The first time I came across the word sluttish as a child, it was printed in a library book. I no longer remember what the book was, but I do remember immediately adding it to my mental list of words to look up in the dictionary when my parents weren’t looking. It’s what I did with sexual intercourse and bitch; it was what I’d done the day before with virgin.
When I felt brave enough, I pretended to need the dictionary for homework so I could sit on the floor and read it at the dance studio while my mom and I waited for my sister to finish tumbling class. Looking up sluttish would solve a dual mystery: the meaning of that word, but the meaning, too, of the one nestled inside it. I’d seen the word slut carved into the back of bathroom doors at gas stations and on the damp soft wood of my playground’s underbelly: I knew slut was profane in that context, but not why or what it meant. And if it was profane, what was its big sister, sluttish, doing in my children’s historical fiction? With one hand acting as shield, I moved the other down the page, my fingertips looking for sluttish and repeating the word in my head as I did so: that lush sillabant slu, like silk gliding across the floor of my mind; the laze and hiss of ish; the abundant tts hanging from the word’s middle as heavy as overripe fruit. The sounds made me feel excited and embarrassed. I found the word, hovered, read, read again.
As happened every time I brought the dictionary a word I dimly knew in my body to be both sexual and feminine, the definition I read only raised more questions. If sluttish described both a dirty, messy home and the low woman who failed to properly keep it, where did the sex of slut come in? How could virgin be a joke at school, an unfertilized animal, and part of the Holy Mother’s name? Why was bitch a swear word when Bruce Willis said it in Die Hard and not when Brontë wrote it in Wuthering Heights? When were these words bad words, and when were they good? This last question was the fundamental one. Like virgin, sluttish was a word that even as a child I knew applied, somehow to me—or could, if I wasn’t careful. If I didn’t stay tidy, keeping my body and its accoutrements within the limits of a small and acceptable space. If I didn’t keep clean.
Like a dirty, messy body, a dirty, messy house distresses because it (1) disrupts expected order and (2) expands beyond the limits of the space it’s allowed to take. Because it’s in contradiction with established social rules, we feel embarrassed when we see too much of one thing, whether that “thing” is dozens of packages of socks bought on discount—just in case—overflowing from a groaning dresser, or pubic hair growing well beyond a bikini’s line. And by “we,” I mean America: land of the super-size and Whole30, housing crisis and tiny houses. We’re embarrassed by what we see, but we’re interested, which is why shows like Hoarders, Intervention, Tiny House Hunters, The Biggest Loser, and most recently Tidying Up with Marie Kondo have gained popularity in the last decade. We like to see people lose control of their intimate, domestic spaces, whether that space is a home, a relationship, or a living body. But that’s not why we watch. We watch because we want collective reassurance that there is an established order to life that we all acknowledge and agree upon. If we break beyond that order, as so many on these shows do, not only are there clear stakes and punishment—ostracism, pain, humiliation, even death—but, according to the moral story these shows present, there is a clear, linear path back to regaining status: by taking control, or being perceived to do so.
Of course, there is no uniform “we” in America, no collective order “we’ve” all agreed upon that is fair and kind to all. Our various orders, from the police to education to health care to what “we’ve” decided a healthy body looks like, are all hierarchical, firmly grounded in exploitation and power, and profoundly destructive—especially to people whose bodies don’t fall into order: femmes, queers, trans people and women; the poor, disabled, the neurodivergent; anyone of any gender who reads as non-white. The creative work of Alok Vaid-Menon, the Unruly Bodies series curated by Roxane Gay, and the radical action of ADAPT are just a few examples of people, action, and art that interrogates damaging notions of ordered bodies while creating space, on the page or in the streets, where bodies are allowed to thrive and take up space according to their own innate sense of what’s needed, of what’s nourishing and good.
You can find examples of America’s obsession with intimate displays of expansion, retraction, and control in every decade of our history since European-indigenous contact: the expansion of states’ rights at the expense of the dignity, rights, and lives of the people those states enslaved; the rise of for-profit colleges even as overall enrollment in bachelor’s, associate’s, and certificate programs in recent years has declined. For now, I’ve put my own personal pin in the housing crisis of 2008, that time of McMansions and glutinnous suburbs: a boom of excess followed by a winnowing bust.
In 2008, I was newly 21, and my parents were in the process of losing their home. In 2009, I graduated from college and into a driftless economy, finally securing a part-time minimum wage job that October. Back home, my parents and siblings moved out of our house and into another that, until recently, had belonged to another large family. They, too, had been forced to declare bankruptcy. It was a few years before my mom was willing to paint over the red, yellow, green, and blue handprints of the children who’d played in the basement before hers and left proof of their presence on the stairwell wall.
Perhaps after moving repeatedly to escape rising rents or property taxes, early millennials first began to pare down, if only because it was too expensive to move our possessions over and over again. Or perhaps we tired of dragging them out in public, enduring the Craigslist or front-yard sale. Regardless of circumstance—medical bills, predatory loans, institutional racism, or plain old bad luck—losing our homes or moving into tinier and tinier apartments meant, for many of us, a repeal of our things. Though not for me; my boyfriend says I have the decorative tastes of a magpie. From where I’m sitting in my apartment (a one-bedroom, the first of my adult life after a decade of roommates and studios), I can count no fewer than six different patterns of fabric. I like my things. It feels, more and more, important for me to take up space. But I get it. The appeal of millennial domestic minimalism, for all its spareness, is broad: from those damn tiny houses to, I’d argue, the pristine patternless-basics of Everlane (Full disclosure: I’m sitting in a pair of Everlane underwear right now).
As we begin to age, American millennials, too, fall into that endless cycle of self-improvement focused on expansion and restriction. In its current iteration, a more-than-vague current of orientalism flows beneath dialogues around yoga (eternally yoga, always yoga, for every U.S. generation since the ’60s) and meditation apps; veganism and probiotics (miso and kimchi have seen a boost in sales, and thus a boost in price); Korean skin care practices (and products) and yes, keeping house.
Back to sluttishness: Before she was dirtied by sexual experience, a slut was a woman who couldn’t keep a neat house.
Slut’s wool: n. the fluff or dust left on the floor, etc., by a sluttish servant or person.
Slut’s-pennies: n. hard pieces in a loaf due to imperfect kneading of the dough.
Slut-hole: n. (also slut’s-hole) a…place or receptacle for rubbish.
Slut’s corner: n. a corner left uncleaned by a sluttish person.
When I was a child, I collected rocks by the pocketful because I felt a great and perhaps pathological empathy with the world. I kept bright bits of trash and candy wrappers in my room because I thought they were precious and beautiful. In my desk drawers lived the small legged discs that came in pizza boxes to protect the hot cheese from the cardboard’s oppression: I liked to pretend they were tiny tables for tiny pizza. When I had to empty my pockets before I was ready, or when I had to walk quickly rather than pick up every lone pebble I saw, I sobbed with my mouth open. Being from a large family, I couldn’t imagine anything lonelier than being a lone rock; that’s why I picked them up. I carried them for a while, my pockets sagging, until I found their families. In the meantime, while they waited for reunion, the rocks could talk to each other.
When I was a child, I had a great-aunt who wouldn’t stop eating and so had her mouth wired shut. But she was also, of course, sexually promiscuous, overgenerous with her body, heedless of the boundaries culture and time imposed upon her. I’m sure she was what we’d now call a hoarder. I’m sure, wherever she lived (and she moved a lot), she failed to properly clean her slut’s corner.
It’s a particularly white characteristic to take another culture’s practice and reinterpret it as a kind of house-diet, and in that, I am no exception. Many Americans fear disordered living, but also disordered eating, which is what I thought of the first time I encountered The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing.
The book was in the hands of a woman. “She says you thank the item with joy,” my friend said slowly, “and then give it away.” I knew this friend felt intense shame around messiness and clutter, and that it was emotionally difficult for her to get rid of anything that fell into the loose category of stuff. It didn’t matter if I loved her bedroom, or her, how they were; that wasn’t my call to make. I was glad to hear her consider a new way to approach tidying, a method that emphasized emotions rather than ignoring them; I also thought of our shared history of disordered eating and exercise, the winters when we both chewed cookies and spit them back out into garbage cans; enough to get the taste, not the calories.
Ever since that conversation with my friend, in the comfort of kitchens or online spaces that function as living rooms, I’ve listened to women recommend The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up with the enthusiasm that, at a younger age, they’d reserved for diet and exercise tips. It reminds me of how, back in college, I used to listen to young women joke about the weight-loss wonder of a cigarette and coffee dinner while I tied my shoes in the school gym. To lose more, to keep less, and better fit the silhouette shape of woman. To be unencumbered by mess, or memory.
To be clear, this is not a critique of the KonMari method or of Marie Kondo, but an attempt to understand why the women I know are passing along clothes-folding techniques in their 30s like they did laxative pills in their 20s. We’re possessed by a desire to shed clothes and belongings like weight, so that we might be smaller, sparer, in control of our various appetites. That we might take up less space. This is not a use of Kondo’s techniques and advice, but an abuse, much the way we once abused exercise, amphetamines, laxatives: necessary medicines for many, but twisted in our hands. This is about us: the American viewer and reader, and what, in our eternal binge and purge of things, ideas, and people, we demand of the bodies and habits of others, especially when they fall out of line.
Women of all castes have historically been tied tightly to the home, whether we’re having our house cleaned, we’re cleaning our house, or we’re cleaning someone else’s. While that hierarchy is based in classism and racism, it seems to me like 21st-century women are still evaluated by the standards of the 19th-century Cult of Domesticity, a U.S. and U.K. values system obsessed with defining “true womanhood” via a woman’s perceived possession of the following traits: domesticity, submissiveness, piety, and purity. It only makes sense that today, many women in America have fully digested the idea that their homes are their reflections. Keeping a slim home demonstrates intelligence and control, keeps us youthful, “classic,” lithe.
The emotional release of paring down, getting rid of, and (re)gaining control is a milestone achievement, and I do not question or criticize people for whom the move to minimalism has brought peace or joy. I’m just nervous of anything that overtly praises people in general, and women in particular, for taking up less space.
As a child, every word that made me feel that prick of curiosity, attraction, dawning identification and fear got the dictionary treatment. With it, I wanted to understand and order my world. To bring order to the chaos of learning and living, yes, but also order to my body and its sluttish possibilities; to my gender and how others perceived it. I longed to understand what these words—words that would, I knew in my blood, someday apply to my body, my life, and the way I live it or was supposed to—meant. With that knowledge, I believed I would finally know the answer: am I bad, or good?
Image credit: Unsplash/Onur Bahçıvancılar.