When Did Living With Clutter Become A Flex?

New York Times
Clutter is having a moment. Illustration / Kate Dehler, The New York Times

Clutter is having a moment, writes Callie Holtermann. Is it a rejection of Instagrammability, or just another way to build cachet online?

In late February, influencer Alix Earle took a break from her regularly programmed makeup routines to share a tour of her home on TikTok.

There’s a shot of

Then a sticky-looking dining room table laden with open beverages. Then a pair of jeans crumpled up next to a case of Corona Light.

“When did living like this become a flex?” one of the video’s 9 million viewers asked in the comments.

Clutter has long been shoved under beds and banished to storage units; it is the villain of an entire genre of television. But messiness is a part of most people’s lives, and instead of angling their cameras away, some are now documenting, or even flexing, their imperfect homes online in all of their gory detail. Could clutter be becoming... cool?

“There’s something sort of it-girl-y about the messy room,” said Amalia Soto, a digital artist known as Molly Soda. Soto, 34, said she had been seeing more videos of spaces strewn with clothing, toiletries, cosmetics and beverages posted to TikTok — what she called the embrace of “girl clutter” in a recent essay on Substack.

Partly in defiance of gender expectations that tell women to create and maintain orderly domestic spaces, young women online appeared to be “really leaning into or maybe even romanticising chaos,” she wrote. Others have noticed, too. When decluttering maven Marie Kondo admitted recently that her home had gotten less tidy after she had her third child, many people leaped to her defense — and breathed a sigh of relief.

Ditto when Julia Fox shared her scattered shoe boxes, moisturisers and stuffed Elmos in an impromptu apartment tour on TikTok. This was not the stuff of Architectural Digest or even social media, which is typically flooded with so-called aspirational content: spotless homes, “that girl” morning routines and a “clean girl aesthetic” defined by green juices and neat to-do lists.

That content had felt particularly alienating to Kate Woodson at the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, when she was adjusting to virtual college classes from her messy bedroom in Chicago. “I almost felt alone,” said Woodson, a 20-year-old student at Xavier University. “Like, I’m struggling during Covid — am I the only one?”

When Alisha Ashour, 31, made a TikTok account in 2021, she bought a pillow, plant and white curtain-like backdrop to conceal her home. She said she was embarrassed that her brown carpeting did not match the hardwood floors she often saw on the app, especially when it was covered in toys left out by her 2 1/2-year-old son. The charade was hard to maintain. It took time and money that Ashour did not feel able to expend regularly, and it also felt like false advertising. “Putting on makeup, getting dressed, buying all these things to make my home look better isn’t real life,” she said.

In August, Ashour began sharing videos of her house as it actually looks. The response from viewers was immediate, she said: “Keep doing this, we love it, we never see this side of TikTok.”


Come with me on a very underwhelming apartment tour! also to clarify I have only ONE mouse and he’s cute 🥰

♬ original sound - Julia fox

On platforms where users strive to appear relatable, messiness has become its own kind of aspirational look to be studied and replicated. On Pinterest, searches for “messy girl aesthetic” increased more than 500 per cent from a year ago, according to Swasti Sarna, the company’s global director of data insights.

Messes may be an especially good fit for TikTok, a platform that users turn to for content that appears authentic and unfiltered, according to a 2021 Nielsen study. Patches of carpet fight for daylight between mountains of clutter in videos tagged #messyroom, which have more than 430 million views on the app. Another 11 million views have been devoted to shots of the junk drawer in the kitchen and the Paw Patrol stickers on the floor under the #nonaesthetichome hashtag.

Sometimes, the mess is glamorised: One TikTok sound likens a woman’s messy room to the intimate cinematic style of Sofia Coppola. As many people cooped up at home in the early months of the pandemic entertained themselves by decluttering, Woodson shared videos of her bedroom at its messiest. Her most popular video has more than 14 million views. She said she had never intentionally cluttered her room in order to record a video.

But when she sees that her room is getting messy, she knows it might be a good time to turn the camera on. “They definitely perform a lot better than other videos,” she said.


Replying to @olliesroommate and I wouldn’t want to live anywhere else :) #umiami

♬ original sound - alix earle

For Soto, that such videos are of intense interest to viewers means that the internet has completed a full circle since around 20 years ago, when webcams granted online viewers a new degree of visibility into many people’s personal spaces. “It’s funny, we went from like, ‘Oh let me just turn the camera on,’ and then it was like, ‘Oh, I’d better clean up in here’.”

All of that decluttering, she said, has resulted in a style of video so overly polished that it has grown tiresome. “Now it’s like, ‘Let me trash it again’,” she said. In January, Soto turned on her camera and trashed her sunny room in South Brooklyn in a 15-minute “room makeover” video she uploaded to YouTube. After the video’s grand finale — in which Soto scattered pads across her bed — she shut off the camera and cleaned it all up.

As a trend, messiness has its limits, because not everyone’s mess will be judged equally, Soto said: “It’s chic when Julia Fox shows her real apartment, but is it chic when an everyday person does it?” The younger and more conventionally attractive the person, she said, the greater their latitude to be messy online.

Beyond social media, some people are finding other reasons to embrace mess. For one, a space without clutter can seem sterile, more like a Sweetgreen than a cozy home, said Jonah Weiner, a journalist who writes the popular fashion and design newsletter Blackbird Spyplane along with Erin Wylie. (Weiner is also a contributing writer for The New York Times Magazine.)

“The model has been these zero-clutter, very formally organized places with a lot of negative space, a lot of air and, interestingly, not a lot of signs of life,” Weiner said. Francesca Edouard, a 29-year-old library assistant, sees that look in Kim Kardashian’s mostly beige home, which appeared last year in a Vogue video free of almost any items on any surfaces.

“When I look at it, I think, are you afraid to truly live in it?” Edouard said. Edouard’s bedroom in the Boston area is cluttered with items that are meaningful to her: Nintendo Switch games on her dresser, a floral dress she saved up for tossed on a chair, a secondhand romance novel spine-up on the bed.

Edouard enjoys spending time in a space full of stuff that’s distinctly hers; after all, her bedroom is a place for her to live, not a film set. “I want it to say something about me,” she said.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

Written by: Callie Holtermann

Illustration: Kate Dehler


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