When people talk about minimalism, there are actually two things that get mixed up and lead to a lot of criticism and confusion.
There is minimalism, the visual aesthetic—divorced from the intent to do more with less, purely a stylistic choice. Then there is minimalism, the movement—an active effort to live simply and better without the distraction of the unnecessary.
So you could be totally into the active kind of minimalism—keep only what you need, no clutter, etc etc—but maybe you really like shabby-chic, bless your heart. This is an example of following a minimalist philosophy, without the minimalist aesthetic. You might have one overstuffed chintz pattern sofa in your sparely furnished living room, which plays nicely off your bohemian lace n’ drape capsule wardrobe. And maybe the wardrobe and the furnishings are all second-hand—price doesn’t necessarily dictate whether something counts as minimalism; the arithmetic is little more complicated than that, but that's for another post.
There’s a perception that minimalism is only for the privileged or well-off. I see how this idea was born—a lot of times active minimalism goes hand in hand with aesthetic minimalism. Think expensive, monochromatic, boxy designer clothes. The ones with domestic production and organic materials as the selling points. You know the look.
But just because an active minimalist has a particular stylistic preference doesn’t mean everyone that actively practices minimalism has to adhere to the same visual aesthetic. It can be a philosophy without being a uniform.
To be clear, I love a minimalist aesthetic and favor it in both my home’s interior design and in my own wardrobe. But aesthetic without intent to me feels hollow. So I also strive to live a more minimalist life by doing more with less, by bringing fewer material things into my life, by reusing what I can, by purging the things that do not serve my needs, physical and emotional.
Which maybe is a good segue to Marie Kondo, which I’d be remiss to not mention in a post about minimalism and buzzwords. Full disclosure, I haven’t read the books. But I get the gist. It’s pretty simple—take an inventory of the material things in your life, ask yourself whether you like it or need it, and move on from there as necessary.
Shedding dead weight is freeing—the things you don’t miss, the ease with which you can catalog your life. My personal goal is not to reach an arbitrary number of possessions or items of clothing, but rather to come to a place of calm homeostasis. Not too much not too little. Things that last. Things to keep.
It’s a challenge to stay true to these beliefs when you come from a culture that says, ‘There’s a product for that’ to every passing inconvenience. It’s the consumer culture that says you aren’t good enough but maybe you would be if you bought this thing. Got a problem? Get this and it will be fixed. Don’t worry about the future, it’s OK to live irresponsibly, to close your mind and heart into it’s own prison, to stay willfully ignorant of the wider world around you. You’re not really hurting anyone, plus it was a really good deal, and besides, what difference would one person make anyway, right?
It would be nice to talk about what high ethical standards you have or to preach about the saintliness of your lifestyle. But no one is perfect. I can identify with the feeling Leah at Style Wise talks about here. And while buying “eco-friendly” or ethical or organic or non-GMO or fair trade is admirable, it is still consumerism. I reserve a certain skepticism for companies promoting sustainable manufacturing or high ethical standards as a selling point, because that’s what it remains—a selling point.
Making sustainable and ethical consumption choices IS good within a larger context of active minimalism—but the the lasting way to make a difference is going to necessarily be through consuming less and to change how we think of consumption itself.
Imperfection isn’t a disqualification from participation though. The real key is to always try your best to be your best self. I think of people interested in active minimalism as sort of recovering consumers. My best self is one who is thoughtful about her consumption choices when there are choices to be made. I want to feel at ease with my wardrobe and in my life so that I can spend my energy in more places. I want to lessen my footprint on the world while maximizing my impact.
So sometimes I feel like I’m not doing very well at all of this. Out of convenience or necessity, I slip up on my philosophy. But it’s good to remember this is a lifelong journey, not just a switch to flip one time and move on. Each good choice builds upon the last. Like any habit, the more you do it the easier it becomes.
How do you feel about your journey? Are you just beginning? A seasoned minimalism practitioner? I started this blog as a place to talk openly about this process so that perhaps more would be encouraged to start making similar changes in their own lives. I’d love to hear about what steps you’ve taken in your own.