Let’s Talk KonMari #1: Clothing and the Social Self

If you’ve been checking my Twitter feed, you may have noticed that I too have jumped on the KonMari bandwagon. And I have very strong opinions.

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This Netflix glitch conveys the gist.

This blog post series will stick to the same basic outline as the KonMari method itself:

What This Series Is Not: A how-to guide or a humblebrag about how great my space looks now.

What This Series Is: An attempt to lay out the various realizations I’ve had while tidying – especially the ones I had while actually doing the practice and simultaneously reading the backlash to Kondo and her method.

The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up and Kondo’s Netflix series “Tidying Up With Marie Kondo” both lay out the how. Spark Joy and the Netflix series give plenty of examples of the what. I want to explore the why.

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KonMari, Capitalism, and Several Yous

Hold each item you own in your hands. Does this item make you feel happy? If not, why do you keep it?

No, really: Why do you keep it?

That’s KonMari in a nutshell. But, like Hamlet’s, this nutshell creates you king of infinite space.

Margaret Dilloway has written an excellent piece at HuffPo about the Shinto roots of the KonMari method and how they give rise to many of the elements of the method that make us the most anxious. As far as my limited knowledge of Shinto will permit, I believe Dilloway is spot-on.

But it’s not Shinto alone that makes Westerners anxious about the KonMari method. It’s the way the method itself collides with some of our most fervently-held beliefs about labor, material goods, and the self.

Hating Yourself is Good for You (Now Buy More Stuff)

Here in the US, we’re not used to trusting ourselves. Our economy depends on us not trusting ourselves. Our relationship to our material possessions developed over decades of not trusting ourselves, of using things to build the “someone else” we need to be in order to be happy, because we are deeply certain that we are not already that person. (If we were that person, wouldn’t we be happy already?)

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Fun fact: I only typed “ads that make” into Google Image Search. “ads that make you feel bad about yourself” was Google’s first recommendation.

It’s this dynamic that produces both clothing ads and the airbrushed models in them. It’s the cause of My Closet Is Packed and I Have Nothing to Wear Syndrome. It’s generated thousands of hours’ worth of commentary, of “just be happy with yourself!” pablum, and an entire industry of life-coaching, wellness products, and self-care in order to get you spend even more money on the “you” you’re convinced you are not.

In the face of all this ad-generating self-doubt, KonMari commits a massive sin: It doesn’t tell you that you need to be fixed.

Worse: It begins by having you do decision-making from your own inner sense of authenticity.

Worst of all: The standard KonMari gives you to make that decision is, in US material culture, extremely suspect.

“Does this spark joy?” is highly suspect because it is imminently personal. As Kondo reiterates multiple times in her books, the standard is whether an item makes you happy. Not whether you need it, not whether someone gave it to you, not whether you spend a lot of money on it or it’s hard to find or it makes Janice in Accounting turn green with envy when she sees you with it.

Does it make you happy? Does it make you happy? Does it make you happy?

All of the consequences of owning it that I listed above might make you happy. You might really love having exactly what you need, or being the curator of thirty years’ worth of gifts, or owning things you paid dearly for, or showing off things nobody else has, or ruining Janice’s day.

But those considerations are secondary to the question: Does it make you happy?

All you need in order to tidy is the yes or no. Your happiness is reason enough to keep an item, and your unhappiness is reason enough to discard it.

The more backlash against Kondo and her method that I read, the more convinced I am that this cardinal sin against material culture – being told that our own happiness is good enough – lies at the root of it all. We are so used to being told we’re inadequate that hearing that our judgment can in fact be trusted feels like being told we’re inadequate.

How dare you tell me that the magic was in me all along! I’ve spent my whole life in pursuit of my ideal self – and I’ve spent a lot of money, too!

We bought the things in order to feel safer, more important, more confident – in a word, happier. Sometimes we did feel happier. And sometimes we made it harder to hear our own inner voice.

The Clothes Make the Man – And Everyone Else

KonMari’ing one’s clothes seems to have gotten less backlash than KonMari’ing books or komono, perhaps because we consciously leverage clothing to mediate our identity. Clothing is a malleable medium; through it, we can choose how others see us, and by doing so, we can also fine-tune how much of that image is the “inner me” and how much is a public persona.

And the pressure to use clothing in this way is immense. On average, USians own more clothes and wash them more often that at any previous time in our history. “Fast fashion” allows us to keep up with trends at (nearly) any price point. It also pressures us to keep up with trends: Doing so costs money, and it also communicates that you have money.

Even kids know that there’s a “right” number, type and combination of clothing to wear. I got bullied in elementary school for “not matching” (implying the need to buy/own enough clothes that your outfits always coordinate); in middle school for wearing in-style but “off-brand” jeans (implying there’s a correct amount of money to invest in your public body blankets slash identity markers), and in high school for wearing my favorite outfit, a pair of black corduroy overalls and a babydoll t-shirt, once a week (implying you should have enough clothes to make your outfits non-repetitive).

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Image: A Tumblr meme by user opricat. Person: uhm didn’t you wear that shirt yesterday Me: Yea but there’s this remarkable invention called the washing machine Me: definitely didn’t wash the shirt

…As everyone who’s ever heard this comment before knows, the point isn’t to make you admit washing machines exist; it’s to make you admit that you wore a shirt frequently enough for everyone to know that your wardrobe is not infinity deep. What are you, A Poor?

What’s particularly pernicious about this example is the way it works directly counter to trusting that inner judgment. We tend to wear things we like more frequently than things we don’t…but every time we do, we increase the chances of hearing that we were wrong to trust that inner sense of joy.

The Cull and What I Learned From It

I thought starting with clothes would be a breeze, because I’ve already spent decades working on my wardrobe. I’ve owned dozens of books on “cultivating the perfect closet.” I’ve had my colors done. For most of the early 2000s I carried around a collection of index cards on a keyring so I could reference them while clothes shopping and make sure I was buying the “right” clothing: timeless, high-quality, and adhering to every rule about how people with my coloring, shape and stature were “supposed” to dress.

For years, my wardrobe was a hot mess.

In the months before I discovered KonMari, I’d whittled my clothes down to a capsule wardrobe so tightly curated I brag about it on Quora. As a result, I figured the clothing category would go pretty quickly for me.

…It did, but it still surprised me.

My initial pile was much smaller than the ones you see on the Netflix series:

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(In this, as in every future photo, I did choose to keep the cat.)

What surprised me was that I did, in fact, end up throwing out two trash bags’ worth of stuff. What also surprised me was that it wasn’t easy.

I thought I was pretty unsentimental about my wardrobe. I don’t get attached to clothes because they remind me of certain life events or so-and-so gave them to me.

I do, however, get attached to clothes because they represent a version of me I thought I wanted or needed to be. I get very attached to clothes for this reason.

Notice I didn’t say I “felt joy” for these reasons. The attachment was entirely anxiety-based. Any “joy” I felt was actually relief as I put these items back in the pile, because then I didn’t have to face the anxiety of letting go of that way better version of myself I’m totally going to become as soon as I work up the courage to wear these leggings in public I swear.

Those items did get removed as I was putting clothes back in the drawers, though. I had trouble managing the anxiety as I held them, but when I saw them folded next to clothes I really do love, I realized they didn’t make me feel joy. They just made me feel tired.

Okay, But I Need Those Clothes

There was a time in my life, about ten years ago, when being able to get rid of clothing simply because “it made me feel tired” would have been an unimaginable luxury. Past Me would have scorned Future Me’s ass off.

Do you want to have to choose between being dressed and paying the electric bill? Because this is how you have to choose between being dressed and paying the electric bill.

In The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, Kondo reassures the reader not to worry about throwing out clothes for security reasons. When you’re done sorting, she says, “You will have what you need.”

Kondo doesn’t explain this, but about halfway through sorting my underwear, it hit me:

You will have what you need because you already have what you need.

I’m serious. Imagine this: You’re standing next to your whole wardrobe, all nice and clean and folded. You’re not wearing anything you own: It’s all clean, ready for you to pick what you want.

You reach into the pile and pull out….

You already know. You know which shirt, jeans, skirt or dress is your absolute favorite, your go-to, the number-one thing you want to wear when it’s clean. You know which pairs of underwear cups your bits just right and which ones are a guaranteed all-day wedgie. And so on.

It’s okay to let clothes go when you avoid wearing them anyway.

A Note on Thankfulness

Kondo recommends that when you decide not to keep something, you thank it before relegating it to the trash/recycle/donation bin.

Thanking things before letting them go is one of the biggest “sticking points” I’ve seen among Westerners learning about KonMari. I can’t count the number of social media posts/comments/tweets I’ve seen along the lines of “I’m not thanking my clothes, that’s stupid!”

On the whole, we in the US struggle with gratitude. Gratitude runs counter to our bootstrap-pulling, pioneer-know-howing, “I built it myself”-ing ethos. Gratitude implies that we’re in a position of neediness, of subservience.

Thanking our clothes implies that we somehow need them. That we’re dependent on them to perform certain tasks for us or to help us meet certain goals. And thanking clothes can be particularly galling. How dare you imply that I couldn’t have finished school or gotten my job or had a baby or become the 51st ranked Fortnite player in the world without this sock?

I spent about five years in my tweens and early teens incapable of uttering the words “Please” or “Thank you.” It wasn’t that I was actually ungrateful; it’s that saying those words put me in a position of vulnerability that I, traumatized and mentally ill, could not bear.

After the first five or six times I did it with old clothing, however, I found that it felt weird not to do it. It made the entire process seem rushed. Worse, it made it harder for me to determine whether I was keeping things because I personally loved them or to allay that anxiety of “but I’ll become this person someday I swear!” or “but what if we end up homeless tomorrow?!” (NB: We are not going to end up homeless tomorrow.)

Since finishing my wardrobe about a week ago, I’ve also accepted: Yes, I do rely on my clothes. No, I wouldn’t have accomplished today’s tasks without my socks, or my shirt, or my winter coat.

It was -20F before wind chill here this week. Bootstraps notwithstanding, I’m not actually capable of not freezing to death in such weather on my own. I need clothes. And that’s okay.

So What Should I Do?

So much of the backlash has baffled me because The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up seems to go out of its way to tell the reader that Kondo can’t tell you what will make you happy. Only you can determine whether you find joy in one pair of underwear or ten, in thirty books or three hundred, in two spatulas or twenty-five.

In fact, the book devotes an entire chapter to discussing what Kondo calls the “click point,” at which people know that their space is filled with the right number of items for them. It devotes multiple pages to explaining that the click point is wholly and entirely personal.

Given the book’s repeated insistence that only you can know what and how much you need, it was odd to see people fight against the idea that Kondo “assigns quotas” (an actual phrase I saw one Facebook commenter use). But maybe it’s not that baffling after all.

We’re a society that spends millions every year on people, books, courses and objects that tell us how to fix ourselves. Kondo gently and persistently tells us that she cannot fix us because we were never broken.

Buying all that stuff that didn’t make us happy isn’t our fault. We did the best we could at the time with the tools we had.

But when that stuff comes in the door, it becomes our responsibility. To change the habits that accumulated it, we need to change how we respond to it. KonMari is one new way to respond.

We’re not wrong because we didn’t have this skill before. We were simply fighting to fix something that was never broken in the first place.

That message can be utterly enraging to hear. And rage often shoots the messenger.

Next time: Books.


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Author: Dani Alexis

Dani Alexis is a freelance writer with a decade of experience and a passion for creating new things. As Verity Reynolds, Dani is the author of the Non-Compliant Space series. Buy her a coffee: ko-fi.com/verityreynolds