Have you seen the Minimalism Film yet? It’s a documentary about The Minimalists and it’s so inspiring. I was thrilled to finally meet (and hug!) two people who’ve been a huge source of inspiration for me. But it also inspired me to share this story from a few years ago.
The Minimalism Film
If you’re not familiar with The Minimalists, their names are Josh and Ryan. They’re two guys on a mission to help people learn how to live more meaningful lives with less. They’re writers and podcasters, and now documentary filmmakers. They’re not hardcore “50 items only” types, nor do they live in tiny homes. They do, however, live meaningful lives with less.
The documentary highlights a broad range of people who encompass all realms of minimalism. Some have tailored down the items they own so they can live out of a suitcase. Others live in — and build — tiny homes. And others just try not to consume so darn much so they can focus on other, more meaningful aspects of their lives.
The Project: Not Buying Any Clothes
The documentary reminded me of a project I undertook in 2010. The project was, in fact, inspired partly by Josh and Ryan’s mission. My goal was to go a year without buying any new clothes. I realize it sounds spoiled of me to create a project like that in the first place. How often do I buy new clothes, anyway? Would it be that much of a stretch to go without for a whole year?
The Results: Life-Changing
Looking back, I see the “challenge” in a different light. I had no idea that six years later, it’s still one of the most important projects I’ve ever completed. That year completely changed my perspective on everything I consume.
It’s not just about clothes; it’s media, food, relationships, and everything in between. It woke me up to how I spend not only my money, but my time and energy across all areas of my life. It woke me up to a crucial, elemental part of myself that I might not have ever known.
If that sounds extreme, maybe it is. But I offer you the challenge. If you’re questioning or curious about my reasons, approach, or results, try it for yourself with your own reasons and approach. I’d love to hear your results!
How to Do It
Pick one thing you probably consume too much of. It could be clothes. Maybe it’s books, video games, shoes, home decorations, or other items. Maybe it’s news, celebrity Instagrams, or blogs. It could be happy hours or cupcakes. You probably know off the top of your head what that thing is. Choose that thing.
If you’re not ready for a year, start with a month. You can do anything for 30 days. Just give it up. When you feel the temptation to give in, don’t just distract yourself from that feeling. Sit with it, instead. Feel the depth of wanting, and then remind yourself why you’re doing this challenge.
Consider what you might be trying to replace — emotionally, maybe — by consuming this thing. Write about it. Meditate on it. Think about it a lot, but let it pass. Keep letting it pass. Keep digging deep. Write more. Question more. Let yourself feel more. Then keep going.
Below is a copy of a blog post I wrote at the end of the year of no clothes, which I saved from a now-defunct older blog of mine. I hope you enjoy the story. Please leave comments if you’re inclined! I’d love to hear your own stories of challenges like this one.
The original post about my year of not buying clothes follows below.
* * *
A Year of Not Buying Clothes: My 2010 Resolution, Explored
I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practice resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms, and, if it proved to be mean, why then to get the whole and genuine meanness of it, and publish its meanness to the world; or if it were sublime, to know it by experience, and be able to give a true account of it in my next excursion.
–Henry David Thoreau, Walden
Over the last three and a half years, I have made some deliberate changes in my life. My Thoreauan attempt to simplify and rediscover the basics was intended to make my life better; to focus on quality, not quantity; “to live deep”. In 2007, I quit my highly stressful corporate job and took on a new part-time career path as a yoga teacher (a hobby-turned-passion for well over a decade). I learned Reiki, got certified as a wellness coach, ate primarily vegan, and created a beautiful garden in which my partner Dave and I grew our own kale, spinach, chard, and other super-greens. I finished writing the first, second, and third drafts of a novel.
And still, I shopped. I earned paychecks guiding yoga students to the quiet stillness of their deepest selves, and spent those paychecks at Target on four or five new T-shirts and another unnecessary pair of “yoga pants.” The irony did not escape me. Dave and I composted, recycled, and reused more and more, buying our groceries from the local organic market. I even got a reusable hemp coffee filter and a bag-dryer for our Ziplocs. Yet, I still came home with an armful or two of cheap clothes made in China, stuffing my dresser and closet with more. But they’re so cute, I’d say to myself about my seventh pair of stretchy pants. But I needed more color in my wardrobe. But I just wanted something new. But I just got paid! But… but…
Toward the end of 2009, I started considering my 2010 resolutions. I was teaching 10 yoga classes a week and was nearing the end of my wellness coaching training. Part of that training focused on helping people set reachable goals. Ultimately, it turns out, we can only ever reach goals that we believe in. Which sounds obvious, until you strip away the fluff and get to the heart of the matter. What drives you to do anything, ever?
I thought about my own motivations, my drive. The fire under my pants that spurred my career change and my love of writing stemmed from my desire to live deliberately. It is the heart of yoga, that deliberate living. And one way I cheated myself of that marrow-sucking deliberation was by spending so vaguely and broadly on cheap stuff. I reasoned that I could regain some ol’ Thoreauan vigor by challenging my habits to a point where I would be challenging my motivation in general. Why do I consume the way I do? How will it feel not to? What do I stand to lose or gain by saying “no”?
As a lifelong artist, writer, and painter, I was a little scared by the restriction, but also fired up. It would certainly challenge my ability to express myself if I didn’t even have the option to do so by simply wearing new and different clothes. It’s easy to dazzle other people with outfits, to make a visual impression. It’s also easy to use clothing and style as a crutch, a mask; to wear a costume instead of an authentic statement of self. If I felt constrained by the resolution, well, I’d just have to find new ways to express my creativity… and in doing so, I would hopefully also solidify my personal and deliberate sense of style.
So, I stated my resolution: I would not buy any clothes in 2010. This resolution went through several revisions before 2009 ended. Some variations I rejected included:
- Not buying any new clothes — while I am a huge fan of thrift stores, this option ultimately defeated the purpose
- Only allowing new clothes in if I got rid of an existing item — but I felt there are too many ways to justify keeping the old item
- Not buying any clothes from Target (or insert-name-of-store here)
- Only buying local, handmade, organic cotton, hemp, etc.
My final decision was simply not to buy any clothes, no matter where they came from or how sustainable they might be. This would include shoes, accessories like scarves and hats, and purses. I would be allowed to buy socks once and underwear once (better buy the good stuff!). I had a closet and dresser full of clothes. I could get through a year. On December 31, 2009, I bought a black base-layer tee and a pair of wool gloves from a surplus store near Tahoe, my last purchase. And I kept the folded and worn receipt in my wallet for months, as a quiet reminder.
As January came and went, I was remarkably unsurprised at how easy Month 1 seemed. My secret mantra affirmation became, I am a model of restraint and eco-conscious sustainability. It felt good to simplify! I even cleaned out my closet, bagging up clothes I wasn’t ready to get rid of for good and placed them in storage, in case I “needed” them again.
Then came February. Mid-month, I’d be leaving for 20 days in Hawaii: a week-long yoga training followed by a vacation with Dave. In the past, a beach vacation was the perfect excuse for new clothes. A beach vacation meant getting away from humdrum realities and indulging in something exotic, tropical, foreign. A vacation meant exploring new worlds. And new worlds required new stuff. At the very least, a new bikini or two, a sundress, new sandals, shorts, a few sleeveless tops, and a new wrap or sweater for evening strolls along a torch-lit promenade.
Needless to say, I faced my first wave of resistance. And my first excuse.
“The Big Island gets rainy,” warned my yoga training packing list, “so be sure to bring a waterproof jacket.” But I didn’t have a waterproof jacket! My fancy trench coat didn’t count, and would have been too big to pack, anyway.
“You’re probably not going to need one,” Dave tried to reassure me.
“But they say I’ll need one! It’s part of the required stuff!” I argued back, clearly needing… something. We debated, me adamant that I deserved to buy a new, packable rain jacket because I might get wet in Hawaii, and him kindly and quietly offering my resolution back to me.
I seethed in silence, unwilling to fess up that I knew I didn’t need to buy a jacket. With the number of outdoorsy girlfriends I have, certainly somebody would have one I could borrow. But admitting I knew the solution after I had so strongly stated my case would have felt like defeat. In this instance, my need to be right outweighed my need to live deep. I am not proud of this. So, I told Dave I would borrow a jacket from someone. But I procrastinated. And soon it was a day before I had to leave. And instead of calling anyone, I bought a jacket.
Several things about this scenario are now obvious to me. I was very nervous about the yoga training, had no idea what to expect, and didn’t know anyone else going. It was going to be an intense week, practicing as much as 8 hours of yoga per day, even past midnight, with over 100 other people. It was going to be a yoga training like none I’d ever done. And I was scared!
I’d been teaching for a few years but the path of teaching yoga is life-long and I was just a toddler. And in true toddler style, it was easier to say, I need this thing, than to say, I need reassurance that everything will be okay. It was easier to point to the brochure and say, It’s required! than to point to myself and say, I’m still a little unsure about this new path I’m on and I’m kind of making up the rules as I go along.
It DID rain on the Big Island, and on Maui after that. I wore the rain jacket often during those 20 days. Yet I have not worn it once, since.
As the year progressed, it became easier to spot my tendencies to “want” “things” as a replacement for feeling and expressing emotions. Unbelievably, I also got a new job that combined two of my greatest loves: yoga and writing. Something here was working, so I powered through. I was drawn to continually de-clutter my life and my brain, so I cleaned out my dresser. Then I cleaned out my closet again. Then I cleaned out both, again. The focus shifted. During one multi-bag trip to the Salvation Army, I realized this resolution was no longer about the way I fill voids with “stuff.” Reining in this emotional immaturity seemed practically easy.
But what was hard? Recognizing that if I’m not filling my voids with stuff, and I’m feeling centered in my True Authentic Self, then what I’m wearing really does not matter. This, combined with the acknowledgment that if I’m going to be so true to myself, then I really should only and ever be adorning myself in clothes that I really and truly love. It sounds a little contradictory, but has at its heart the same ideal of living deliberately.
Which led me to the next step in this process: figuring out, once and for all, why I like the clothes I like and why I wear the ones I like best. What is it, specifically, about that black scoop-neck, empire-waist top that I love? Why, specifically, do I always get compliments when I’m wearing those silver-gray pants? What is my “personal style”?
One gray Saturday, I piled all my clothes onto my bed — from the closet, dresser, even the ones I’d stashed in the hallway for future cravings. I stripped to my undies, and one by one, tried on every single item of clothing. With my mirrors arranged so I could see full-length front, back, and sides, I tried as best as I could to separate my emotional connection from the clothes and play an internal game of What Not to Wear. Thinking back now, I find it funny I didn’t watch that show once in 2010, although the lessons learned from wearing what fits and what looks good — rather than what you’re emotionally attached to — guided my second half of the year.
Being brutally honest, I stripped my closet to the most minimal it’s ever been. Those super-tight, shiny black bootleg ultra-low-rise pants that I wore clubbing in 2000 — talk about emotional attachment. There was indeed a party in those pants (several, in fact). But ten years later, I look surprisingly like an aging prostitute in them. Same with the vinyl mini-dress. The pink-striped thermal top with thumb holes brought back warm memories of road-tripping in Mexico, but it simply could not sustain the stains.
Fashion: Form & Function
After that multi-bag trip to the Salvation Army, I got serious. I began to research couture. I researched body types and compared sizing in the USA and UK. I measured and re-measured all the many and various parts of my body. I discovered — how on Earth had I never realized this before? — that the “problem” with all those shirts that make me look like a sausage is simply that I have a very short waist. A very short waist. And certain styles of shirts emphasize that fact, turning me into a li’l smokey on sticks. I’d thought my legs were short, because I sometimes have to get my pants hemmed. Turns out I have long legs and a long rise, although from head-to-toe, overall I am kinda short.
The fashion websites I researched showed me that, indeed, short-waisted bodies look much more flattering in scoop-neck tops with empire waists (just like my favorite shirt!), and that boyish hips/butt and longer legs look best in slim-fitting, straight leg pants (just like my silver-gray pants!). My intuition had been validated! I had reason to trust the compliments of others! Just like that, a lifetime of shopping habits based on trends and impulse rather than on what truly flatters me… disappeared.
As Autumn entered the picture, catalogs full of drapey, cashmere sweaters and long, fluffy scarves tempted me. I wanted more flattering slim pants to pair with knee-high boots. I wanted. I wanted. And yet, it was easier than ever before to simply recognize my appreciation for certain items and leave it at that. As winter and the holidays came, knowing I’d made it so far provided all the incentive I needed to keep going. No way would I give up now! Although, I had begun to compile a list of things to buy once the year was up: mostly shoes, and practical ones, at that. As for clothes, I’d like some new bras. And a new pair of running leggings. The rest will come in time. I am simply not concerned.
Ultimately, my experiment worked. I feel like I can recognize my true feelings and desires and wants and needs more easily than ever in my life. I have no desire, none at all, to rush out and spend, spend, spend. There is nothing to overcompensate for! The inner strength and self-awareness I’ve gained have given me new confidence in all areas of my life. I am forever grateful for this year’s challenge. As 2011 hatches, my new resolve to buy no books for a year seems practically easy. And I can guarantee that I’m going to be one confidently and deliberately attired library patron.
* * *
Do you practice minimalism? Have you set up challenges like this for yourself? Leave a message in the comments and share your story! 🙂