In the sustainable and ethical living communities, “minimalism” is a key buzzword that you can find from bloggers and influencers alike. But why is minimalism such a core topic of sustainability? And is minimalism really the best lifestyle option? When you take into consideration common criticisms of minimalism, you might wonder, is it wrong to be a minimalist?
What is Minimalism?
Minimalism has a long history, emerging, depending on the country, as a socio-political movement with fascist roots such as in Austria to an ancient cultural practice in places such as Japan, to an artistic movement in the 1950s, to a modern day aesthetic we see nearly everywhere.
According to The Minimalists, one of the modern “experts” on minimalism:
In recent years, individuals such as Marie Kondo, and a host of everyday bloggers and influencers, praise the liberating shift to a minimalist lifestyle and encourage everyone to sift through their unnecessary items, invest in quality, more ethically made products and, as a result of this initial elimination, free yourself to be more present to yourself and to the world around you, no longer weighed down by extra things to tidy, extra things to care for, or extra items to fight for your attention.
My First Exposure to Minimalism
When I first started my sustainability journey, I was greatly influenced by the idea of minimalism. I was at a point in my life where I felt overwhelmed by clutter in a very small space, and seeing very cohesive, simple layouts with only the essentials was almost therapeutic – to be honest it often it still is.
But as time went on, I realized that who I am as a person does not match well with the theology behind minimalism. I found myself feeling stressed at trying to achieve a minimalist lifestyle; I felt somewhat inauthentic because I could not envision myself reaching the level of minimalism preached by others such as, and it was around this time that I started to see a different side of the conversation surrounding the minimalist lifestyle.
I found myself questioning more, in both my personal life and with my personal views on minimalism, that I was no longer certain if minimalism was the promised utopia I had thought it was.
A Critique of Minimalism
I believe that it was first on Tik Tok that I saw a post commenting about the battle between maximalism and minimalism and making the statement that minimalism is a lifestyle of privilege rooted in elements of racism and ableism.
I felt very confused.
Minimalism as an art movement, as a historical racially motivated movement, as a modern aesthetic, or as an overall mindset; with so many profound layers of minimalism, it is difficult to simplify the conversation down to a single post, and it must be dissected in the context of intersectionality, within the caveats of all of these layers. There is, however, a reoccurring concern that modern day minimalism is a lifestyle and mindset of privilege, founded on racist and non-inclusive beliefs.
What then, is the truth about minimalism, and is it a space we can feel good participating in, and does it offer room for everyone?
The Privilege of Minimalism
Privilege has a habit of sneaking up on us – if we are benefiting from it, we usually don’t recognize it until someone who is negatively impacted by our privilege calls us out on it. So, I had never considered how minimalism could be a privileged lifestyle and mindset.
The underlying privilege of Minimalism can manifest through economic wealth, racism and xenophobia, and possible ableism.
Historically, the implementation of the minimalist movement was to criticize and separate oneself from the cultural traditions of other ethnic groups. Austrian, Adolf Loos, considered one of the founding godfathers of minimalism, encouraged the movement as a superior lifestyle. He “defined modernist design as in direct opposition to what he deemed uncivilized cultures, reducing objects to their least decorative. “The kind of modernism that Loos advocated was spare and austere, highlighting the function of each object or structure rather than concealing it behind layers of frippery” . . . He talked about ornament as a kind of savagery … referring to tribe members’ facial tattoos, and posing the reductive modernism of white Europeans as the ultimate answer to all aesthetic problems.”” (Vox)
Modern-day minimalists are often depicted as white, affluent, individuals, and it was not until researching for this article that I came across active minimalists who are POC. While the roots of racism need to be acknowledged when deciding on how to pursue minimalism, there also needs to be a shift in dialogue and inclusivity so that it is not prioritizing the voices of one group over another. If we are looking to move past historical racism, we must also be sure to dismantle the systemic racism that permeates our culture and society today.
Erin Stewart, author of “KonMari and Minimalism: Fads for the Affluent and Aspirational” states, “The aesthetics of minimalism double as exclusionary aesthetics.” Through her article, Stewart intelligently presents a criticism of Minimalism examining it juxtaposed with the experiences of race, economic wealth, and mental and physical disability.
The trend of minimalism falls precariously within the culture of poverty. There was a Tik Tok Trend a few months ago that prompted the challenge of “name something that is classy if you are rich, but trashy if you are poor.” Minimalism, at times, crosses that line.
Cameron Glover, in his article for Pacific Standard, writes that:
The rabbit hole grows deeper as we consider accessibility issues that might “interfere” with the clean aesthetic of minimalism, building on the already complex questions surrounding racism and poverty. All of these paths together, lead us to the overall question of what, and who, is valuable in society.
Does This Mean All Minimalism is Bad?
The simple answer is no.
Minimalism can present itself in your aesthetic, your mindset, or your full lifestyle. While it is not bad to be minimalist, whenever we enter into something that may be a place of privilege, we should take responsibility for that privilege.
Whether you label yourself as minimalist, want to begin your minimalist journey, or are unsure of how to move forward, here are 5 things to consider:
- Does the label of minimalism matter?
- What are my reasons for being minimalist?
- Are my actions appropriating another culture, or silencing another voice?
- Is my view of minimalism inclusive?
- Am I okay with minimalism looking different for each person?
Writing this post ended up being more time consuming than I anticipated. I have wanted to tackle this topic for a long time, but the more I researched the more layers I peeled back from the metaphorical onion. From it’s historical premise – to concerns about privilege – to cultural interpretations, minimalism cannot be overly simplified and it extends far beyond the typical Instagram profiles that we are used to seeing.
This post is intended to be a jumping off point, to encourage dialogue and intrinsic reflection about our own experiences with minimalism, hopefully helping us to be more self aware of what is beneficial and what can be harmful.
But there is so much more to explore and discuss.
I would argue that minimalism can be inclusive to all people, but minimalism is not going to look the same for all people. Intentionality and elimination are not synonymous, and the “freedom” promised by minimalism will manifest itself in different ways.
What has been your experience with minimalism?
Share your thoughts in the comments and join the conversation.