Feminine Clean and the Foul Bachelorette

Why is cleanliness fetishized by and marketed almost exclusively to women?

Photo: Monique Prater

One of the five places I’ve lived in the past six years was a three-story house that I shared with nine other girls and one boy. Because of the overwhelming female presence, my boyfriend nicknamed the place “the nunnery.” As the year went on, we accrued a lot of stuff and a lot of, for lack of a better phrase, gross shit. Roaming stray cats brought in fleas; ten people’s worth of dirty dishes brought in so, so, so many ants; foot traffic, parties, and general Los Angeles grime left our white kitchen floor streaked with brown and black. One night, said boyfriend called me and a few of my friends in the house “foul bachelorettes,” a term lifted from the Foul Bachelorette Frog meme. The moniker stuck, and seemingly cursed me: The place I lived after had both roach and moth infestations. Now, I’ve just moved again (place #6), and I am determined to be clean.

At around the same time I was named a foul bachelorette, I stopped showering daily. This wasn’t a conscious choice: Between having a full school course load, two jobs, an internship across the city (and no car to get there), and regular marching band practices and performances, I found less and less time or reason to shower every day (“I’m just going to get gross tomorrow”), then every other day, then anything other than every couple of days. The habit was cemented by my decision to keep bleaching and dyeing my hair, which meant I had to be careful about when and how I washed it. Though I have never fielded any complaints about my personal hygiene (and yes, I shower more during high summer garbage weather), my friends joke about my bathing habits and my partner has again commented on the matter, kind of-affectionately calling me Pig-Pen. In this arena, I fight again to be seen as, generally, clean.

None of this would stress me out so much if I actually didn’t consider myself an organized, put-together, and clean person, and in an attempt to prove as much, I picked up a copy of Marie Kondo’s The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up last year. In this now-seminal organizational text (six million copies sold and counting), she advocates ridding yourself of anything that doesn’t bring you joy. (A sentiment at the head of her follow-up book, Spark Joy.) To Kondo, stuff is only worth keeping if you feel not just attachment, but happiness, with its presence in your life. In a New Yorker piece on Kondo’s own shopping habits, some of the things that spark her joy include a Lauren Conrad-brand dress, white (because of the color’s association with cleanliness and, now, her; though it’s also the East Asian color of mourning), and not-pants. It is a particular vision of clean, one that’s since been developed into a KonMari (her organizational method’s name) seminar and a large, largely female, following.

Kondo has something in common with an unlikely fellow: Kim Kardashian-West. (Both probably shower regularly, though KKW seems like the kind of person who dry shampoos the shit out of her hair for stretches between washes.) Before she was a reality TV pioneer or a snake hunter, Kardashian-West organized closets — specifically, the closets of celebrities, from her former BFF Paris Hilton’s to Serena Williams’s. She was tasked with editing their vast lodes of clothes and stuff, which included telling them what to add. Nearly a decade later, she was on the receiving end of a closet reorganization, orchestrated by her then-boyfriend Kanye West. The experience, she recalls later, made her cry.

In all the times I’ve moved, I’ve never cried over leaving things behind. If anything, I’ve only felt a perverse joy in throwing out or giving away mountains of my former stuff. There’s real emotion in shedding part of your material skin, like you’re carving a chunk of gem out of a cavern wall. It can even feel, in moral terms, purifying. Until I look at who’s doing this kind of excision, and by whose direction: Why have cleanliness and organization become static, desirable states of being? Why is there no marketing parlance and strategy for the “bachelorette pad”? Why is cleanliness fetishized by and marketed almost exclusively to women, by other women?

Dirty, unkempt women have been visible in the media for a minute; consider the broads of Broad City, Gretchen on You’re the Worst, and before that, the many depictions of romcom heroines pre-Prince Charming rescue. (I always imagine Sandra Bullock surrounded by Chinese takeout cartons in Two Weeks Notice.) There has perhaps never been a better time to be a gross woman, as Snapchat and other “oversharing” media allow you to drop your performative self and reveal your true form. (Which can, of course, be its own kind of performance.)

At the same time, performative cleanliness of mind, body, and material things is at an all-time high. I am intimidated by the many lithe LA women who smell like good taste and wear athleisure or else single-color, natural fiber robes; by the meticulous, well-lit apartment interiors in curated #aesthetic Tumblrs; by the idea of a tangible, material path to wellness. (You can have your stuff, just make sure it’s the right stuff and it’s all framed the right way.) Whether espoused by Kondo or Gwyneth Paltrow or even The Hairpin (though its advice is substantially more practical), there’s a sense that cleanliness is something a woman can and should attain. That she fails to do so isn’t a moral failing, but we can work on that together a little bit later, okay?

It also doesn’t escape me that most of the time, these Well Organized Women are white. Kondo’s success does come in part from her Japanese cultural background — though I’m also East Asian, my Chinese family and cultural experience are a lot rowdier and, well, messy than what I’ve experienced and seen (or else been marketed to) of Japan. Japanese organizational exports like Muji (Japanese IKEA) or Daiso (Japanese Dollar Tree/Container Store) appeal to the same folks who adore Scandinavian design; both cultures tend to be idolized by clean design enthusiasts.

Except for professional organizers, like the U.S.’s National Association of Professional Organizers, which is also the nation’s only professional organization organizing body. (Japan has over thirty; one NAPO organizer actually calls herself “the Swedish Organizer.”) In a New York Times Magazine profile on Kondo and the professional organizing world, NAPO is described as having overwhelmingly female members who have Opinions! about Kondo:

“[Their] rage hides behind the notion that things are different here in America, that our lives are more complicated and our stuff is more burdensome and our decisions are harder to make. ‘It’s a book if you’re a 20-something Japanese girl and you live at home and you still have a bunch of your Hello Kitty toys and stuff,’ another NAPO member told me, which, while not the only thing a professional organizer told me that was tinged with an aggressive xenophobia and racism, it is the only one that can run in a New York Times article.”

The split between “real”/American organizing and fantasy/cutesy/well-marketed Japanese organizing is headshakingly hilarious, but there’s truth in the idea that for most women (and yes, the language of organizing is almost always written with “she”), organization isn’t something you can ever fully attain. That veneer of sparked joy when you get your life together? It will almost definitely be shattered once the drudgery and, yes, thrill of living kicks in. Stuff happens! Your shitty roommate, your good roommate, your partner(s), your parents, your kids, your pets can and will interrupt the bubble of curation you place around yourself and your things, should you attempt to create it in the first place.

What always keeps me from nixing more of my stuff is generally nostalgia and/or a vague notion of necessity: Aww, that creepy paper weight my former high school BFF gave me our junior year! The ill-fitting band shirt I bought at my first big concert! The dress shirts I bought when I was convinced I was going to be holding office jobs for the rest of my life! The memories infused in things are almost always more important than the things themselves, and even if those memories don’t spark joy, that doesn’t mean that they aren’t important or meaningful in their own way. (Although, I should probably throw out the ripped envelope that’s also the last remaining piece of my high school boyfriend’s handwriting.) On that note, one of the victims of my last stuff purge: That copy of Kondo’s first book.

All that said, could I shower more? As my current boyfriend said when I wondered that question aloud: “I mean, I’m not going to tell you not to do that.”