Marie Kondo. The Minimalists. Every popular minimalist YouTuber whose wardrobe is under 30 pieces and wears only black, white, grey and beige. I’ve come across a good deal of criticism towards these people recently and I can’t say that I’m surprised. Minimalism has gained popularity over the past several years, and as is the case with anything that gets a lot of attention, there are those whose job it is to pick it apart and highlight the “flaws”. Some say that minimalism is elitist and panders to a certain subsection of people, i.e. white, upper middle-class, educated and discontent with the trappings of mainstream success. Some say that it’s just another consumer market pumping products and services that tend to be out of reach for the average person.
No, minimalism isn’t perfect. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t valuable or that it’s just another shallow trend. There will always be a way for the human ego to corrupt just about anything meant to bring about good. Those who look at minimalism with a sideways glance are missing the bigger picture, projecting their own superficial tendencies onto something that they don’t really care to understand or may even fear.
I’ve heartily embraced minimalism as a lifestyle, even though I’ve been a minimalist for most, if not all of my life, when I didn’t even know there was a name for it. From a very young age clutter always made me feel uneasy and frustrated. The idea of owning a bunch of stuff confused me and I had a hard time understanding why my mom thought I needed so many clothes when I usually wore the same few items again and again. Growing up with a parent who’s materialistic tendencies conveyed the explicit message that how you look and what you wear is of the utmost importance, I had no choice but to fall in line.
As an avid reader, the fact that I was obsessed with magazines didn’t help. The pages of YM, Teen and Seventeen and eventually Elle, Cosmopolitan, and Harper’s Bazaar made one thing clear: buy more clothes, shoes, bags, products and makeup and you’ll be beautiful. Boys will like you. You’ll be happy. It was an insidious message that would eventually do more damage than I could ever realize and would reach far beyond the scope of a simple preoccupation with things.
Magazines were like a double-edged sword, feeding my intellectual and artistic tendencies while also sowing seeds of discontent, creating a preoccupation with all things superficial. It also didn’t help that I was deeply insecure. I didn’t think I was pretty, so I tried to alleviate my feelings of inadequacy by doing my best to emulate those around me — my mother and popular culture. The prevailing message was: be sexy, be bold, stand out and seek attention, especially from men. And try to look expensive while you’re at it.
Throughout my teens and twenties, I constantly carried with me a subdued, yet lingering sense of internal conflict. While I amassed piles of cheap, trendy clothes and other detritus, there was this small voice in my head that would question the point of it all. I couldn’t articulate this feeling at the time because I’d come to accept this behavior as normal — this is what people do. But I couldn’t help feeling like I was out of place. I held on to things I rarely wore or used simply because owning them projected a sense of accomplishment and belonging. I went out of my way to look the part of someone who had money when I didn’t. I suffered for beauty, subjecting myself to painful and sometimes damaging rituals that did more to dampen my natural beauty rather than enhance it. I sought out superficial relationships that served my ego and looked good on the outside, as if that person were just another accessory, an item to be used and inevitably replaced when something shinier and better came around. And then, slowly, I started to wake up.
I moved to New York City from Southern California ten years ago to pursue a career in the fashion publishing industry. I was finally able to immerse myself in a world I felt I belonged in after having dedicated myself post-college to write about all things related to style. I attended fashion shows and product launches, worked on photo shoots alongside fashion editors and wardrobe stylists, and contributed to a different of publications. As time went on, that small voice in my head started to get louder. It was becoming more pronounced and difficult to ignore when one day, while working on a photo shoot, I was suddenly hit with the realization of how wasteful it all was. I began to see the underbelly of an industry that was predicated on conspicuous consumption and excess, and I slowly became more and more uncomfortable being a part of it.
It was during this time that I was exposed to a faith I knew little to nothing about. The man who I would eventually become my husband was also a window into a spiritual tradition that spoke to me on so many levels. Islam opened my eyes and gave meaning to the feelings that were hard to name, allowing me to finally understand and interpret that which was pulling me away from what I deemed to be of the utmost importance and concern. After converting, I was able to see more clearly what mattered. Even so, I still struggled to break free from the pull of materialism and the need to express myself solely through what I wore and owned.
I discovered the actual term “minimalism” about seven years ago, after the birth of my oldest daughter. At that point, my life had done a complete 180. Once I became a mother, I was on a trajectory that involved becoming more mindful of how I was consuming, rejecting mass produced goods in favor of that which was of better quality, sustainable and aligned with my newfound holistic sensibilities. I’d stumbled across some videos on YouTube where people were talking about things like capsule wardrobes and living out of a backpack and rejecting the common narrative of “more is more”. I started to loathe anything big and flashy and found myself drawn to minimal aesthetics — bare, understated, wabi-sabi. I happily pared down my wardrobe and began a journey of closet curation. In doing so, I began to feel like I had removed the veils that were preventing me from seeing my true self.
For most of my young adult life, I followed the status quo. I shopped for the sake of shopping. I harbored aspirations that were based on status and success for the sake of others. Finding minimalism was crucial in letting go of the idea that my possessions was the determiner of my worth. I had invested and wasted so much time and energy in the accumulation of things that were essentially unimportant to me at the end of the day. This is the definition of a life devoid of meaning. Minimalism spoke to the person that was already there, the person who couldn’t stand having to deal with the burden and weight of so much stuff. I sometimes feel resentful for my upbringing and the messaging that’s been programmed into my consciousness, and feeling like I wasted so many years not really living, not really seeing, just playing a role. Even though it’s easy for me to live light, there are still moments where I feel myself being pulled back into that mindset that says you’re not enough, that insists that life is not worth living if you don’t own a home by the time you’re in your 30's or a have a glossy career earning well above what’s needed to live comfortably.
At its core, minimalism is a powerful antidote to the toxic nature of consumer culture, and for people like me, a path towards that which is meaningful, honest and ephemeral. It’s something that’s present in most religions, especially Islam and other spiritual practices, the renunciation of material and worldly things in an effort to reach enlightenment or closeness to a higher power. I don’t look down on anyone who derives happiness or comfort by surrounding themselves with objects. Yet I think it’s worth looking more closely at the need to go far beyond necessity and examine why we feel compelled to accumulate when ultimately those things end up trapping us in the long run. The more stuff you own, the more time needed to maintain, organize, replace and store it all.
Having distanced myself from the pursuit of consumption, I’ve noticed that I’ve been forced to focus on what matters most. Facing the truth about our reality can be painful, and avoiding pain is human nature. Looking at ourselves deeply can be scary and uncomfortable for many. Minimalism chips away at the extravagant, and exposes the ugly beauty of life. It questions your attachments and makes you think about why you’re here in the first place. For many, it’s a jarring process but ultimately, it’s absolutely necessary. You don’t have to like white furniture and stoic architecture. However, a willingness to do without just may do you some good.