The Hoax of Modern Minimalism

I recently bought a new toothbrush. A simple, curved toothbrush made from 100% recycled materials. It came in purple, red, green, and blue. Trivial choices usually present a great dilemma for me. I didn’t want the next couple months of brushing my teeth to have a small pang of regret. I stared at the options, thinking through how the new toothbrush would look by my sink. My roommate got a purple one, so that narrowed my choices by one. I started to reach for the red. Then, peeking behind that red, I saw the white one. “I need the white one.” My roommate knew what was coming next and began her eye roll. “You know, because I’m a minimalist.”

This comment is not a new one. I have been on the minimalism train all year. Each item I buy is chosen with purpose. I don’t want to clutter my life with anything insignificant. This is a fairly new development for me because growing up, I was a hard-core hoarder. I was one of those kids who saved every note passed in class, even when it wasn’t juicy; one of those kids whose parents worried about bugs finding old Halloween candy under the bed. I had countless stuffed animals, boxes full of random treasures, binders with every homework assignment I had ever done. My brothers, who shared a room, eventually switched bedrooms with me so that I could have the room with two closets. Though I knew I didn’t need any of it, I kept everything with the seemingly logical purpose of well maybe I will want it someday.

Though I slowly matured out of the chaos, my sudden conversion into a clutter abhorrer came in high school, when my first dating escapade ended. It needed to end because I don’t think we really like each other that much. But I did like the confirmation I felt in being someone’s girlfriend for four months. And conversely, I hated the sinking dejection of someone not wanting me to be his girlfriend anymore. With this sudden loss of composure, I had to find a new way to regain control of my life. I began to clean. It gave me something to do so I didn’t have to think about what happened. I brought empty trash bags into my room, my closet, my bathroom, carrying each one down until I was satisfied by the new simplicity. I began to breathe again and to feel the contentment of uncluttered space. It was a refreshing restart to my state of life. Since then, I have been addicted, not to being neat, but to resetting my neatness. I can’t start a new assignment or project until my room is tidy.

I didn’t discover minimalism until college, but for the last year I have been bombarded with messages to minimize my wardrobe and live in simplicity. Ask any blogger babe or Pinterest addict, and she will tell you that minimalism is hip. These people are going nuts over capsule wardrobes. I have explored this topic, trying to find the right project for my life, and almost every capsule wardrobe article I have read follows the same pattern. You pick 30 items–including tops, bottoms, dresses, shoes, and accessories–, and make your outfits with those 30 items for 3 months.

For the last year, I have been carefully whittling down my closet, working my way into being ready to have a capsule wardrobe. I have consistently surpassed my ambitious goals of cutting out 30 pieces in 30 days. I have purged my jewelry and nail polish, my school supplies, of excess. And yet I still have so much, as I always have. I have become more mindful about what I buy, looking for staple pieces that will last and stay in style. I bought space bags and put all of my off-season garb under my bed. But throughout it all, I have still been shopping. I can’t help but think how complex this simplicity has been. Am I really living simply if my simple consumerism clouds every thought?

The idea is admirable: convert women who have too many clothes and nothing to wear into mindful consumers with stylish, but versatile pieces so they can stop fretting over their outfit every morning. On the surface the point is to reorient life to think about what you do, not what you wear. But this obsession with reorientation is still consumer driven. We are not breaking our shopping habits, we are finding excuses to shop and feel good about it. After each season ends, the capsule bloggers instruct you to pick new items to fill in your next capsule wardrobe for the next 3 months. And for those who think 30 fresh items every month is too restrictive, the disclaimer always follows. It is not about the number. Do you need 20 pairs of shoes? Don’t count the shoes in your capsule then! Make the closet fit your life. Don’t actually change anything, but trick yourself into thinking you are.

The consumerist cycle continues, and it was never about minimalism. Real minimalism exists, but it does not call for buying new clothes for each season, even if it is just a few items. True minimalists wear something until it wears out. They don’t hate their possessions, but they are not obsessed with new ones. This faux-minimalism that the internet is touting will never make life simpler.

I am reading a white-girl-Christian-feel-good book with a group of fellow white girl Christians. The author talks about her experiences of being over burdened and burnt out. It is about letting go of things you don’t really enjoy and recultivating a life that truly brings joy. I can relate. We all can relate. But she talks so much about how her stuff helps her to find this peace–her white Converse sneakers remind her to be grounded, her small golden star necklace reminds her to look up, her conservative kitchenware reminds her to breathe, her pared down book collection reminds her to read books she loves. And I get it because I do that too. I obsess over how letting go of the things I don’t love will spark greater appreciation for the things I do love. But the work is never done. I will always need a new toothbrush or want a new dress. And if my obsession continues, it will never stop being about the stuff and start being about life beyond what I own.

I believe materials have the ability to enhance our experiences, as long as the experiences do not become about the materials. My camping trip’s success does not rest on a french press coffee maker. My education is not about my ethically made backpack. My health has nothing to do with my sticker-adorned water bottle. And my body’s worth is not determined by what I wear. I am far from being a minimalist because I love new clothes and I can’t walk out of a Half-Priced Books without a modest stack. But still I see the good in simplifying. I do agree with these bloggers and book writers that by letting go of what we do not love, we can see with greater clarity what we do. But there is another step they don’t tell you. You have to let go of the process too.

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