Life

What the rise of the ‘cleanfluencer’ tells us about women’s lives in 2019

‘Cleanfluencers’ are the latest social media stars to sweep our feeds, but is this newfound passion for housework a step backwards?

I’ve just spent 20 minutes watching Mrs Hinch, aka @mrshinchhome, clean a bathroom floor on Instagram. She kept calling her mop “Trace”. I believe she names all of her cleaning utensils. She taught me to pour “a neat capful of Zoflora” in the bottom of my toilet brush holders to “keep them smelling fresh”. Mrs Hinch – Sophie Hinchliffe to her friends – loves Zoflora disinfectant. She pours it on her “babies” (her dishcloths), before she puts them “to bed” (to soak overnight).

Around 1.9 million other followers – the self-dubbed ‘Hinchers’ – watched it too. And they loved it. So much so that she’s got a book, Hinch Yourself Happy: All The Best Cleaning Tips To Shine Your Sink And Soothe Your Soul, coming out in April.

Hinch is not an anomaly. Lynsey Crombie (@lynsey_queenofclean) also has 110,000 followers eager to hear how to make an eco-friendly lavender mattress cleaner – her book, How To Clean Your House… And Tidy Up Your Life, is out later this month, as is Nicola Lewis’s Mind Over Clutter

Canadian Melissa Maker (cleanmyspace.com) dishes out cleaning tips to her one million YouTube subscribers. Then there’s the Beyoncé of cleaning influencers, Marie Kondo, who has sold more than four million copies of her book, The Life Changing Magic Of Tidying Up, and has her own Netflix series, Tidying Up with Marie Kondo

Not far behind her, The Home Edit (an American duo who organise people’s homes into rainbow-coloured perfection) have one million followers on Instagram and count Mandy Moore and Reese Witherspoon as clients. Somehow, and without irony, 2019 has become the year we’re obsessed with watching other people clean their toilets.

But it’s not simply watching – we’re also doing it. After Mrs Hinch praised her Minky M cloth, the Minky website crashed from demand. Customers are apparently bulk buying Zoflora, with a shop assistant tweeting: “Sold out 65 bottles of Zoflora in the first 15 minutes the shop opened because [Mrs Hinch] posted about it on Instagram.” In fact, the household cleaners market is predicted to grow from £21.4 billion to £30.7 billion by 2024. This January, after Kondo’s Netflix show was released, charity shops reported a record amount of donations, spurred by people decluttering.

This all begs the question, why? Why, 60 years after labour-saving electrical appliances like washing machines became common, giving us hard-won freedom from domestic drudgery, are we suddenly elbow deep in Marigolds? Why did I spend my lunchbreak watching Kondo roll up clothes – and why did I weirdly quite enjoy it?

It’s a fascinating trend. It’s also a slightly disconcerting one. After all, there are no male cleaning influencers to be found and Mrs Hinch has admitted that 90% of her followers are women. When we already know that the majority of the domestic load falls to us – a sorry 60% more – the rise of cleaning influencers feels rather regressive.

Fans of the duster-wielding social media stars would argue that we shouldn’t be so dismissive. Many cleaning influencers have discussed suffering from anxiety, and how cleaning has helped them to handle it. Thousands of their followers echo the same sentiments. Science suggests that cleaning has been shown to have a positive impact on our mental health: a study by the University of California measured cortisol levels in 30 couples and found that women who described their homes as chaotic or messy had higher levels of the stress hormone. And it’s not just our minds – a good spring clean benefits our whole body. A study led by NiCole R Keith at Indiana University found that people with clean houses are healthier overall than those with messier ones.

Still, there’s no doubt that the rise of the cleaning influencer is a pretty surprising turn of events. We asked four experts why they think the cleanfluencer has taken the zeitgeist and run with it.

The historian

Virginia Nicholson, historian and author of Perfect Wives In Ideal Homes, on the similarities between Fifties housewives and cleaning influencers today 

“I think the trend for cleaning influencers is symptomatic of macro trends happening around the world right now. If we look at austerity, the Brexit crisis, climate change, the Trump phenomenon – there is a huge amount of uncertainty in society, which is similar to the post-war period of the Fifties when housework and housewives were similarly glamorised.

It makes sense. Whenever we’re dealing with traumatic upheaval and uncertainty in our lives, we retreat to our four safe walls. After the Second World War, women’s identity had been smashed to smithereens – quite literally in many cases when homes had been bombed – so when the war ended there was a national feeling of wanting to get back to the home and rebuild who they were before. There’s an atmosphere of uncertainty today and we’re retreating to our homes once again.

There was a similar glossiness to the housewives of the Fifties as there is with cleanfluencers – perish the thought that anyone doing housework would feel discontent at their task. Back then, there was a huge pressure on women to be the perfect wife, the perfect mother, to be perfect in the bedroom and keep perfect homes. In 1951, the average woman spent 15 hours a day on housework. Books from that era reveal incredibly prescriptive instructions on how to keep the perfect home. Mrs Beeton’s Book Of Household Management talks about dusting the passageway before breakfast and ensuring household order so that your husband returns from work promptly at the end of the day, rather than lingering in ‘taverns and dining houses’.

This was also when women’s magazines became popular. Good Housekeeping sold the ideal woman as smiley, blonde, and white; a woman who did everything perfectly without any fuss. There was high pressure for women to tick all these boxes, which is something that we women today are feeling – the pressure to be thin, to be beautiful, to have an amazing home and to look like the latest Instagram sensation.” 

The futurologist

Will Higham is a behavioural futurist and the founder of next-big-thing.net. He believes this trend will force a closer look at the toxicity of many cleaning products

“The cleanfluencer taps into a lot of trends we’re seeing right now. Firstly, young people today are the most educated they’ve ever been but lack many basic ‘adulting’ skills, which they’re very aware of. So they go to the place they learn everything today: their smartphone, specifically YouTube, podcasts and Instagram. There is a shift away from celebrity influencers to advice influencers who can genuinely teach us something. They feel more authentic. Cleaning is a basic life skill and people – men too, I believe – are eager to learn it. 

But perhaps the biggest motivation is that the world is the most volatile it’s been for decades – socially, politically and technologically, things are changing rapidly and people don’t know where they fit. They want to take control of their lives again. We can’t fix the big things, we can’t clean up the whole world or undo all of the plastic pollution. But we can bring more order to our lives by cleaning our living rooms.

This trend won’t disappear any time soon. There are a couple of things which will get in the way, though. While the minimalism trend is strong, it clashes with the fact that we have an increasing love of emotionally resonant objects. So while we own less – we rent and stream – at the same time we want things that are emotionally important around us.

The other thing that is likely to happen is a revolt against these potentially toxic cleaning products. We’re becoming increasingly concerned about what they do to our bodies; we’re already worried about the increase in allergies and asthma.”

The psychiatrist 

Dr Lopa Winters is a consultant psychiatrist and executive coach. She says that there are clear links between cleaning and our mental health

“There’s so much confusion surrounding gender and identity and I wonder if part of this is to do with the loss of traditional gender roles and our wish to return to something binary and easy to understand. There is so much challenging of boundaries right now – whether that’s race, age, our careers – that we’re craving simplicity and tradition to tether ourselves to.

There is a clear link between cleaning and mental health. Our relationship to others, including objects in our homes, is called object relations so every single relationship we have to a person or a thing is a manifestation of how we see the world and how we relate to others. So, if we have an ordered and clean home and take care of our possessions, it communicates something about the state of our mind. That’s why some people get anxious if they lose something, it’s like they’ve lost part of themselves. By tidying your home, you’re effectively tidying your mind – it’s a good representation of what’s going on in your head.

On the flipside, I’ve been into the homes of very mentally unwell people and seen their houses have become incredibly chaotic, with 20 bottles of milk in the lounge, for example. Caring for your home is a type of self-care, although it’s worth noting that it can segue into something else if we become too obsessive and controlling around it.

It’s not surprising that we’re returning to very traditional family values. Home represents ‘base’. Our earliest childhood attachments form in relation to a base parent who we leave and come back to, so it makes sense that we want a sense of home that’s safe and secure to return to as adults, especially when the outside world seems so chaotic and scary right now.

It also makes sense for women who have very busy career lives to find a sense of achievement and mastery in completing a task – even if that task is defrosting your freezer. This is fine if the drive comes from you, but it’s dangerous if it’s pushed on you as something you should do and if you don’t do it you feel a sense of failure.”

The cleanfluencer

Melissa Maker, the founder of cleanmyspace.com, on how she went from being the owner of a boutique cleaning service to a full-blown online influencer

“I started a cleaning business in Toronto in 2006 because there was a perpetual need for a good cleaning service. Then in 2011, my husband suggested filming some YouTube videos of cleaning tips as a marketing tool. We had no equipment, terrible lighting and no real experience with a camera, but more and more people began asking for specific videos on particular cleaning issues. Fast-forward to today, and our YouTube channel has more than one million subscribers, we have an Instagram following of more than 100,000, a book published, our own microfibre cleaning cloth range and we’re also about to launch an e-course for people who want to start their own cleaning business.

Unlike many people who want Instagram fame, I look at cleaning as a problem that people want a solution for. I’m completely honest – I hate cleaning. I wasn’t born with the cleaning gene and I absolutely do not want to spend more time cleaning than I absolutely have to. I think that honesty has really resonated with people.

I also think that Marie Kondo has touched people in a big way and helped to usher in a desire for cleaner, simpler spaces. I also think there is a growing trend for people staying in their homes more, bringing friends and family over for dinner rather than going out and working from home, which all makes us want to make our homes as nice as they can be.

I’ve been taken aback by some of the heartfelt comments I receive. People who tell me they have ADHD and can’t usually stay on a task for too long but that watching a video of me completing a task really helps them. People who are grieving or who are depressed and have lost all motivation have said that the videos empower them so that life doesn’t feel so daunting anymore. There have been so many positive and unintended consequences of the content we have created.

I rarely get accusations that my work is reinforcing gender stereotypes because all of my content is gender neutral and more than 20% of my audience is male. It’s not effeminate to learn how to clean, it’s just a life skill – and an important one at that.”

The feminist

Selma James is a writer, feminist and activist who founded the International Wages For Housework Campaign in 1972

“It may be that this cleaning trend is a fad, or it may be that – as with me from time to time – women want their house to be in perfect order because other parts of their life feel like they’re in chaos. When I have lots of time to clean my kitchen at home and do it properly, I feel very satisfied that a piece of my life is orderly. This new style may be a response to a world in chaos.

The question of housework, however, is on one hand a personal issue, but on the other it is highly political, because whether or not there’s a choice depends on money. Most women aren’t free to make that choice. I think women should be financially supported by the state whatever decision they make, whether that’s working full-time or staying home with children; given a living wage for the work they do at home that affects our social survival.

If this happened, men would stop being averse to doing it. As things stand, men don’t want to be impoverished like women. They’re not stupid. We’ve all seen when a job that used to be largely women, such as nursing, achieves pay equity, all of a sudden there are more men in that role.

My partner is a younger woman – I’m ancient: 88 years old. My energy runs out, so she does more work than I do but it wasn’t always that way. We shared jobs when I was younger. Before her, I was married to a man who was doing intellectual work and I took the burden of cleaning the house.

In my home I like to be surrounded by lots of memories, and that means I am entirely out of fashion. I see younger women’s homes and there’s nothing on show; everything’s clean and they only have two pictures on the wall. But I think they are creating order to deal with uncertainty.”

How to clean up your act

The cleanfluencer trend has sparked a closer look at the potentially toxic chemicals in many of our everyday products. If in doubt, check the ingredients: avoid phthalates, triclosan and 2-butoxyethanol. Here are four products that get Stylist’s green light:

The best kitchen spray

Not only is the packaging on point, this Sweet Orange Kitchen Cleaner by Kinn is free from phosphates and synthetic fragrances, and is not tested on animals.

£4.25, Kinn

The best washing capsules

Brilliant for sensitive skin, Surcare Sensitive Non Bio Laundry Capsules don’t contain enzymes, dyes, acids or fragrances, and are also cruelty-free.

£5, Sainsbury’s

The best dishwasher tablets

Plant-based company Ecover’s dishwasher tablets don’t use any chlorine or phosphates, which can harm marine life, and they leave your dishwasher smelling extra fresh.

£15, Ocado

The best bathroom cleaner

Method Bathroom Spray smells amazing, is made with environmentally- friendly packaging (recycled plastic bottles), is non-toxic and actually gets rid of grime and dirt.

£3, Waitrose

How Was It For You: Women, Sex, Love And Power In The 1960s by Virginia Nicholson (£20, Random House) is out 28 March

Images: Getty Images