Women are constantly being told "less is more"—on the plate, on our bodies, in our homes. In other words: Disappear!
We’ve all seen perfect rooms in lifestyle magazines. They’re angular, mostly white, and deliberately unembellished except for one fabulous object—one that, of course, brings the owner joy. Less is more, and that dictum is big business these days, as seen in the success of Marie Kondo’s The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up or the tiny-house trend.
Notice anything about that living room? Its description also applies to many magazine models. Minimalist homes and thin bodies have become the reigning aesthetic over the past century for similar reasons: In a culture of plenty, paring down is a hard-to-achieve status symbol. Getting rid of both so-called extra flesh and extra stuff is a burden falling disproportionately on women.
Once, food and stuff—furniture, knickknacks—were expensive. In those days, bigger bodies (think Rubens) and crowded shelves of objets d’art signaled status and even virtue. Americans once “gained some cultural stake in using food to prove their national, as well as personal, material success,” writes Peter N. Stearns in Fat History: Bodies and Beauty in the Modern West. “In 1890 success was embodied in corpulence, failure in emaciation … now success is thin.” In decorating, too, leanness is now valorized, but it wasn’t always so: Deborah Cohen, professor of history at Northwestern University and author of Household Gods: The British and Their Possessions, says, “Of course the Victorian was an extravagant era.” What she calls “overstuffed bourgeois interiors” became a new way for people to express their personalities. Quirky décor, like that of a woman who covered her entire room with black-bordered In Memoriam cards, represented “an individualistic extravaganza to which women were crucial,” says Cohen. “The unique and the handmade became status symbols.”
Interestingly, for many women, profuse decoration once signaled greater freedoms. Women gained economic and legal rights over the 19th century, and with them, increasing control over their home, Cohen says. Interior decoration was one of the first acceptable professions for middle-class women, and some early female interior decorators came from prominent suffrage families. At first, thinness in women’s bodies was also linked to liberation. Smaller, corset-free bodies represented a new athleticism, as in the willowy Gibson Girl of the 1910s.
But since when has patriarchal capitalism ever let freedoms for women flourish? These new options all too quickly became sexist restraints, with more than a whiff of classism thrown in. Women’s hard-won new domains morphed into new expectations: keep your house perfect, and make sure that body stays slim and athletic. “After the Second World War, with this incredible galvanized mass market, everyone can have tons of stuff,” says Cohen. “Discernment is about elimination—the less-is-more aesthetic boiled down to its extreme endpoint.” Cohen traced a similar trajectory for bodies and fashion in a fascinating essay for The Atlantic, on the 1930s silhouette, pointing out how “the toned and exercised body became a marker of privilege, a status symbol that has become only more glaring since… Americans’ clothes became more similar even as their bodies diverged along class lines.”
We’ve come a long way, baby, from the carved mahogany, overstuffed velvet furnishings, and china cabinets of the Victorian era or even 1980s swagged window treatments, chintz, and shabby-chic florals. This shift has occurred as both calories and cute Target housewares have become cheaper. Although it’s notoriously difficult to compare direct food costs over time—factors include the changing value of the dollar and changing tastes in food—food costs in real dollars have dropped considerably over time, as the Consumer Price Index (started in the United States in 1913) reveals. If we look at food costs as a proportion of income, the trend is clear: Between 1919 and 1998, for instance, the budgeted proportion of income an average family spent on food was slashed in half, from 36 percent to 18 percent.
Statistics like these are helpfully snapshotted in a 2012 article, “How America Spends Money,” which notes that “spending on food and clothing went from half the family budget in 1900 to less than a fifth in 2000.” The reasons? “Food production got more efficient, and we offshored the making of clothes to other countries with cheaper labor.” Although stats for household goods, such as décor and furniture, aren’t broken out, they’ve undergone a similar process as cheap clothes: Mass manufacturing is now concentrated in countries where conglomerates can pay laborers low wages.
In a world of cheap chic, maintaining a decluttered household can feel like a full-time job—one that nearly always falls to the woman in a heteronormative household. Her ability to find time (or hire a professional) to create a magazine-worthy home signals both wealth and conformity to feminine norms. Decluttering gets advertised as self-actualizing and soothing—a form of self-care—but, when scaled up, this standard reads as little more than a stylish, stripped-down reboot of old-fashioned urgings that women stick to the domestic sphere, at the expense of broader political and social action, a new twist on the old angel-in-the-house conundrum. For anyone who doubts that plenty of forces in the patriarchy still want women to stay home, just recall the recent Facebook manifesto by Missouri congressional candidate Courtland Sykes, who posted about wanting to come home to a hot home-cooked meal every night, not a “career obsessed banshee” [sic].
The quasi-moral tone about good and bad stuff that Big Decluttering promotes will feel familiar to any woman who’s ever heard chocolate cake described as “sinful.” Thanks to the body positivity movement, kicked off by Susie Orbach’s pathbreaking 1978 book Fat Is a Feminist Issue, we have a good understanding of the antifeminist traps around body image. As Orbach’s 2009 book Bodies points out, the pressure to be thin has only grown in the decades since: “With more and more countries entering global culture, the symbolic meanings attached to fat and thin have come to assume a shared significance for many whose recent historic concerns centred simply on getting enough food.” That such pressures operate most heavily on women won’t surprise anyone who’s ever flipped through a magazine full of airbrushed swimsuit models or read a weight-loss book like The Hungry Girl Diet.
Blogs, websites, and shelter magazines touting spare décor, too, are frequently aimed at women, prescribing decluttering challenges and, in some cases, relating home décor directly to personal appearance. Minimalism, “like the no-makeup makeup trend, [is] not as simple as it looks,” according to “This Is How a Minimalist Decorates” on the site MyDomaine, which also features shopping pieces on “feminine” and “ladylike” minimalism. At least the site admits there’s work involved: “For those of us who lead busy lifestyles, keeping our homes clean requires daily diligence,” the writer admits. No kidding. Even tiny houses, where you might think residents would simply need more stuff relative to the space they have, can be sparsely decorated as a status symbol, as Roxane Gay points out in a recent essay on Tiny House Hunters positing that small houses represent a cheaper spin on status symbols: “They may not have much space but what space they have is well appointed and chic or quirky,” Gay writes. “Tiny house hunters can soothe their class anxiety and stay just within reach of what they so very much want but cannot afford to have.”
The classism and privilege baked into minimalism are multilayered. Big Decluttering, by positing the streamlined home as a purely personal matter of choice and shifting women’s attention to the domestic sphere, can distract from larger systems of oppression—including the direct oppression of less-privileged women and, often, children, who are severely underpaid for the labor of making all the cheap stuff that more privileged women are taught to toss out of our homes.
Women are notoriously less well paid than men throughout the workforce, but particularly in lower-skilled jobs like manufacturing. Although comprehensive global statistics on women in manufacturing jobs worldwide are difficult to come by, the gender pay gap is particularly acute in developing countries. For instance, in China—a major source of inexpensive housewares—women on average earn 35 percent less than men in similar occupations, according to Catalyst’s Quick Take: Women in the Workforce: China. Moreover, the wide availability of cheap-chic household objects creates an impossible double bind for women who can’t afford the luxury of artisan goods, yet don’t want to support such exploitive manufacturing practices.
There’s no glib solution to the thorny, systemic dilemmas patriarchal capitalism sets up. It would be easy to fall into a choice-feminism trap of proclaiming either a cluttered or a spare home intrinsically feminist, but to do so would miss the larger point: recognizing the parallel between the politics of the female body and the less often considered politics of the generally female-curated home. In both cases, patriarchal capitalism imposes oppressive standards, in a covert attempt to push women out of the public and political spheres and into a safe, anodyne domestic space. That’s a dynamic women need to recognize and resist.