It may not be spring yet, but everybody’s cleaning. Or, at the very least, they are talking about it. It has only been a month since Tidying Up With Marie Kondo launched on Netflix, but the series, starring the Japanese organisation expert, has already become something of a phenomenon. It has sparked joy among some, and arguments about how many books you should have in your home among others (Kondo, controversially, caps her collection at about 30). It has also led to charity shops reporting a Kondo-related surge in donations as converts go on decluttering sprees.
Kondo, who shot to global fame in 2014 when her book The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up was published in English, is probably the biggest name on the clean scene. However, she is far from the only person to have organised their way to celebrity. The past year or so has seen cleaning take on a new cultural cachet – particularly on Instagram. The social network is rife with hashtags such as #cleaningobsessed or #cleaningtime and people are amassing enormous followings with pictures of gleaming kitchen counters and sparkling floors. Fitness influencers and fashion bloggers step aside: it’s starting to look like bleach is the new black.
Sophie Hinchcliffe, AKA Mrs Hinch, is one of the best known of these new Instagram “cleanfluencers”. The 28-year-old hairdresser from Essex has 1.7 million followers on the social network, where she shares pictures of her immaculate home as well as chatty videos of herself disinfecting her bins and scrubbing her sink. She has developed a whole branded vocabulary around tidying up – cleaning is “hinching”; buying products is a “hinch haul”; her followers are the #HinchArmy; and her enormous collection of cleaning paraphernalia is kept in a special wardrobe called Narnia. (CS Lewis did not respond to a request for comment.)
Other prominent British cleanfluencers include Lynsey “Queen of Clean”Crombie, who has 104,000 followers, and Gemma Bray, “the Organised Mum”, with 135,000. Across the Atlantic, Toronto-based Melissa Maker has more than a million subscribers to her YouTube channel, Clean My Space,where she posts videos such as Cleaning the Kitchen Sink! and 10 Things to Toss Today. In the US, Chicago-based Becky Rapinchuk has 275,000 followers on her Clean Mama Instagram page; a typical post shows a gleaming toilet with tips on how to speed-clean your bathroom.
For the uninitiated, scrolling through pictures, or watching videos, of people doing chores may seem as exciting as, well, watching surfaces dry. So what is the attraction of all these tidy toilets and spotless sinks?
Dr Stephanie Baker, a sociology lecturer at University of London and the author of a forthcoming book about digital lifestyle gurus, points out that we have been obsessed with domestic goddesses for centuries. The online influencers, she says, are simply the latest evolution of “the broader self-improvement movement, which had its origins in the 19th century and achieved tremendous growth in the late 20th with the rise of lifestyle media and make-over programmes”.
But why has cleaning taken off on Instagram, which is notorious for its highly filtered, aspirational content?
Kate Joynes-Burgess, the managing director of BCW, a PR agency that works with digital influencers, suggests the public is tiring of photos of attractive people doing headstands on remote beaches, posing in fabulous outfits and socialising with photogenic friends. “The world of mega lifestyle influencers has been criticised as being on the cusp of an ‘authenticity crisis’ and potentially reaching a saturation point,” she says. “This has seemingly made way for more niche-focused influencers and conversations to blossom.”
The Queen of Clean, who I am chatting to shortly before she sets off to do the school run, agrees that she and her peers represent a much-needed antidote to Instagram’s curated perfection. “We’re more relatable than a lot of the lifestyle bloggers out there,” Crombie says. “We’ve got our mops up, hair sticking up … I look like a right rough tramp on Instagram, but I get people writing in to say it’s refreshing.”
The Organised Mum has a similar view. Bray notes that when she first started out on Instagram, “as a mum of three, a lot of the things I was seeing were out of reach”. In 2016, her son dared her to start an Instagram page where she could show off her special cleaning method; she indulged him, but didn’t think it would get much traction among all the carefully filtered pictures of avocado toast. But within 12 months she had 10,000 followers and, over the past few months, she has seen her following rocket to well over 100,000. It seems she struck a chord. After all, she says, “everyone has to maintain a home to some extent. Everyone has to do boring jobs.”
Like Bray, Crombie, who joined Instagram to keep an eye on her kids’ online usage, started posting cleaning pictures without any expectations they would become so popular. “It’s surreal,” she says. She is reluctant to discuss exactly how much money she is making (“People can be very negative about these sorts of things”), but notes she is earning more than she ever has before. Instagrammers can make money from affiliate marketing, paid reviews and sponsored posts, with brands paying anywhere from a few hundred pounds to hundreds of thousands to partner with people they deem influential.
And no wonder: when Mrs Hinch extolled the virtues of a Minky M Cloth antibacterial cleaning pad last year, the item promptly sold out for weeks. The Minky website even crashed because of the demand. The company says it has seen a big uplift in its profile and sales thanks to the influencer, “for which we are extremely grateful”.
But not everyone is cheering the cleaning influencers’ success. There have been arguments that they reinforce existing gender stereotypes: the best-known influencers are women, as is their audience. Perpetuating the idea that cleaning is women’s work doesn’t seem particularly helpful when you think that British women still do 60% more housework than men. Bray, for her part, says she is aware of the gender dynamics at play. “I share content of my boys emptying the dishwasher,” she points out. “My husband does his own ironing. I’m vocal about the fact it’s a team effort and I want my boys to pull their weight.” Unfortunately, fewer than 10% of her followers are men, so her message about cleaning being a team effort is overwhelmingly being heard by women alone.
Cleaning influencers may not be doing anything for the housework gender gap, but that isn’t to say they are not empowering. There is a lot of research that shows messy spaces can lead to depression and fatigue. Crombie is one of the most outspoken influencers when it comes to championing links between mental health and cleaning, and she speaks from personal experience. In 2003, seven months into her first marriage, its traumatic collapse sent her into premature labour; her twins were born at 28 weeks. Over the following years, she struggled to rebuild her life and found cleaning gave her structure as well as being cathartic. “If I hadn’t cleaned, I would have stayed in bed all day,” she says, grimly. She expands upon this in her new book, How to Clean Your House … And Tidy Up Your Life, which will be published in March.
Crombie’s experience, of course, is extreme. But the link between cleaning your house and tidying your life seems to explain a lot about the current cultural cachet around cleaning. In fact, says Baker, you could say that the “rise of cleaning influencers is fundamentally about order. It is about more than having a clean home; it is about creating a structured environment in which to flourish.” She points out that cleaning metaphors are embedded in the “language of lifestyle gurus and psychologists. Look at Jordan Peterson, whose phrase ‘Clean up your room’ recently became a meme in popular culture.” (It’s a shame more men aren’t taking his directive literally.)
A desire for order at a time of social unrest may also account, to some degree, for the popularity of Kondo. In her book Waste: Consuming Postwar Japan, Eiko Maruko Siniawer, a history professor at Williams College, Massachusetts, notes that the rise of professional declutterers in Japan coincided with the 2011 earthquake and tsunami, which killed more than 18,000 people in the country. This disaster, she says, may have prompted a reassessment of “stuff” and what it means to one’s life.
Bearing all this in mind, it is perhaps no surprise that the rise of cleaning influencers in the UK and US comes against the background of Brexit and Donald Trump. “The preoccupation with order and self-management flourishes during uncertain times as a self-improvement strategy,” Baker claims. In other words, when the world looks increasingly like trash, cleaning becomes a lot more comforting.