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The More I Scrub, the Better I Feel

A former dirtbag, I’m now glued to #CleanTok. What’s going on?

andrea bennett 9 Feb 2024The Tyee

andrea bennett is a senior editor at The Tyee and the author of Hearty: Essays on Pleasure and Subsistence, forthcoming with ECW Press.

In my fifth hour of oven cleaning, I was sitting on an oak kitchen chair, bent over the oven door, attacking baked-on grime with a razor blade scraper. In my headphones, the podcast version of A&E’s Cold Case Files, with Bill Kurtis narrating.

I had a copy edit due, and it was getting late. I’d already worked a full day and made dinner, and, alongside my partner, taken my kid to and from school.

Normally, I’d be resting. But what had rest gotten me? An oven that took five hours to clean.

Like many other elder millennials, I moved an average of once a year between the ages of 17, when I left my childhood home, and 34, when my partner and I bought a house here on B.C.’s northern Sunshine Coast. Very few of the places I lived during those 17 years felt like home, and many were complete shiteholes. We’d deep clean when we moved in and again when we moved out. The span was never long enough for anything to get too unwieldy.

Cleaning this more permanent home necessarily has to be more intentional. Especially since I am a lifelong self-described dirtbag. Like a particularly stubborn cockroach or pizza rat, I have managed to survive many chapters of my life. But I have not had the energy for much more than that. I have not been a subscriber to Architectural Digest or even Apartment Therapy. I would not dare aspire, because aspiration is for urbanite thought leaders working at the intersection of art and technology. You know, people who stock Aesop soap in the Airbnb loft they operate as a side hustle. Not bus-riding, bulk-bean-buying people like me.

But lately, my life is more secure, and I am more like a middle-class pet rat. It feels like my soul has finally realized that there is no hard move-out date here. I will not be pulling an all-nighter to restore it to its initial cleanliness in order to avoid having a landlord threaten to keep our damage deposit. There is no landlord. The landlord is me!

The joy of before-and-afters

Fans of #CleanTok will understand just how satisfying it can be to watch a short video of someone taking a cluttered, dirty space and rendering it neat and tidy. For me, I love how quickly it happens, in unreal time: dirty, clean; dirty, clean; dirty, clean. Cluttered, free of clutter. Everything put back in its place, as if everything has a place, and the world can be so ordered.

There are three basic #CleanTok categories:

  1. A clean person “resets” their untidy new-build apartment, condo or area of their house by clearing away the clutter and dusting, sweeping, vacuuming, mopping and laundering surfaces that are more or less reasonably clean to begin with.
  2. A professional cleaner shows the rest of us rubes how to transform a truly dirty fridge, or kitchen, or oven, or bathroom.
  3. A self-professedly normal person normalizes the journey of becoming clean, taking you, the viewer, along with them.

The resulting transformations address the part of the human psyche that craves the upwardly mobile shift from before to after — that same part of the psyche that makes an unending stream of renovation shows so enduringly popular on HGTV, even amidst global housing and garbage crises.

My own cleaning kick started as 2023 ticked over into 2024. Not as a resolution, but simply because we stayed home over the holidays instead of visiting family, and I finally sat in one place with nothing to do for a long enough period to realize how bad things had become. Encrusted! Dusty! Layered in filth!

It was then that I began taking in #CleanTok videos. It was then that I went online and purchased the hand-held steam cleaner I’d seen popping up in every other kitchen “reset.”

It was then that I made a list of everything calling out for transformation: the insides and outsides of the kitchen drawers and cupboards; the walls; the tops of the cupboards; the mattresses; the baseboards; the less-attended-to bathroom areas; the window and sliding door tracks in the kitchen; the oven; behind the fridge and stove.

As I cleaned, I posted some of my own before-and-afters to my stories on Instagram. A friend told me my shamelessness about the grunge made her feel better about herself. (A public service!)

The more I scrubbed, the more I noticed things that could be even cleaner. I bought a set of small brushes for getting into the nooks. Spritzed cleaner onto the baseboards after vacuuming them; scrubbed with my new crevice tools.

I also bought a habit tracker and made lists of daily, weekly and monthly tasks. The compost bin, for example, would soak on Saturdays. All the curtains would be washed on the first of the month, and the bedding every weekend. The stovetop and sinks polished once a week; the oven, once every three months. It’s like those vintage 1940s housewife cleaning schedules, if less ambitious.

The house began to look better. My newly trained eye was no longer catching on the contrast between the white paint on the baseboards and the grime stuck in the previously unreachable crannies. Though I’d stacked more work into an already busy schedule, I felt like I could relax a bit more, knowing things were cleaner.

Some form of safe space?

As a detail-oriented person, asking my brain to actually pay attention to the state of our home also had downsides — nothing is ever perfect. For example, I thought I could Windex the inside and outside of the window closest to my desk at the tail end of my lunch break. I returned to work seven minutes late feeling unaccomplished: the lunchtime wipe-down left streaks and had done little to address the filth caught in the window tracks. I’d need to return at night with the detailing brushes and steam cleaner.

Cleaning also cannot address the shoddy workmanship or entropy present in much of our 85-year-old home. The last owners installed poorly aligned vinyl flooring directly over the old fir flooring, neglecting to remove the old baseboard; our vacuum, which my partner, Will, found on the curb and resuscitated, can’t reach anything that gets stuck in the small but significant crack left between the two.

There is a rough patch of cement covering a piece of broken tile in the bathroom, like a scab that just won’t heal. While most of the window tracks are clean for now, moss has taken over the worn-down exterior wooden windowsills. Most recently, I was cleaning the mirror on the ceiling of our bathroom (don’t even ask), and the chair I was standing on punched a hole through the vinyl plank that had been haphazardly laid over a Timbit-sized hole in the subfloor.

These are not the kind of problems any of the very-clean people seem to face in their new-build houses and condos. Nor is it a problem showcased by clean people in older homes — not unless said clean person is filming a renovation.

This is, a bit, where the spectre of capitalism looms. Many of the same folks who “reset” their kitchens also film fridge and pantry restocking videos. They decant their milk from the carton into a clear plastic carton shaped to look like a milk carton; they line up 24 snack-sized bags of chips into a drawer that has been fitted with dividers suited to hold just that exact number of bags of chips. They stack their Oreos neatly into cookie jars as if building a 21st-century pyramid.

In pursuit of this esthetically appealing life, the home organizer and storage market is booming, worth $11.7 billion a year and projected to grow a further 3.5 per cent over the next five years.

I am not saying cleaning is for rich people. I am saying the performative, broadcast act of cleaning fits in a niche that is aspirational, with a focus on the domestic — a sphere that is, overall, more within our individual control than many other things in the world.

As I’ve been scrubbing, not even Bill Kurtis has been able to drown out the question: Am I focusing so much on the rehabilitation of grime because everything else is falling apart?

Is everyone glued to #CleanTok similarly seeking some form of safe space, some form of achievable control?

An unanswerable question. And of course, everyone deserves a space where they can feel comfortable, a space where they can relax. Especially those for whom the world presents more barriers and irritations. For every #CleanTok mansion housing a white upper-middle-class family, there is a queer man attending to his couch with a special fabric vacuum, a Black woman cleaning and restocking her coffee cupboard.

The desire to stack Oreos and steam-clean every hard surface in sight might even be a symptom of the housing crisis, rather than a contributing factor — or maybe it’s both. If a person cannot afford a nicer apartment, or enough space to house a growing family, they might instead be able to shape the space they have into something they like just a bit better.

Personally, in optimistic moments, I’d rather be a dirtbag, and put my limited energies towards something community-oriented, something that might make the world a bit of a better place. For now, I find myself turned inward, soothing my soul by bringing my oven door back to a factory-fresh sparkle and gleam.  [Tyee]

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