you own little enough to be considered a true minimalist. “Regardless of the quantity, focusing on possessions is materialism,” he writes (Heroic Destiny).
The minimalist aesthetic that appears in so many blogs, Pinterest boards, and magazines can be beautiful to look at, but is it being held up as a sort of minimalist ideal? Are we just redirecting the same self-destructive obsession that comes from looking at too many photo-shopped faces and bodies in magazines?
Minimalism’s many champions may ensure us that owning a specific number of things is NOT the goal, but let’s face it: if people are blogging about their perfect little apartment with their 127 perfectly-selected items in it, we’re going to latch on to that. Comparing ourselves to others and striving to keep up is practically a national pastime.
But what do I do in the meantime? How do I adopt a lifestyle that involves less stuff, in a way that is good for my own well-being and that of other people and the earth?
Our intentions around minimalism
Taking a close look at the way you live your life and making major changes can be a beneficial, transformative process. It can also make you a little crazy, if you get carried away with rigid guidelines and impossible ideals.
You can also get caught up in the details and forget why you wanted to make changes in the first place. I think it’s worth considering, or reconsidering, your intentions if you want to go down the minimalist road.
As I reflect on my own interests and habits around consuming, keeping, and getting rid of stuff, I’ve come up with a list of questions to ask myself from time to time:
- Why do I want to downsize or engage in a more minimalist lifestyle?
- Are there problems I’m trying to fix in my life by doing this? Will it really help?
- Is this a long-term, life-long, or short-term commitment for me?
- How do my consumption habits affect myself and others? The environment?
- Does my minimalism need to look like another person’s minimalism? Does it need to look any particular way?
- What feels like a reasonable amount of “stuff” for me to own right now? In what areas can I be flexible?
- How much time do I want to spend thinking about, buying, or getting rid of materials goods?
- Am I just getting rid of things so I can buy newer, “better” things to replace them?
- What aspects of minimalism will work well for me, given my current situation (financial, family, health, time, etc.)?
Basically, we have to define our own sense of what is “good enough.” If you’re totally happy and at ease with owning X number of things, that’s great.
But, if you’re obsessing about what to do with the weird clock that your aunt gave you because it puts you over you over your thing-quota, you spend 15 hours searching for the world’s most durable T-shirt because you can only own 2 of them, or you’re constantly comparing your living space to the ones on Apartment Therapy, then maybe you need to take a little break and ask yourself some questions.