abstract illustration of minimalism as a restraint
Illustration by A Women’s Thing.

While a tenet of minimalist philosophy is awareness—the removal of all but the essential in order to fully appreciate an object, a food, a garment—this makes its opposite equally true. Minimalism is a throttle on pleasure, a restriction of life. A spiritual starvation. Jessica Gross examines two sides of the minimalist approach. Edited by Genevieve Walker & Ryan Goldberg

By Jessica Gross

I feel about minimalism the way I feel about the chiseled, hairless men who grace the pages of Abercrombie & Fitch catalogues: I respect the aesthetic from afar, but I wouldn’t want to sleep with them. As with ultra-thin supermodels, the ultimate good is to possess no excess fat, no unwieldy jiggling forms. Such bodies require, for most, an extreme abstention and physical discipline to maintain. The philosophical minimalist seeks a similar conclusion of anorexia: not spiritual fulfillment, but the opposite—ultimate disconnection and unreality.

Several months ago, flipping through New York Magazine in my fat gray armchair, I came across my dream house. I ripped out the photos to save: a working brick and brown-marble fireplace was set into a green wall. Flowers exploded out of vases and from designs on the walls and little vials in the chandelier over the dining table. It was all sumptuous fabric, warm woods, sunlight, bright color. It was vegetal and alive.

Does minimalist philosophy carry us toward life, or away from it?

In contrast was another space in the same magazine: the furniture was spare; so were colors. A bathtub revealed no ornamentation; it looked like an oversized Crate and Barrel olive bowl. It was all angles, glass, white space. Stark. Like my dream house, this one was also full of sunlight, but instead of soaking into plush fabrics, bringing out the pinks and greens and blues, the light seemed to bound around the room. I cringed. I do not have a taste for minimalist style.

But minimalism is not only an aesthetic; it is also a philosophy and a lifestyle. Bloggers and authors “The Minimalists,” Joshua Fields Millburn and Ryan Nicodemus, write and speak about “living a meaningful life with less stuff.” They describe minimalism as “a tool used to rid yourself of life’s excess in favor of focusing on what’s important so you can find happiness, fulfillment and freedom.” At its best, minimalism does work toward this noble end. Shifting one’s focus away from superficial trappings, stepping out of the consumerist frenzy, can pave the way toward greater spiritual connection—with friends, with nature, with oneself.

However, this same minimalism is just as often a cover for the opposite. Minimalism’s anti-consumerist and environmentalist leanings are inarguable moral goods whose unassailability acts as a convenient cloak for the real root of minimalist drives: Puritanism in form, figure and virtue.

In this way, minimalism, ostensibly a way of eliding the trappings, can become the trappings. Austerity becomes a moral good in itself—not because it allows us to reach fulfillment, but because it proves that we are strong un-humans, capable of subsisting in the harshest conditions. We will adorn our walls with our moral fortitude, we will dress ourselves in willpower. Does minimalist philosophy carry us toward life, or away from it?

This essay originally appeared in the Minimalism issue. For more stories dealing with minimalism, check out Women’s Bodies: Apples & Pears Are Not the Only Fruit and Waste Not Want Not.