This is some work in-progress from my current project on contemporary asceticism.
goop offers a fantasy of less. This minimalist utopia celebrates consumption and beauty, but also imparts sensations of pain and loss. Ascetic consumption offers women images of homes and bodies untethered to the piles of stuff that seem to accrue to surfaces. With less, objects move with ease and the consumer moves with ease through their consumption. goop’s fantasy of less participates in a broader discourse of domestic asceticism that ritualizes disposal, selects a well-curated wardrobe, and mitigates immobilizing materiality. Alongside Marie Kondo’s best-selling book The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up and the threat of “hoarding” (promoted by TLC’s show Hoarders), goop contributes to an anxiety of objects overwhelming the home and pinning down the inhabitant in a literal and psychological burial. Also see: capsule wardrobes, the brand Stowaway, and Andrea Zittel.
goop’s editors model the necessary pain of domestic purging. In “The Lean Closet,” the editors write, “Everyone knows the value of a good closet purge, but very few of us have the necessary hard heart to part with items that often have sentimental value—or worse, cost a lot of money, yet still carry their tags with the promise of a ‘some day’ outfit.” Using goop’s typical martial language, the site’s fashion director Laurie Trott “is merciless” and “brutal.” Once “you’ve whittled down your closet to the bare essentials . . . Focus on quality, not quantity.” The first step of having less is overcoming the fearful attachment we have to our clothes. As Susan Lepselter points out in her study of hoarding anxiety in the United States, hoarders contaminate “the boundaries between things and unmanaged sentiment” (2011: 925). goop suggests using Marie Kondo’s method: holding the object and asking if it “sparks joy,” and if it does not, thank it for its service and throw it out (Kondo 2014). Decontaminate the border between humans and objects by speaking to an object like it’s a human, and then reject it. Through this painful process, tinged with cruelty towards the self and other, elimination reorders subject/object relations.
As with goop’s lean closet, hoarding shows ritualize the purge, in which the hoarder liberates her self from what Lepselter calls the “congealed meanings of objects that do not circulate” (2011: 942). A “freshen up of the closet” propels clothes into piles of “what to toss, what to sell, what to store, what to keep.” For this process goop’s organizational expert suggests allocating “a realistic amount of time for editing thoroughly (a minimum of 2 hours). Real editing involves trying things on and going through a lot of items. You don’t want to have to run out to your appointment halfway through and lose your clearing out momentum.” The ritualized purge initiates a continuous circulation of objects, but the momentum must begin in the ritual. Purging the closet, like a good colonic, gets matter moving.
In closet purging, acquisition comes quickly on elimination’s heels with a list of “Marie Kondo-proof” clothes (most sold in the goop store) that will eventually allow you to stop acquiring disposable clothes. Gwyneth, in an early newsletter, called these clothes part of a “uniform” and demonstrates how to build a weekly set of outfits from a few key pieces. Gwyneth explained, “I want clothes that move easily from a winter’s morning making pancakes to the school run to a meeting to homework to a dinner party. These are the basics I am wearing right now for easy, fuss-free dressing. I’ve paired the basics together for three very different but wearable outfits that can be amended for any occasion.” These items protect the wearer through their limited rearrangements, holding a woman in check against the chaotic force of abundance. Once again martial language demonstrates the boundary work these limited and limiting garments do on behalf of a woman: “When it comes to closet linchpins, we believe in investing in staples that are relentless and hard-working, that can pull together even the most discordant of outfits.” The minimal and durable uniform becomes armor, protecting from within and without, doing the work of organization on the woman’s behalf.
Having few clothes and little food is a kind of poverty, and thus the modern ascetic comes into awkward juxtaposition with poverty as a socio-economic condition through sensations of scarcity. In 2015 Gwyneth attempted to bring attention to the issue of poverty through eating on a food stamp budget. Gwyneth’s public “food stamp challenge,” in such close proximity to the detoxes promoted by her website, affirmed the difference between spiritual detox and the banal absence of food. Gwyneth informed her readers that families on food stamps receive as little as $24.40 to spend on groceries. She provided a list of the products she purchased on this budget and special recipes for using those products (recipes that looked eerily similar to detox recipes with the absence of meat, dairy, and sugar). She then gave herself a “C-“ on the challenge. “As I suspected, we only made it through about four days, when I personally broke and had some chicken and fresh vegetables (and in full transparency, half a bag of black licorice).” Had she not trained for years to live on inadequate calorie budgets? Were the recipes she developed not delicious? And when she mused, “I know hunger doesn’t always touch us all directly,” how could she ignore the hunger of detoxing that she had promoted for years? Many critics accused Gwyneth of being “out of touch” and “tone deaf” in her attempt to do the challenge, her inability to stick with it, and in patronizing those on food stamps by providing food-stamp budget recipes that met her organic, “whole food” standards. But the food stamp challenge controversy clarified the meaning of depletion as a spiritual practice, even if it did not clarify how elite ascetics should approach the poor. goop sells asceticism as a practice for those who have too much—thus the fantasy of “less” and the attendant practices of purging and limiting do not have the same power for those who start out with too little.