Close your eyes and visualize with me the house you’ve seen pictured a million times in your Facebook feed. The upholstered furniture is immaculately white, possibly with a few boldly contrasting throw pillows, artfully arranged. The floor is beautiful, freshly polished hardwood, or maybe there’s a shaggy white rug under the coffee table which of course has nothing on it. If there are shelves, everything on them has plenty of elbow room and is something like a book or a framed photo; there are no piles of papers or anything miscellaneous. It’s the world of the Real Simple photo spread, the Tiny House blog, the Pinterest board labeled “organizing ideas!”
It’s probably in your feed right next to a picture of a woman so thin and/or photoshopped that you can see her abdominal muscles, drinking from a water bottle as sunlight glistens off the drops of sweat running down her face.
They’re basically the same picture.
Here’s the thing I realized: our collective problem with excess stuff has significant overlap with our collective problem with excess weight.
We spent many thousands of years living in societies where both calories and stuff required significant labor to get. Calorie-dense food tends to taste extra-good to us because our bodies are encouraging us to stock up: tomorrow, the famine may arrive.
We’ve got some similar hang-ups with stuff. If getting a sweater required me to raise the sheep, shear the sheep, card and spin the wool, and then knit it into a sweater, I’d have a lot fewer sweaters, and so would everyone else. Not only do I not have to hand-knit my own sweaters, I don’t even have to pay someone else to hand-knit my sweaters for me: almost everything I own was machine-knitted after being machine-carded and machine-spun (and, in the case of my sweaters made out of synthetic fibers, no one even had to shear a sheep). I don’t even have to go to the store: I do most of my shopping on the Internet. Despite the fact that the only effort I have to exert is “mousing” and “going to my front door to get the package,” it’s hard to get over the sense that the things cluttering my shelves and closets would be difficult to replace.
Go back a few decades and kids were routinely guilt-tripped with references to distantly-located starving children if they didn’t clean their plates. That is mostly (though not entirely) passé these days, at least as something that people say out loud. If you’re at a restaurant and leave a side of fries mostly untouched, it’s unlikely anyone passing by will shame you for your failure to eat them, and if you write a diet article and say, “if you’re not hungry, stop eating — just throw that food away,” your comments section will probably not be filled with people saying, “what? Throw away perfectly good food? When there are HUNGRY PEOPLE who could USE that food?”
Stuff, though. Oh, boy.
“Putting ‘trash’ and ‘throw it away’ first is a bit upsetting,” said “Caroline” on an article that actually first recommended giving away one item each day. “Donating should be first and then recycling. Then hopefully there’s very little left to put into a landfill.”
I mean, yes. Of course it is preferable to avoid dumping stuff in a landfill, although I’m going to hazard a guess that de-cluttered usable items are a very small percentage of what winds up in landfills, well behind “molded Styrofoam pieces” and “clamshell-style plastic packages that you had to stab with a knife to get open.” But, in fact, one of the perennial problems most people have with decluttering is figuring out what to do with all the stuff that is surely useful to someone out there.
Sometimes it’s worth it! I mean, years ago I had this (synthetic, dirty, worn) rug that I didn’t want anymore. Minneapolis Solid Waste will pick up practically anything, but they do have some specific disposal instructions, and to throw away this very large rug I’d have had to cut it in half. So, I tried Craigslist’s free items, and in less than an hour, two people had driven over to my house and carried the rug away, which was way less work for me than slicing it up with scissors. Win!
But sometimes the burden of disposing of the items by donating them is heavy enough that it’s easier to just live with the items indefinitely. Especially things that no one wants, like battered books (people are extra twitchy about throwing away books, even if it’s a mass-market paperback with glue so brittle all the pages are falling out. Or a computer manual from the 1990s.)
With both food, and stuff, in the span of a few generations, we’ve gone from needing to work hard to bring it in, to having to vigilantly spend a lot of time and energy keeping it out. There are plenty of malnourished Americans, but most of them are eating the wrong foods, rather than not getting enough calories. (A pack of ramen noodles washed down with a Coke costs less than $1 and will give you 520 calories, 78% of your daily recommended sodium, and almost no fiber, protein, or vitamins.) And there are no shortage of Americans who don’t have some of the stuff they need — a reliable car, boots that don’t leak, the charging cable for their cell phone — but this is rarely because they just overall lack stuff.
For people living a typical American lifestyle, food is everywhere (samples in the grocery store, donuts in the break room, leftovers from last night in the fridge…) and the stuff just arrives. There’s a constant inflow. Stacks of paper get delivered to your house every week, whether you want any of it or not. You may be able to opt out of paper bills and have them sent to you electronically, but good luck opting out of catalogs, even if you haven’t placed an order out of a paper catalog since sometime last century. My favorite online stores all send me stacks of paper catalogs, who even knows why, given that I won’t go looking for a catalog the next time I need a sweater; I’ll look online.
If you have kids, it gets a thousand times worse. They bring home spelling tests and worksheets. They draw you pictures, sometimes dozens in under an hour. They go to birthday parties and bring home sacks full of Dollar Store gizmos like tiny dysfunctional yo-yos. I swear the stuffed animals reproduce in those baskets where we store them.
Sorting through both stuff and food takes free time, which is a way scarcer luxury for most Americans than calories or stuff. Rich people in the U.S. tend to be thinner: they can afford better food, a health club membership, time to exercise. They’re also more likely to have spare, showroom-perfect houses. They have time to declutter (or money to pay someone else to declutter) but also, “you can always buy another one” is not an insultingly inaccurate thing to say to a rich person. For that matter, they don’t need to hold onto the old, semi-functional items so that they’ll have something that kind of works (or can be raided for parts) if that slightly-more-functional one they just found at the thrift shop breaks down. (And finally, as a last resort, if you’re rich you can definitely afford a storage unit for whatever you don’t want to throw away.)
With both obesity and clutter, the solutions we see, endlessly, are individual, even though this is clearly a societal problem. The solution to clutter is for you to deal with all the crap on your desk. Rather than to look at the crap and say, “where did all of this even come from in the first place and how did it turn into my problem?” The solution to obesity is for you to eat less and move more; for you to spend time and energy counting calories. Rather than to ask what actually changed between 1970 and 1990, because for real, it was not just that we all collectively lost our willpower. (As evidence I will point to all the people who are not smoking here in 2015, when at least half the adults I knew were smokers back in the 1980s.)
It’s probably worth noting that overwhelmingly, both de-cluttering and weight loss advice is often given in a slightly patronizing, cheerily encouraging, faintly shaming tone. “Baby steps are important.” “Maybe it’s due to bad habits.” It’s probably also worth noting that it’s overwhelmingly written both by and for women. Just like the Pinterest boards full of organizational ideas, and the “thinsperation” pictures of photoshopped athletic women.
Because even as we’ve picked up weight, both physically and in terms of our possessions, our ideal has gotten steadily more impossible. It’s not enough to be thin: you need visible abdominal muscles, which is difficult for men and often straight-up impossible for women, at least without an eating disorder or the use of anabolic steroids. It’s not enough to be clean and organized: you need a house with no visible evidence of actual inhabitants.
Whatever we actually want, for our bodies and our houses, the first step is to accept the things we cannot change. For 99% of us, we will never look like the people in the thinspo pictures: we do not have time for six hours a day of workouts, nor the sort of bodies that will firm up in the precise photogenic way of a fitness model even if our personalities and lifestyles changed so radically that the necessary workouts and dieting were a possibility. And for 99% of us, our houses will always look like someone lives in them. We can aspire to neatness, organization, and pleasant uncluttered refuges within our houses; we cannot aspire to a dresser with three neatly-folded t-shirts in each drawer.
And — really? That’s fine.
Our houses can have things in them that we keep because they remind us of a hard time in our lives, rather than because they “spark joy.” They can have the clothes we keep around because we might need to go to a funeral next year, or a job interview, or because we might lose ten pounds. And our bodies can have cellulite and flabby bits and loose skin and stretch marks and scars.
We live in our houses, and we live in our bodies. They should reflect our lives and who we are. We are real people; we live real lives. We can embrace that, rather than aspiring to some photogenic ideal.