Deep-cleaning the “Cleanfluencer”: a helping hand, or a strange digital anachronism?
“I hate that word!” says Gemma Bray of the term ‘cleanfluencer’, “it just makes me cringe a little bit inside.”
But cringe constitutes a lot of the cleanfluencers’ charm with a premise as banal as people posting videos of themselves cleaning their homes over and over again accompanied by crass commercialism. How could anyone possibly be a fan? Why do people want to document themselves cleaning their homes? Why do they all seem to have grey interiors? (Back-up question: do they ever finish cleaning their house?) While I was sucked in by bemusement, what I found was a deeply political root, a mental health battleground, and a sense of community.
Let us start on the glimmering, freshly scented and sterile surface. It seems that the cultural artefacts of the cleanfluencer consist of an unquenchable thirst for Prosecco, quotations on their interior walls/Insta grids, (‘There Ain’t no Hood Like Motherhood’), and grey interiors. Photos of fluffy carpets and crushed velvet settees are tagged liberally with #greyhome. If Ikea, TK Maxx and B&H had created a very un-PC character to sell more tat, #cleanfluencer would be it—transplanted from another decade and digitised for ads. While the word “Karen” is a contentious one, in a UK context Elaine Moore in the FT writes that Karens “share corny inspirational quotes on Facebook, buy merchandise inscribed with ‘Love Life Laugh’ and love to ruin teenage fun.” Cleanfluencers hoard up these Karen-esque artefacts and polish them daily.
One of the originals, Lynsey Crombie, started her camera-facing career on the Channel 4 TV show Obsessive Compulsive Cleaners and says “Insta fame is very, very hard work.” She began her cleaning Instagram one day in November 2016 by posting a bottle of a Seflora Christmas fragrance bottle, but it gained far more traction than she expected. “It didn't make any sense to me whatsoever.” Inspired by the burgeoning fashion influencer market and the money that they were making, she decided to explore it. The following July, she made her first £20. Three years on from that, Lynsey has almost 200k followers, a segment on TV, a best selling author with two books out and a list of loyal brand partners: “I fought for this market on my own.”
Gemma Bray began her career as “a bit of a joke.” Her 14-year-old son said on one New Year’s Eve that she should post about a cleaning routine she’d always been following, but she had her doubts. “Everyone else was on really beautiful holidays, on a beach in the Maldives. And I suddenly rock up talking about what mop I'm using that week.” She thought no one would be interested. But they were, and now there are 188,000 people following Gemma’s account.
Since Instagram stories changed the whole concept of what an Insta-influencer could do, Lynsey says the whole debacle “becomes like a reality show.” Like reality TV stars, their charm is their normality. No. Their super normality. But when they ask questions like “what’s your favourite toilet brush?”, is it vacuous? Is it just boring? Could we turn it off? Like Big Brother or the Kardashians, a large attraction is the mindless relatability: I do have a toilet brush. Endless content forces the cleanfluencer to dip their toes into this ridiculousness. An example is the penchant for referring to going shopping as a ‘haul’—Internet-speak for buying something and imbuing it with the dramatic equivalence of catching a thousand tonnes of Tuna. At one point Lynsey sits down on the floor during a video and asks if anyone else just has a little sit during cleaning. If there’s something profound here, it’s lurking way below the surface and begs the question: is cleaning ever interesting enough to warrant such documentation?
Gemma sees cleanfluencing as “helping [younger mothers] getting to grips with housework, saving them the time of having to make the mistakes; a friendly bit of advice.” It is the avid, yet rookie cleaners that maketh the cleanfluencer and they constitute a strong, friendly and positive community of women. “Cleaning is boring” says Gemma, “but if everyone's cleaning the same room, knowing that there's thousands of people cleaning their living room today, it just makes it a little bit more palatable. I create cleaning playlists for people. We get it done in thirty minutes, then we just down tools and get on with the rest of the day.”
It goes deeper than just helping to stave off boredom. Sancha of the Instagram account @everythinghomeandmylife says, “I’ve spoken about my miscarriage to woman and so many people said they feel so much better [and] a pressure has been lifted.” Lynsey, who used the online space to negotiate an early adult trauma, agrees, “the people you meet on Instagram, they're strangers, but if you're in a similar position to them, you can support each other without knowing too much.” One of the criticisms levelled at the 1950s housewife is that they often found themselves isolated from society with no support to help them become independent and no idea of how to change their situation. In an increasingly separated, lonely society, cleanfluencers are overcoming this by creating an international community of housewives where they can openly discuss serious female issues without fear of judgement or castigation.
But it isn’t all heart-emojis-in-the-comments-section. “Women...” Lynsey says, “... you know what women can be like in an office. They get a bit bitchy sometimes.” That’s when Lynsey brings up Tattle.life—a forum which takes cleanfluencers, influencers and celebrities alike to the proverbial, well, cleaners. “The small micro people, who are obviously not as successful,” says Lynsey, “feel they need to be spiteful about other people. The stuff they write... I literally dig a grave now.” (“So cock nose has her new book out, and she thinks anyone cares! Shove your shit book up your arse!” writes one user.) But Lynsey levels: “I get on really well with Ruth and Amen and they always say they get constant bullying and trolling every single day. It's just part of the job really.”
Lynsey see this vitriol as perhaps an expression of the competitive cleanfluencer marketplace: “When you see Instagrammers chucking all these products together down the toilet bowl to make a rainbow, I think, 'what are you doing?’ In my position at the top of the pyramid, I've got to be completely truthful, safe and honest to all of my followers. This isn’t lipstick. You think you can mix a couple of lipsticks together and make a different shade. I think a lot of people come on Instagram now when they set up a cleaning account and they expect growth in seconds and they'll message me and say, 'can shout me out because I want to be as big as you' and it's like, no, because you just want insta-fame now! Not one person helped me when I started my journey. I was all alone.”
While the story of Lynsey and Gemma’s cleanfluencing success was the result of seeing an opportunity and working hard, their relationship with cleaning is built on rocky ground. “I had a bit of trauma in my early 20s,” says Lynsey, “I had counselling, I had CBT treatments and I've been on every medication. I only felt happy when I was cleaning. A lot of cleaners suffer with terrible anxiety and can't go out of their homes. They clean all day because it's their exercise and gives them something to focus on.” This therapeutic angle is resonant with Buddhism, as “monks consider housework to be a spiritual exercise through which to cultivate and purify your mind, soul, and life.” However, Lynsey’s statement seems terribly sad. The anxiety of the cleanfluencer tethers them to their task. ‘Like and subscribe’ for an infinite, Sisyphean tunnel of dirt to try to clean your way out of.
“I’ve never been OCD diagnosed myself” says Lynsey, “but I'd definitely say that there are tendencies there. Going back 10-15 years ago I was always bleaching my shopping like a lunatic. I've always been that freak that's gone to the coffee shop and sterilised my table in front of everybody and received those dirty looks.” I’m compelled to ask, in her professional opinion, which was dirtier: the looks or the table? But I refrain. As for Gemma, “the whole reason I started The Organised Mum Method was because when I had my first baby, I was over-cleaning. I had anxiety and it was manifesting itself. I had to have like this perfect home I was, I felt really vulnerable as a new mum. I thought if I could control my environment, everyone would think I was smashing motherhood. So I do have to be careful that I don't get sucked into that trap.”
There are plenty of anecdotal reports of cleaning being good for mental health, arguing it brings about a sense of achievement, order and clarity. However, the only real empirical evidence points to the study No Place Like Home: Home Tours Correlate With Daily Patterns of Mood and Cortisol which concluded, “women with higher stressful home scores had increased depressed mood over the course of the day.” It’s hard to ignore the stark gendered subject of that statement. The study acknowledges, “our largely null results for husbands, contrasted with significant results for wives, suggest that women… may feel a greater sense of responsibility for the home […] this finding would be consistent with other research suggesting that the home is traditionally perceived as women’s domain and ultimate responsibility, even in couples where both partners are employed”.
Cleanfluencers operate in the highly politicised digital-domestic space owed to a history effective incarceration, abuse and violence against women. Sally Howard writes in her book The Home Stretch: Why It’s Time To Come Clean About Who Does The Dishes, “we should [not] benignly accept this projection of stay-at-home motherhood as an apolitical, post-feminist ‘natural’ lifestyle.” While women in Britain spend 36 hours a week on housework, men only spend 18. In households where women earn more, they do an even larger proportion of the housework, suggesting a toxic masculine response to a perceived financial emasculation. Cleanfluencers are a very visible and very exaggerated symptom of a sexist reality. If cleanfluencers look and feel like a 50s pinup housewife, their follower demographics (98% female) and their heavy lean into the notion that women do the housework, confirms it. As understood by Sally Howard, Nicholson, “interprets the arrival of social-media cleaning gurus as symptomatic of a retreat to a glorified version of the-domestic-as-feminine-domain last seen in the aftermath of the Second World War.”
And yet, could cleanfluencers be individually reclaiming feminist agency? In the context of second-wave feminism, which argued in part for “wages for housework”, are cleanfluencers not very technically fulfilling that? Howard responds to my suggestion by saying, “I'm not sure that monetising performance of domestic labour through clickbait was what the Wages for Housework activists had in mind… rather, they argued that domestic labour should be de-gendered and remunerated adequately by the state.” It is an individualisation of a systemic issue, the lottery that keeps the masses oppressed.
From the cleanfluencers’ perspective, Lynsey says, “we’re not ashamed to say we like cleaning.” Gemma echoes, “talking about cleaning and housework was almost considered a taboo topic, because as females were supposed to be feminist. But, it’s perfectly necessary to clean your house and this trend of cleaning influencers gives permission for people to say 'oh thank goodness, I can ask that question about what fabrics often is the best one to use without feeling like I'm stuck in the 1950s.’ It doesn't matter how far we progress, we still have to do the basics.” This is a backlash to the stigmatisation of women doing housework, but note, upon which gender the necessity of “doing the basics” still falls.
Even before the coronavirus hit the UK’s shores, we were living in strange, edgy times in which Britain’s past was being held up with great nostalgia. As Tessa Hadley writes reviewing Virginia Nicholson’s Perfect Wives in Ideal Homes, “we’re pulled perhaps by contradictory impulses, deploring the errors of the past and wanting to climb back inside its safety, both at once.” If turbulence means a societal shift to see history with even more rosy, pink-glowing idealism, perhaps Covid-19 has only acted as a catalyst. Nicholson tells Stylist magazine, “whenever we’re dealing with traumatic upheaval and uncertainty in our lives, we retreat to our four safe walls…”, and that could not be more fervently, or legally true than in the case of the pandemic.
Having been tethered to our homes and by extension, our phones for the last 2-3 months, the digital-domestic reigns supreme as cleanfluencers feed us sterile content, while providing an unexplainable joy of watching things get cleaned. I admit it, I enjoyed watching a dirty patio get jet-washed for five minutes straight on Facebook. WeAreSocial reports that social media usage is up on average 47% since lockdown was enforced. Dr. Stephanie Alice Baker of City University London writes “cleanfluencers have capitalised […] during the pandemic by providing advice on how to prevent the virus from spreading and contaminating surfaces in the home.” It’s no surprise that Lynsey has become the ITV and BBC COVID-19 home-care expert. Do we need them now, more than ever, or are we all being forced to live like 1950s housewives, with a nightmarish, authoritarian world outside, while we are forced to stay indoors and deal with our problems by cleaning?
Andrew F Scott and Lynda Grant recently wrote in The Sunday Times Magazine that it isn’t all sweet-smelling blackberry pies and sourdough bread for breakfast. Lockdown has had severe, gendered consequences - such as a “...disturbing rise in domestic violence through to women suffering disproportionately in terms of the number of jobs lost during the shutdown. There are also many surveys that show the bulk of domestic and caring roles are being taken by women, even in dual-working households.” The old truths are ringing true, louder than ever.
I find hope in Gemma Bray, the cleanfluencer, who uses 50s masculine iconography to represent women cleaning; who writes posts on how looking after kids is hard work and should be respected as such societally, and who splits the cleaning with her husband and makes sure her three boys know they need to help out. “I don't want to come across as sexist or not a feminist.” And yet, even this veneer of progression is mired by the title of her book The Organised Mum Method which suggests that housework is for mums.
Perhaps these brazenly stereotyped portrayals of women are why at first they seem so surreal. Comic, even; shouting from an age thought to have gone by. And now, we see its shadow growing bigger... the cleanfluencer is no longer a joke, but a ghoulish, imperious spectre—in line with the world and politics of today.
Iis there is an opportunity here to help de-gender the role, to bring heterosexual men into the conversation? We (the unified “we”) still need to know how to use bleach properly, and to know at what temperature to wash linen. But, come to think of it, maybe there’s a market for “How To Get Your Het-Husband Hoovering”? Is not doubling your workforce and sharing the housework the most effective cleanfluencer tip going?
Harvey is based in London, where he writes weekly for British GQ, as well as previously for Metro.co.uk, High Snobiety, The Last Magazine and more. He non-exclusively covers culture, lifestyle, fashion, influencing and mental health. His website is harveyjames.org.