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Is minimalism classist? and 7 other criticisms of minimalism, analyzed

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Minimalism is a growing movement and a fulfilling lifestyle, but it definitely faces some criticism. There are a lot of people out there who think they could never be a minimalist—or that they wouldn’t want to be—for reasons that are worth discussion, but usually a misconception of what the lifestyle is all about. Here are some common critiques about minimalism:

Minimalism is classist and privileged.

This criticism comes out of minimalist ideas such as the 20/20 rule (can you replace this item you’re unsure about within 20 minutes for $20? Yes? Toss it), or the suggestion to look at thrift stores as “storage units” where you pay a couple of bucks to “rent” that less-needed item once in a while. The fact is, there are a lot of people who can’t afford to just drop $20 (or even $5) to replace something that they got rid of. People who struggle financially often aren’t comfortable with getting rid of things that could be useful, and for that reason minimalism has gained a reputation of being a “rich people’s hobby.”

It’s true that it takes a certain amount of stability to be able to get rid of things and know you’re going to be okay. For example, I am pretty privileged that when my only jeans ripped, I was able to replace them almost immediately. However, I do think minimalism is for everybody, not just wealthier people, because it’s not about just getting rid of stuff. Material possessions aren’t the sole focus (or even the most important focus) to minimalists: The defining tenets of building relationships, making intentional decisions, seeking contentedness, and being fiscally responsible are great lessons for everyone to learn. If that sounds like your kind of minimalism, I don’t think you’re pursuing it in an elitist way.

Minimalism is about extremism: bare walls, bare dressers, bare everything.

There is a specific minimalist style/aesthetic that champions starkness. Some people do prefer the look of white walls and carpetless concrete floors adorned with sparse midcentury modern furniture, and that could be for a variety of reasons: It makes a small home look more spacious, makes a dark room brighter, makes the inhabitant feel more peaceful, etc. But for most minimalists, you would never know they were minimalists until they told you. Their homes have artwork, furniture, KitchenAids, and TVs—they just aren’t full to the gills. Minimalism isn’t about emptiness. It’s about leaving room to breathe.

Minimalism is impossible for someone with a family.

It’s true that many of the famous minimalists are single or at least childless. I can understand why parents might side-eye an ephemeral twenty-something’s declarations of minimalist nirvana—it’s surely a lot easier to keep things tidy when you don’t have other people’s messes to clean up and haven’t settled into a mortgage and yard. But there are lots of great minimalist parents. Joshua Becker has two adolescent children and has given great talks about how he and his wife encourage (and enforce) minimalism in their kids. Erin of Reading My Tea Leaves has a young daughter and a baby on the way—and lives in under 600 square feet in New York. Leo Babauta has six children. The Minimalist Mom has three little boys in a two-bedroom apartment.

Having kids and being a minimalist are not mutually exclusive, and in fact there is lots of great research showing that kids are more imaginative and resourceful when they own fewer toys. Practicing minimalism with a family also promotes togetherness (no cable = more conversation), health (wouldn’t you enjoy having time for family walks in the woods?), and good consumer values.

Minimalism is devoid of color.

I’m not going to lie to you: A lot of minimalists favor neutrals. There are a couple reasons for this. In clothing: Neutrals are the easiest thing to mix and match when you have a small wardrobe, and make wardrobe decision-making that much easier. In décor: Neutrals are soothing and make it easy to change up a room’s entire look with seasonal accessories or the odd knickknack without going to great expense. In regards to home décor, I totally agree. I could write an ode to greige, the perfect neutral that goes with literally anything. But I—and many other minimalists—adore color. Colorful clothes, colorful exercise equipment, colorful notebooks and pens…if it’s not something I have to live with 24/7, I would rather it be cheery and colorful. Owning less does not mean being less vibrant. Rather, it allows you to show off your favorite colorful things without excessive visual distraction.

Minimalism means you never get to shop or buy anything.

Minimalists shop less. That’s a core value of minimalism. It’s definitely not a bad thing—for our wallets, for our closets, or for the earth. But minimalism is not about deprivation; it’s about intention. It’s about looking only for what you truly need or want, without getting sidetracked by sales. It’s about having time to research brands that are responsible, cruelty-free, locally sourced, and/or sustainable. It’s about knowing that you vote with your wallet—that you, personally, contribute to a market that is either full of fast fashion and processed foods, or one that focuses on ethics and sustainability, every time you shop—and taking that responsibility seriously. It’s about buying higher quality than you used to, because when you only buy an occasional item, you can afford to buy better. Ultimately, it’s about being a citizen, not a consumer.

Minimalism doesn’t allow for sentimentality or collections.

Some people see minimalists as being unfeeling or cold because they don’t have a lot of sentimental items. The fact is, the reason people keep so many sentimental things isn’t because they want then, but because they’re expected to keep them. We’ve built up a lot of guilt regarding gifts, old greeting cards, mementoes, and souvenirs; we worry that we’ll forget the memories we have, or that the person who gave us the item or shared the experience will be sad if we get rid of the stuff, or that we’re letting go of a part of ourselves, etc. But minimalists understand that it’s not fair to ourselves to hold on to things out of guilt. Take a photo of the item before donation, write about it, or just understand that donating that hand-quilted table runner doesn’t mean you don’t love the giver—there’s a lot of freedom in that.

That said, one of the most basic underpinnings of minimalism is this: You curate your life to keep only what you use and what you love. If you love your collection of fortune cookie fortunes or 18th-century porcelain geese, keep it! If your scrapbook of letters to your high-school-sweetheart-turned-spouse thrills you to see it, don’t get rid of it! Minimalism doesn’t require you to get of the things you love. It makes room for the things you love to shine.

Minimalism is impossible for someone with a “normal” life.

Sure, of course that freelance web designer/self-employed photographer/writer/Walden-style homesteader can be a minimalist. They don’t have a daily grind. They can wear whatever they want, work whenever they want, live wherever they want—they don’t live a normal 9-to-5 life.

I agree, that life sounds amazing. But again, even though many famous minimalists are self-employed, they represent only a small fraction of minimalists. I work 40 hours a week in a cubicle and live in a wholly standard one-bedroom apartment with my husband and dog. And I’d guess that most minimalists are like me. The fact is, it’s perfectly possible to be a minimalist no matter what your lifestyle is—it just looks different from person to person. A lawyer might have two suits and five dress shirts that he cycles through, a small weekend wardrobe, and only a couple of dishes because he usually eats at the office. A dancer may well have more activewear than daily clothes, and five pairs of pointe shoes but only one pair of walking shoes. There’s no one-size-fits-all ‘version’ of minimalism.

But also, consider this: Many of the minimalists who are self-employed pursuing their passion are able to do so because of minimalism.

 

It’s been an incredible couple of years watching minimalism get more and more popular, and I hope that by dispelling—or at least reframing—myths like these, we’ll be able to encourage more people to adopt the lifestyle that focuses on people and experiences above things. In the meantime, what are other misconceptions you’ve seen or heard about minimalism? Do you agree with my responses to the ones I addressed? Let’s talk about it on Twitter!

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One thought on “Is minimalism classist? and 7 other criticisms of minimalism, analyzed

  1. As far as the classist argument, I heard somewhere, and unfortunately I can’t remember who said it, but they said, “Consumerism is a first-world problem, but it’s still a problem.” I think where we fail as minimalists or aspiring minimalists is when we don’t acknowledge that we are both blessed to be able to indulge in consumerism and are also contributing to so many world problems through consumerism. So yeah, it’s great that minimalism is a luxury of choice for some, but nevertheless it’s the responsible, ethical choice for those who are in a position to make it.

    Liked by 1 person

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