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Minimalism: A Movement for the Elite

I write this just 60 minutes after finally putting my 2-year-old to bed. After putting away the toys, dishes, and giving my dog some much-needed affection. Even though it is closing in on 4AM, I am sitting at my desk instead of getting into bed. I know I won’t sleep.
For most of the evening I held my daughter as she threw up. When she finally closed her eyes and slept in my arms, I sat up, scared to leave her on the couch so I could rest in bed, and scared to put her in bed with me in fear she’d puke in my hair. And now I know that even if I do try to sleep next to her, I’ll be jarred awake every time she coughs, which she does a lot, since she’s been doing that all week at night. Only now, I’ll panic that she’s throwing up again.
But tonight, as she slept in my arms, I finally watched the new documentary about Minimalism.
I’d been putting this off. I probably wouldn’t have even watched it, but I engaged in a debate on a friend’s Facebook thread over the last couple of days, furthering the point I made in an article in The New York Times that minimalism is classist.
After watching the documentary, I realize now more than ever that I am a minimalist in nature. When I moved out on my own as a teenager, then moved dozens of times through my twenties, I gradually whittled my belongings down to what could fit in my truck, which, at the time, was a Toyota Landcruiser from the late 80s. I prided myself in this. The things I had were of value, if only to me. I was never a materialistic kind of person who needed a ton of shoes or clothes. I had books and journals. My rule was that, if I didn’t need to use something through four seasons, then I probably didn’t need it. (I made an exception for outdoor gear.) I constantly culled out shirts and pants. I rarely bought new clothes. If I brought something in, I put two in the donate bin, and so on.

Having a child a decade ago changed that. I needed household furniture. I needed a couch, a table, and a few other things to make a house a home. At the time, I worked as a maid in houses of people who were what I considered to be very wealthy, even though they weren’t super rich by most standards. They had homes like the ones that I’d grown up in in the middle class with separate dining rooms, living rooms that were hardly used, and sometimes an extra room meant for an office. Some of these places were lavish with extra rooms for doll collections or garages just for recreational vehicles–all things I saw collected enough dust that 1) the people who owned them worked many long hours to afford them and 2) didn’t have time to clean so 3) spent money for me to come in and clean.
It didn’t seem to me that these people were necessarily happier because they had these homes. When I looked at what my daughter and I had–a small studio with what we absolutely needed and not much else–the simplicity of that seemed, well, simpler, but also happier. Yes, I, too, worked long hours, but it wasn’t to afford the stuff, it was to afford our $550 a month rent. I worked long hours because I wasn’t paid much–just over minimum wage.
Minimalism preaches mindfulness in purchases, and it makes me think to the times I spent hours mulling over my Amazon cart full of Christmas presents for my daughter. I could barely afford anything, so the things I purchased had to be well thought-out and few. Buying anything for our home meant toiling over what I absolutely needed vs. what I wanted, and I hardly ever bought the latter. More so, I held on to things because I couldn’t afford to replace them. A cheap, 10 dollar set of pots and pans lasted me nearly 7 years.
When I wrote the article last Spring, it was in reaction to the documentary’s trailer, which showed scenes of people rushing box stores on Black Friday as a reason for needing this movement, or part of it anyway.
My first thought was “Those are poor people. They don’t need to hear about minimalism. Their homes and the lives they live are minimal enough.” Now that I’ve watched the entire documentary, I feel the poor-shaming even more. Those scenes are shown almost as comic relief, with circus-like music played with it, between testimonies of (usually) white men who had corporate jobs saying their lives were miserable despite having a house full of things.
In one scene, Joshua Fields Millburn reads a poem he wrote, talking about the things he needed to buy when he moved. He listed off things that I would never have dreamed of affording. Things that seemed ridiculous, as a poor person, to even consider purchasing. I’d never stepped foot into an IKEA. I’d never known rugs for decoration. Rugs were to keep feet warm, if I was lucky enough to find someone who could give me one they no longer used. But there he stood, complaining about the ability, the privilege, to buy these things.
Living in small spaces forces you to only keep things that have purpose, often multiple ones at that. This is a poor person’s way of life. The reason those people are rushing in mobs to buy a television or toy is the sales are low enough for them to afford them, and they have often saved up to do so. They will bring that item home like a prize. It will distract them from the crushing hopelessness they feel on a daily basis. Sometimes by the hour as they lie awake at night, adding up money coming in vs. money that needs to go out. A poor person’s accounting that goes down to the cent.
To tell that person they don’t need it would not only be a waste of time, but trite. Like a person who’d just eaten at a nice restaurant telling someone at McDonald’s they don’t need to supersize. Just because you have the means to afford more, just because you have the privilege to say no out of a philosophy you preach, doesn’t give you the right to tell someone counting their pennies to afford a special treat that they don’t need it while hoping they will buy your book instead. Hoping they pay to take your online class. Hoping they purchase something that will profit you.
The Minimalists strive for quality over quantity. As a person in poverty, I could only afford the cheapest clothes. Even used clothing was too expensive, and I often found myself shopping at Walmart’s clearance sales for my daughters. I wore my work pants out until my company told me I needed new ones, and to replace those was a hardship.
So yes, I write this post in the middle of the night, arguably now early hours of the morning. I write it out of anger. I notably write it as a person who considers themselves a minimalist. But most importantly, I write this as a person who has lived in poverty, who was forced to unload carloads of family heirlooms in a donation box because I didn’t have the space to keep them at a time I needed them most to remind me, as a new single mom, that I wasn’t alone.
Sometimes, us folks in poverty need to know that. That we’re not the only ones in this fight for survival. Because, you see, we can’t choose to give up lavish lifestyles and instead spend money on experiences, or going out to eat with friends. So please, all I ask is that you don’t pull poor people into your philosophy, your conversation, and especially don’t shame us. Don’t point to us as a need for a movement you wish to profit from.

15 replies
  1. Good Noose
    Good Noose says:

    It’s also highly individualist, self-gratifying. Like telling your wife: “Hey I’m quitting my job to live in a camper. We don’t need those kids anyways, it’s just a consumption choice.” And you’re also right about that having little space just makes you think naturally: Hey, do I have space for this shit or will these expensive sneakers just get stolen when I leave them outside my door.
    In Germany there’s a whole movement of privileged hippie kids who move into DIY trailer parks – often wihout paying rent, because the land is provided by the city.
    I think it’s also connected to identity politics. Rich folks find out “Hey, I have so much shit, let’s identify as a homespun craftsman and live in a shack. Like Thoreau. Then my whole middle-class upbringing will just be blown away.”
    Actually Throeau had an interesting passage in Walden (where he’s self-sustaining himself for a year in a forest – that belongs to his rich pen pal). Thoreau meets an Irish worker who moved to the US “because here he could afford beef.” And of course Thoreau finds that horribly pedestrian.
    On the other hand, I still believe in the labor aristocracy thesis, at least applied to Germany. Even poor people have really high standards of living. And an erosion of that standard of living is more likely to make them act up than an increase – shopping malls everywhere just turn people into baby Trumps.

    • step.
      step. says:

      You know, I was a huge fan of Thoreau as a high school kid. I had a poster of him on my wall. I still do, actually. Even though his mom did his laundry. Even though he went over to Emerson’s for dinner. I still think he had some very good points. But when I was homeless, when I was struggling to survive, I kinda hated him. I still appreciate his philosophies (hence the current poster) but man, I have always envied his ability to live that life.

  2. Charli Mills
    Charli Mills says:

    When your article came out in the New York Times, I had been homeless for a month. We don’t talk much about rural homelessness because it’s not as obvious as it is in urban centers. It’s several families living on someone’s ranch, camping, or housesitting. But it’s marked by a lack of things because there’s no home to keep them in. My entire office can fit in the trunk of my car, including books, manuscript drafts and research. Carefully selected clothes, two pairs of sensible shoes, toiletries and a towel fit in there too with easy access for random showers. Your article reminded me of the people who tell me how wonderful my homelessness is because it was a chance to purge, to minimalize. It’s sooo healthy. Some even said my experience was an adventure.
    I think these philosophical lifestyled hinge upon choice. If you can choose to be a minimalist, but don’t have to, you have a different mindset than the person who has to naturally minimalize to survive. As a writer, you articulate well the poverty experiences, and I know your perspective often makes you vulnerable. With so much poverty shaming, it’s good to hear a voice of reason from within the ranks of knowing the experience and not just some privileged philosopher. But in the end, I suppose we all are trying to understand what the pursuit of happiness means.
    Hoping your Little One feels better soon. Maybe you can write a book about the benefits of toddler vomit. That’d be funny to start a new natural hair product trend. That’s what this minimalist movement feels like to me. Puke.

    • step.
      step. says:

      Thank you for writing, Charli. I tell people, too, that while I did find my daughter and I were happier with much less, living a simple life, that’s not the life I want for her. I think people are able to be reasonably content just about anywhere, but having “stuff” or setting up a little home, even if it’s in a transient state, is important to us. It comforts us, especially when we feel isolated. In the times I moved a lot, I’d always pack up my books first, and they’d be the first thing I unpacked. I had to have one constant. I think I moved 13 times in Mia’s first few years, sometimes my books were in storage, but I always had a few.
      Anyway, I’m rambling a little, and haven’t had coffee yet. Coraline slept in really late and I am swinging from a night of no sleep to a night of a lot. Thank you, again, for sharing and writing. And best of luck to you and your husband.

      • Charli Mills
        Charli Mills says:

        That’s a good sign of healing, Miss Coraline sleeping late. No matter how much or how little we have, yes, we all seek that place of comfort. Books are a huge source of comfort, and even though I mostly read my Kindle, I still have my stacks of books in my trailer! Did you read the NYT article about hygge, the Danish sense of coziness? I think that’s the counterbalance to resiliency. We need both — we survive and we curl up. Thanks, Stephanie! You and your darling daughters have a wonderful new year full of all the stuff you want!

    • michelle
      michelle says:

      It always amazes me when people who have never been homeless romanticize homelessness. While I have never been totally homeless, I have lived in some pretty rough situations–like the three years I spent in a traveling circus (we slept in trucks)–and I can attest that sleeping outdoors in a field in Maine during black fly season, or wading through rainy-season mud, or wintering in an airplane hangar, or getting gangrene because the life made medical attention hard to come by–it was not so romantic. Or my years on boats–also rough, also dangerous, also promoted “minimalism” because in both situations my stuff had to fit in a duffle bag and no more.
      But I did choose these situations, in some sense. And I was eventually able to crawl my way out. Now I have stuff. But I still have a poverty mindset: like it could all go away, and easily. But I kinda take comfort in the idea that I could survive on next to nothing. I could–but I would hate to put my kids through that. So I put up with some pretty messed up stuff to keep them in their middle-class lifestyle. That’s also not so romantic.

      • step.
        step. says:

        I agree. Even though I was lucky enough to find a shelter that ended up being a healing place, and could transition out of that to my own place eventually with the help of a TBRA grant, someone who chooses to travel the world shouldn’t refer to themselves as homeless. They are traveling. They could settle down at any time and live in one place. They can afford a hotel if they need it. Much different. Thank you for sharing your story.

  3. Linda Macrae
    Linda Macrae says:

    A couple of weeks back I saw “The Minimalists” new living spaces and thought the same thing!
    They shame us poor people into getting rid of our “junk” only to live more prosperily themselves.
    I’m done with reading their books, websites, and listening to make them richer.
    I’ll keep “my junk”, buy what’s on sale, and make my house a home with what I have, I won’t be shamed anymore! To make them richer! My lightbulb came on; They prospered and prospered a lot by shaming us!!

  4. Toortsie
    Toortsie says:

    Yes. I also started my life like that. Counting every penny a few times, deciding what to buy that I need, but it doesn’t fit into my budget.
    And because of that, I am not a minimalist at all. I kept what I had for as long as possible. Even after my circumstances changed, I still a thankful for everything I have and want to keep it because I know where it came from, how hard it was to get it.
    Some people does things because they have to, others do it because there is an image factor about it.
    But in our hearts, we know the truth!
    Thank you for a wonderful piece of writing.

  5. Crave_Life
    Crave_Life says:

    I can totally see your point. I think, as with anything, we take what we need out of what they say and leave the rest. My perspective on them was that, there are many, many people who put themselves into huge debt, just so they can buy stuff they really don’t need. I think there are many people that think these purchases will make them “happy”. There is a huge consumerism problem that is fed on by retailers and corporations and I think if we can get people to be more choosy (not necessarily more expensive items) in what they buy, maybe we will find more people not living in huge debt, which is good for everyone. For me, my first choice is always second hand. For just about anything. I am very frugal because we had 3 kids and we had to be. They have learned to be as well and I hope that they continue that way, even when they can afford more ‘things’. The point I think of the doc was that so many people get caught into trying to keep up with someone else’s life, they forget their own. Enjoyed your post a lot. 🙂

  6. E
    E says:

    Yes. Yes and hurrah. Couldn’t even bring myself to watch it. Having started life over in my early 30’s I had 3 suitcases to my name and was homeless. Tres chicest haha. Not so much. I was terrified. Happy to say I bought my very first bedroom set and a car in the years that follow and life is now very good.

  7. Cherilyn
    Cherilyn says:

    From 2009 to 2012 I lived with family because of extreme poverty. It was only supposed to be for 3 months, but the job market tanked and I’d moved to a town listed on the Top 10 worst hit by the recession that year. I ended up working part-time, spent the first year with family sleeping on the living room couch, horribly embarrassed and ashamed, and started going to school for an Associate’s degree.
    That was bad enough; I hope to never experience ‘nowhere to go’ homelessness. I kept going with school and now have a Masters but I still only make $10 an hour. I know what it means to have to spend down to the penny on bills, and decide which to pay on time and which to hold off on so I can buy cat food (I have 4 cats; 2 I adopted, 2 I inherited when my Mom passed). People always have a lot to say when they don’t have this kind of problem, when they can backseat drive on your life instead of minding their own business. I wouldn’t wish it on them, but it is definitely annoying.
    Thanks for writing that post.

  8. cherry2000
    cherry2000 says:

    Just watched it last week. I consider myself a minimalist too, I liked their message of consuming less, but like you was greatly bothered by how they were teeth-bleached-hipster-former-corporates and they apply minimalism in a way you can only do if ironically, you have money. As a single struggling mom I was put off by that too.

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. […] She calls herself “a minimalist in nature,” and while she said she supports more mindful consumerism, what she saw in the trailer was a kind of “social shaming” that made her so uncomfortable she wrote an op-ed about it for The New York Times, “The Class Politics of Decluttering.” When she eventually watched the full documentary, she was even angrier.  […]

  2. […] a través de Minimalism: A Movement for the Elite — Stephanie Land (stepville.com) […]

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