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Is Gen Z Right? Is Clutter Cool?

gen z says clutter is cool mobile
Dasha Burobina

Clutter has always had a negative reputation. It’s the single glove missing its counterpart you stuff in a closet before company comes; the random piles of mail and bills that over time become a part of your décor; the empty boxes you’re saving for later that get relocated to sit just outside the Zoom frame. Instagram-worthy? Clutter is not. That is, until recently. Thanks to TikTok, clutter is actually undergoing a massive rebrand.

The New York Times recently wrote about this fact: How messiness in the form of clutter now comes with “it-girl” qualities attached. It’s artful—intentional even. Countless TikToks (like this one and this one) even go so far as to romanticize clutter. To have it is to defy gender expectations. How dare anyone suggest that women maintain orderly domestic spaces? Per this report, clutter—but also chaos—is much more in vogue.

On the one hand, hear, hear. The picture-perfect aesthetic, long ordained on Instagram and Pinterest—and, let’s be real here, by women’s lifestyle content in general—sets an impossible and, frankly, unwelcome ideal. Those beige and clutter-free surfaces may photograph well, but they hardly ever show signs of the beautiful, messy lives we lead. Where’s the stack of unread catalogs? The build-up of kid toys? The random knickknacks—all treasures—that never seem to find a permanent resting spot? Conveniently out of frame, we’re guessing. (That’s clutter’s forever destiny, of course.)

Still, is the “messy girl” aesthetic just as contrived as the clutter-free surfaces it rails against? The stuff of youth and an existence that’s more carefree? It’s true that the pressure valve needs to be released here—it’s not sustainable for women to forever make their domestic existence perfectly presentable—but, in my opinion, total chaos is also a no-go.

Here's why: Real life also requires a bit of organization in order to function. Vive le clutter—trust me, I’m the queen of piles—but I also need to have a general sense of what’s in those piles at all times.

Reflecting on my own childhood for a minute, I grew up with an “everything in its place” kind of mantra that was passed down from my grandma to my dad and now me. My dad was the type of guy who vacuumed the beach sand out of the deck slats post-vacation, he was that neat. My mom, on the other hand, still makes sure the house is spotless before any non-family member comes over, cousins included. Their drive was never social media-related, but it was an intense standard nonetheless.

So, what’s the happy medium? As I consider my own life habits and self-inflicted stress when it comes to navigating, quite specifically, all the damn clutter, I think the more balanced approach here is anti-perfectionism.

It’s a mix of “bless this mess,” but let’s also keep things clean-ish so that we can all enjoy the spaces in which we reside. (If there was a social media comparison to be made, it’s less Instagram and more BeReal—an app that prioritizes authenticity and filter-free living when it comes to photo sharing.)

And this mindset should be applied to more than just our homes. It applies to entertaining (tater tots for dinner, anyone?), but also our friendships (no, you don’t need perfectly staged interactions to foster a meaningful connection).

“Everyone is different in their approach,” Cynthia Catchings, a licensed Talkspace therapist, says. “The key here is to create balance and to know what is important to you.” In other words, as important as it is to live in a place that makes us feel good, it is also important for us to live in a healthy mental and emotional state. “If the home is spotless, but we are anxious, tired and irritated, we are forgetting what truly matters.”

As for the performative side of the messy girl aesthetic—as displayed on TikTok—there is value in that, too, says Catchings. “Documenting anti-perfectionism can also destigmatize the idea of having to ‘filter’ our living spaces and lives. Normalizing that we are human beings who have activities, needs and—often times—little availability to clean or organize can translate into more calm days, less anxiety and better mental health.”

The bottom line: Clear surfaces don’t define us. Neither do messy ones.