There are bikes with banana seats hanging from the ceiling. My latte is delivered to me, deconstructed, by a man with a mustache, the ends twisted up. The coffee trembles in a hand-thrown teacup with a lopsided lip. The frothed milk sits in a miniature Erlenmeyer flask. The sugar is pre-spooned and resting on the unfinished wood slab of a serving tray, as if I scooped it myself and forgot to stir it in. The floor and walls and bar are all concrete.
When I look the coffee shop up on Instagram, flurries of filtered images taken by women in cream-colored sweaters and raw-hemmed jeans pop up one by one. If I click on these women’s profiles, I will be taken to apartment interiors with exposed brick walls and cocktail bars with $16 drinks adorned by sprigs of rosemary. They will have white couches and rugged boyfriends. Somewhere, the mothers roll their eyes and wave the scissors they’d like to take to those high-and-tight haircuts.
This is the aesthetic of our time. Millennial, pastel, #bossbabe minimalism. This is the hipster-not-hipster, healthy “lifestyle,” self-care dream world that we are sold and told to strive for, and that I write about more elsewhere.
It is beautiful like the deserts the monks fled to. But, the monks did not stay there.
I sound cynical. I am critical. I am also hypocritical. I love the way my desert looks next to your desert on my phone. I just bought a cream sweater! Starbucks just tastes worse, you know?
These all have their virtues. Thrifting and independent coffee shops and the sought-after clothing brands that make up the presently ideal feminine “look” are probably better for the planet than the fast-fashion, big box, making-Bezos-richer, 40% cotton and 60% plastic things we bought decades prior.
But these things are also coded with elitism. They come to be associated with certain values: Wealth, thin-ness, individualism, not having children, upward mobility. The all-natural movement, the wellness movement, the minimalist hygge movement: all of these require a level of financial security, affluence, and independence to uphold.
It’s the same reasoning that made wedding dresses white: A sign of status, to show you have the money for clean linen.
These spaces and ideals are often not reflective of BIPOC cultures. They are also not often accessible (that walk-up apartment “with character” isn’t an option for your neighbor with a wheelchair…) I am reminded of the fact that most “As Seen On TV” gadgets you see and think, “who on Earth struggles with putting on shoes or pouring a jug??” were actually designed with disabled persons in mind. Those dinky, cheap items you laugh at are meant to fill accessibility gaps.
That is the reality of most colorful, easy things: we’ve labeled them “cheap.” We celebrate knowing that Kirkland brand vodka is actually Grey Goose brand vodka because it means our affordable option is secretly fancy. We scoff at plastic, musical children’s toys because we’ve decided the best thing for them and for our planet are tan wood blocks. And maybe the toxicology studies are true, but maybe we’re also attracted to things we’re told make us better, more responsible mothers?
I don’t have children. But regardless of what your life’s season and your opinions on color and plastic, can’t we together see how our commitment to a minimalist, white-washed (in every sense) aesthetic is exclusionary?
There is nothing intrinsically wrong about liking or striving to own few items, wear ethically-made clothing, use minimally packaged goods, design your space rustically or industrially, and avoiding practices that have been linked to health issues. But there is something wrong with making these things benchmarks or hallmarks of goodness and success.
There is also something wrong when our demand for previously-inexpensive things makes them inaccessible to the groups that once relied on them. We can and do gentrify more than just buildings.
The Church is not immune. This aesthetic and lifestyle have taken hold with the women who are driving the online Catholic community. They are majority white or white-passing, and they accommodate this aesthetic into their beliefs about modesty, poverty, and goodness. When we think about monasticism, minimalism and self-awareness seem to fall right into step: Owning few possessions, being disconnected from the commercial world, focusing on the self. It is easy to start believing that the path to holiness is paved in subway tile backsplash and always wears a veil to Mass. There are greyscale rosaries that sell out in seconds and someone help me if I see one more prayer written in that damn-near-illegible calligraphic cursive.
And it all still somehow flies under the flag of Christianity being counter-cultural, even when the filters we put on our pictures of cathedral interiors are the same ones that Bachelorette contestant used for her Hawaiian getaway. The shampoo bar and metal razor come to represent our own life of small graces and sacrifices. Are we still allowing ourselves to believe that the height of commercialization and capitalism is bright lights, colors, and sounds? The height of capitalism is monetizing goodness, no matter what shade it comes in. It isn’t “evangelizing in a language the secular culture understands” if what gives it value is the look and not the Lord.
The fact is that this trendiness is not truth. We cannot buy into the individualism of empty homes and be ready for the messiness of the people Jesus calls us to welcome. Monasticism requires community, owning few possessions requires responsibility, disconnecting from the commercial world means recognizing when you’re being sold something. The most meaningful monasticism is giving of your self to your community. Your confidence and individuality glorify the God who made you.
You can have an eco-friendly, healthy life that brims with color and relies upon others. You can wear a patterned shirt that catches everyone’s eye without being immodest. You can own a white couch as long as people are allowed to make themselves at home on it. If you wouldn’t give it to your kid, don’t give it to the church toy drive. Look with pride on your parquet floor and your popcorn ceiling! Thrifting is just hand-me-downs with a price tag you have to rip off: No one will know the difference. Your life is not a “before” picture. Old homes and old clothes and old bodies are normal. The planet also has roots and wrinkles.
Reflect with thanksgiving on the things you already have. Before you toss it in the bin because it doesn’t spark joy, have you asked if someone else could use it? Have you expressed gratitude for it? Are you discontent with it because it doesn’t match the aesthetic you’re striving for? One of the best things you can do for the planet is keep what you already have. We surely have technicolor landfills.
So why does my website look like this?
It’s not because I’m “not like other girls.” It’s not because I’m immune to the siren song of a capsule wardrobe. It’s not because I’m the aesthetic police.
It took me the better part of a month to decide how to design this website. Every time I looked at the colors I chose for the logo or the fonts I felt were most universal, I thought to myself, “Yeah, but this isn’t trendy. Nobody’s website looks like this. There’s not enough white. There’s not enough calligraphy or typewriter script. People will think it’s for children. People won’t take me seriously.” And sure, I swapped out the theme once or twice, but it is still difficult to look at something you love, something that feels like home, something-that’s-all-you-have and think, “but it’s not what we’ve decided is beautiful.”
I say “we” because aesthetic is the product of consumer demand. So I thought about my consumer. I thought about how they’re excluded by our commitment to clean lines and crisp whiteness in the home, in the body, written by hand. And I pressed that “Publish” button.
With Theology for EveryBody, I’m committed to keeping color. I am committed to making the ideas I share about environmental justice, life with chronic illness, disability advocacy, and faith-filled beauty rooted in reality and accessibility, not trendiness. The logo I designed is simple and recognizable. Bright colors reminds me of nature and childhood. The front-page yellow is the yellow I’ve painted my dining space wall. It is all beautiful, to me. It is all a personal rebellion against our presently popular, muted aesthetic, in an effort to distance myself from practices imbued with classism. It is a continued practice in humbling myself before a God who makes promises with rainbows.
*Many thanks to my good internet friend Clare McCallan–a fantastic spoken word artist with an incredible sense of fashion, humor, and honesty–for being a conversation partner on all of these things. So glad we “met.” Make sure to check out her work and follow her on Instagram 🙂