Why being messy is good for you

Published in BBC Culture on February 11, 2023

“My home is messy”: four innocuous little words, but when spoken by the oracle of tidying up, Marie Kondo, they were enough to apparently break the internet.

After almost a decade since Kondo first introduced the world to the concepts of “sparking joy” and folding your pants into little envelopes – also sparking her own Netflix show along the way – it seems having three kids has radically changed her lifestyle. As reported in the Washington Post, a super tidy house was no longer her top priority: “I have kind of given up on that in a good way for me. Now I realise what is important to me is enjoying spending time with my children at home.”

The comments section under the article exploded with posts, some angry about being “Konned” from stressed mums annoyed at what they perceived to be the hypocrisy of Kondo changing her mind about those impossible neat-freak standards. Most responses, however, have actually been pretty positive. The characteristic reaction in the latest slew of think pieces? Relief. That even someone who’s built a hugely profitable career out of tidying admits that priorities change when life changes.

Kondo’s rethink is no doubt genuine – there’s nothing like a toddler to make tidying up seem a Sisyphean task, after all, and also not much sparks more joy than actually playing with said toddlers. But Kondo might also be cannily moving with the times, tapping into a new wave of realism about what our lives are like. Calling it a “trend” feels disingenuous when, for so many of us, it’s merely a default way to be – but for once, being a complete and utter mess is kind of in.

Oxford Dictionaries’ phrase of the year for 2022 – as overwhelmingly voted for by the public – was “‘goblin mode’: a type of behaviour which is unapologetically self-indulgent, lazy, slovenly, or greedy, typically in a way that rejects social norms or expectations.” If we all got obsessed with making our homes cosy and beautiful during the pandemic, it feels like last year was the year we gave up: embracing the mess and the chaos that comes with normal life. To understand why we might be newly embracing mess, it’s useful to remember just how strong a grip the anti-clutter movement has had in recent years. There are scores of TV shows beyond Kondo’s, from the BBC series Stacey Solomon’s Sort Your Life Out to Netflix’s Get Organized with The Home Edit. And the fact that this obsession with tidying, order, calm and cleanliness has happened at the same time as visual social media apps have become dominant is surely no coincidence. Instagram, YouTube, and more recently TikTok – the video-sharing app that has spawned a thousand trends – have a lot to answer for.

TikTok has proved a perfect vehicle for sharing tidy, artfully styled, impossibly minimalist homes – and yes, of course, there’s a hashtag for that. Posts tagged #aesthetic have had more than 202 billion views, and even if you’re not on the app, you’ll probably recognise the look: beautifully arranged lifestyle shots of calm, soothing, white-and-beige homes full of clever storage solutions and hyper-neat drawers, with just a few scented candles, chic coffee tables, and suspiciously healthy pot plants to lend a (very generic) splash of personality. Think Kim Kardashian’s desaturated interiors, or a White Company catalogue, depending on your generational touchstones.

It is the interior design look favoured by another handy online type: That Girl. You know the one: the girl who gets up and journals, drinks a green juice, does sunrise yoga in co-ordinated pastel exercise gear, then sips a matcha latte with their breakfast bowl. They like clean eating and clean beauty and a clean house, and putting it all online. They are the flawless opposite to goblin mode. But the backlash to all this has now seriously got going – something that should come as no surprise given such lifestyle goals are hilariously unattainable for most people, and given how expensive, time-consuming and, well, boring they are. And not everyone finds tidying therapeutic – for some, decluttering is actually painful.

The biggest new app of last year was BeReal, which prompted users to take candid snaps wherever they were and whatever they were doing, at an unpredictable moment each day – designed to be the authentic antithesis of the highly staged content we’ve all got used to seeing.

Embracing the chaos

And while TikTok may be relentlessly fast-moving and not to be taken too seriously, it is still a handy bellwether for such vibe shifts. Organised mess has been on the rise for a while, with the arrival of the term “cluttercore”: the art of having masses of stuff in your home – often vintage trinkets, collectibles, or retro finds – and embracing colour and noise. Think messy maximalism: chaos, but lovingly displayed chaos.

Another current, supposedly mess-embracing micro-trend on TikTok is girls showing off their untidy bedside tables: but while these might look cluttered, it’s hard not to suspect they’re actually extremely curated, a collection of desirable skincare products, delicate jewellery, stacks of covetable books, more candles – not a grubby mug or snotty tissue in sight…

Another recent trend does seem to offer a snapshot of unvarnished reality: videos of “non-aesthetic” homes. Think deeply ordinary houses, with ugly furniture, piles of laundry, kids’ toys strewn around the floor, pet beds, broken taps or crappy kitchen appliances. It’s real, and relatable, and reflects the fact that a lot of people can’t afford to live in a gleaming show home, and don’t have time to keep things spotless.

That said, a lot of these #nonaesthetic home videos are still about tidying, cleaning, or doing a “reset” – a hugely popular category of online content, and baffling to those of us who Kondo never managed to persuade into believing tidying up was a lifestyle rather than a chore. But at least the non-aesthetic cleaning videos just feel a bit more realistic than some of the stage-managed content out there (here’s looking at @kaelimaee’s beyond-parody video of doing her tax return aesthetically – ah, the soothing neutral tones of a stack of receipts…)

And it’s not just about our homes – one of the most entertaining/eye roll-inducing TikTok fashion micro-trends of the last couple of months has been the Frazzled English Woman. While Gen Z have long been obsessed with Y2K fashion, this was surely a look no one anticipated being dredged up: the harried, flappy, middle-class white English women from noughties rom-coms, whose adorably messy hair is shoved back in a claw clip or bun above a mismatched selection of the following: a cosy coat, knee-high boots, comfy knitwear, a deeply unflattering mid-length skirt, a pointlessly tiny scarf. Think Bridget Jones, Kate Winslet in The Holiday, Keira Knightley in Love Actually (bonus points if you’re wearing a hideous baker boy cap above your chunky cardigan).

Yet “frazzled” is the key word here: the appeal of this look is surely less about the specifics and more about the mood of thrown-together, can’t-find-my-hairbrush, always-running-late realism. This aesthetic was never aspirational – even in the noughties, it wasn’t about flogging hats, but rather a visual short-hand to quickly indicate that these were busy, worried, ordinary, loveable women.

Obviously, it’s also worth taking such labels with a pinch of salt: while millennial writers may get their Bridget Jones-style knickers in a twist forecasting what a few videos tell us about the direction of fashion, it’s worth bearing in mind that many of these trends never really make it off the phone screen (see also: the indie sleaze comeback, which prompted more nostalgic dissection than actual sightings of ballet flats in the wild). Most of these trends live predominantly online.

Which is just fine – fashion has always been about fun and escape and imagination. Designers have long cooked up mad little trends no one really follows; it’s cute that it’s now random Gen Zers on their phones getting to agenda-set instead.

And even if you are unlikely to see an army of teenaged girls in bias-cut skirts and high-heeled boots scurrying down your local high street any time soon, there is something enjoyable about this idealising of the female romantic lead as messy and normal and a bit untogether. Let’s face it, Frazzled English Woman is about as far away from That Girl as it possible to be – and maybe that’s why she’s become a sensation, even if mostly an online one.

Frazzled English Woman might have been charmingly dishevelled, but she also knew what was important in life – not looking perfect 100% of the time or having a spotless home, but drinking wine with her friends and being wooed by both Hugh Grant and Colin Firth. And while I don’t imagine we’ll see Marie Kondo sporting a pointlessly tiny crocheted scarf any time soon, you could say she’s embracing the frazzled mindset: not just accepting a bit of mess but actually embracing it, in order to have more time with a more important thing in your life – the people you love.

Where next?