Your Hatch alarm clock gently brightens your bedroom, tricking you into thinking you’re rising with the sun. You yawn as you sit up, stretching out your arms with a smile on your face to signal you’re excited for the day ahead. You go directly to the kitchen, where your pebbled-ice machine and caffeinated greens await you. Or maybe you’re more of a Nespresso latte kind of girl, with the ratio of caramel or vanilla syrup to espresso tilting in the syrup’s direction. Regardless, you can’t possibly do anything before you have your caffeine. With latte or greens in hand, you make a beeline for the freezer, where you retrieve your face ice roller. Or maybe it’s an infrared face-mask day. Maybe you make time for both. You then move to your beige couch in your white living room—you find it important to relax in the morning, minutes after waking up, under a fuzzy beige blanket—and mindlessly massage the puffiness out of your face as you wonder what Lululemon outfit you’ll wear and how many miles you’ll walk on your walking pad while you #workfromhome. You always follow this up with your morning skin-care routine. You use a gentle cleanser and apply vitamin C, a hydrating serum, eye cream, moisturizer and sunscreen, with a preference for Supergoop. You don’t need much makeup, only primer, foundation, concealer, eyebrow pencil, eyebrow gel, setting powder, Cloud Paint blush, highlighter, skin perfecting powder and lip butter balm. You dig out the monochrome athleisure outfit you decided on while relaxing—and finally get to work at a white desk adorned with pastel office supplies, a candle lamp and the latest iMac in blue.
I notice it’s 12:45 p.m. when my mom calls me with a question. I hadn’t realized I’d spent the past half hour watching various influencers’ #morningroutine and #dailyroutine videos on Instagram, visiting various strangers’ bedrooms, bathrooms, living rooms, kitchens, even their cars, becoming more untethered from my own daily life the deeper into the hashtags I travel. My lunch is half-eaten, my cappuccino cold, my emails and Slack messages unanswered. I feel as if I’ve just woken up from an unintentionally long nap. On the phone with my mom, I only half-hear what she is asking me. I keep blinking, as if that will help return me to the present and keep at bay the snapshots my mind seems to have taken of the videos and is circling through on repeat. Perhaps this is what it feels like to be hypnotized: the melodic music accompanying each video lulling me into a state of concentration on something other than my present; the indistinguishable influencers’ routines showing me how to structure my own morning and organize my own living spaces; the desire to return to the videos even after my mom, whose call broke the spell, hangs up the phone; the sunniness that the influencers display making it seem that no drama or trauma or gossip can reach me so long as I remain in their orbit.
Detaching from your job, a lot of your friends and most of your material items in an effort to reset your life is what many people did during the 2020 lockdown, when daily lives were upended and people were confronted with the previously imperceptible stains on their couches, the out-of-fashion color of their kitchen cabinets, the mess hiding in closets and buried in drawers, their non-ergonomic home-office setups and their cooking shortcomings. On the one hand was anxiety, restlessness, uncertainty and the ever-more pervasive feeling that the work you were doing was meaningless when all this was going on. On the other was a desire for a calm, ordered life that would counter the chaotic, disordered one existing beyond the four walls of your home.
It’s no surprise that #dailyroutine and #morningroutine videos seemed to gain traction a few months into the pandemic, though I didn’t really get into them until after defending my dissertation earlier this year, when my own life felt upended. People needed help routinizing their life, and others had the resources to document their schedules on social media in short-form content. The videos have a pseudo-pedagogical effect: influencers who have supposedly mastered their routines teach viewers how to institute one by showing them what following a routine even looks like. But the short-form content also elevates the minutiae of ordinary existence to a dignified ritual. Making coffee in the morning and cleaning your apartment are no longer tasks you do begrudgingly; they’re forms of self-care that will start your day right. The rest follows seamlessly: applying serums and moisturizers helps you transition into your workday; bringing out the walking pad keeps you active and alert while checking emails; making a cup of tea or matcha reminds you that the workday is nearly over; checking off an action item in your daily planner with a lavender-colored pen offers satisfaction and feelings of accomplishment; gazing out your window at the setting sun transforms preparing dinner from a basic necessity into a relaxing ritual. Wine helps too.
These influencers depict ordered, highly manicured, aesthetically pleasing lives that feel mostly achievable. The videos are so convincing, the routines so seemingly personalized, that I forget that the elevated ordinary life they capture presupposes the existence of a camera. Where is the camera? Do they use actual video cameras or the camera on their phone to record? If they’re using a phone, how does their battery last so long? Do they put on makeup before putting on makeup in front of the camera? Who films the content? How is it safe to record oneself while driving? Do they have day jobs or is this their day job?
The influencers, maybe even a production team, edit out the missteps, chaos and clumsiness that no doubt ensue between each soothing, well-paced frame. (I can barely create the most basic Instagram story for a friend’s birthday without making a mistake or phoning someone for help.) I don’t think I’ve ever seen any of the millennials I watch spill caffeinated greens, drop the TV remote or accidentally knock the blueberries on the floor while they take the egg carton out of the fridge. I’d even wager it takes them longer to edit the reel of them making a matcha latte than it does for them to make the latte. The appearance of order and calm is generated not by the influencer herself but by external mechanisms—the placement of the camera, the editing software, the brands that sponsor them—that trick me into thinking the influencers live model, replicable lives. Yet all the influencers do is perform the life they think viewers want to mimic.
In their reduction of aspirational lifestyles to a hypnotizing mechanistic process, the #morningroutine and #dailyroutine videos give off the uncanny impression of watching a postmillennial sequel to The Stepford Wives or Don’t Worry Darling. Their mood is placid, bordering on lifeless, their voices a uniformly soprano monotone. But unlike the women of Stepford, Connecticut or Victory, California, the influencers aren’t doing anything in service of their husbands or their families. Either they are single or only ever vaguely reference partners or children. They rarely mention friends or other family members. Everything they do is done in the name of self-care, swathed in pseudo-feminist language of self-actualization. “Never miss a day of skincare girlies!!,” the caption on one frame reads. Meanwhile, viewers seem only concerned about the products the influencers use or that surround them, filling the comments section with questions like “What is that pajama set?!” or “Where did you get that magical boiled-egg dispenser?” or “That scent… what was it?”—as if they could smell it.
If recent literary history is any judge, there’s something about our lives today that seems to demand sedation and control, if not simplicity. Over the past decade, a series of novels have come out—Alexandra Kleeman’s You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine, Halle Butler’s The New Me, Ling Ma’s Severance, Olivia Sudjic’s Sympathy and Allie Rowbottom’s Aesthetica—with characters who pop pills, eschew maximalism, complain about capitalism and seek out the simplest of routines. The most memorable of these characters is the nameless narrator in Ottessa Moshfegh’s My Year of Rest and Relaxation, who sees a psychiatrist with various manufactured, and a few possibly real, psychological problems. Most of the narrator’s days consist only of trips to the local bodega, the psychiatrist’s office and the Rite Aid to fill her prescriptions. After a streak of drug-induced blackout days and nights wandering New York City that the shopping bags scattered around her apartment clue her into, followed by a rare bout of insomnia, she decides she would like to sleep for four months straight, only waking every three days to eat, bathe and take another pill that will knock her out for three more. But before embarking on this routine, she declutters her apartment, giving her designer clothes to her best friend, whom she has otherwise mostly abandoned, as a kind of peace offering. This is the “literature of relentless detachment,” as Jess Bergman called it in the Baffler.
The internet hovers in the background of these novels like a bad aura: Moshfegh’s narrator chats with strangers on AOL during her drug-induced hazes; Butler’s narrator turns to internet searches to find out why she’s depressed; and Sudjic’s Sympathy and Rowbottom’s Aesthetica, two more recent novels in the genre, explicitly tap into social media and influencer culture. In Aesthetica, which the writer and internet personality Caroline Calloway dubbed “the best book about influencers I’ve ever read,” women edit out their cellulite and their “guts” from pictures, arrange and rearrange ring lights, speak to their followers at a faster rate than they speak to people in real life, abscond to bathrooms at bars and restaurants to check likes, and spend more time editing than filming content. Their phones are their lifelines, other people little more than an inconvenience until they tap “follow” or “like.” Their feverish, obsessive pursuit of fame and beauty at any cost only makes them feel empty, lonely, a victim of what The New Me’s narrator describes as that “nightmare familiarity” that hits her in the gloomy morning light. “There’s a lot of repetition in my life,” she says. “No real routine or narrative, just a lot of repetition.” Tomorrow she will have to get up and do everything all over again.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Read more essays like this in our
“What is beauty for?” symposium,
such as “Unnatural Gifts” by Becca Rothfeld
and “Negative Space” by Rachel Wiseman.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Google “depressed millennial” and you’ll find an Etsy page filled with mugs and t-shirts that read “I am dead inside,” “I hate it here,” “Surviving unmet expectations” and “I only cried once today.” (I often joke to my friends that I’m in my “I hate everyone” era.) I imagine these sayings would resonate with the characters who all acutely capture this depressive millennial aesthetic. These novels’ cadence is as flat, the plot as predictable and endlessly replicable, as the influencers’ routines: protagonist experiences hardship or hates her job or both; protagonist takes meds; protagonist turns her back on the social world, citing a dwindling bank account and/or a desire for alone time as reasons; protagonist takes more meds and does things she usually regrets; protagonist has some pseudo-awakening, but the awakening is really only the realization that she no longer has any friends. The only possible response to overstimulation, to the torrent of images, these novels suggest, is a kind of sensory deprivation. Both mediums—the novels self-consciously, half-ironically; the videos unintentionally—reveal a preference for simplicity over maximalism, clean surfaces and taut lines over the unruliness of everyday life.
This manicured aesthetic reminds me of the cul-de-sac I grew up in, a place where all the neighbors—my parents included—participated in an unspoken competition, once the weather turned, for Most Pristine Lawn. On the weekends, the parents gardened, or sprayed weeds with chemicals, or trimmed hedges, or re-mulched, or weed-whacked, or cut grass in perfectly vertical and symmetrical lines (now they hire people to do all this) while the kids played kickball, or chased each other around with water guns, or swam in someone’s pool. From Memorial Day to Labor Day, no branch, flower or bit of mulch would be out of place, no weed in sight for more than a half a day, no grass clipping left behind. I was especially drawn to dandelions and buttercups, trying to pick them before my parents could mow them down. Perhaps that’s why I preferred my grandparents’ sprawling yard—with the birdbath I helped them clean every Friday, the hummingbird feeder I marveled at, the birdseed and stale bread I helped scatter (“You can’t forget about the squirrels,” my grandmother would tell me), and the countless flowers of all hues and sizes I helped water—more than my parents’. Even at eight years old I could see—and, more importantly, feel—that it was like no one else’s.
I thought back to summers spent riding my bike the few blocks between these two yards as I considered why the addictively soothing flatness of the millennial Instagram aesthetic can be “oddly satisfying,” as the hashtag goes, even pretty, but never beautiful. I do find the straight lines, monochromatic palette, glistening countertops, open floor plans and swaths of natural light pleasing to the eye, attractive, for the same reason I find the perfectly cylindrical shrubs and freshly cut grass pleasing to the eye and attractive. They convey order, and they are easily replicable. But they also tell us nothing about the person behind them. We may be welcomed into an influencer’s home, or think a neighbor’s ordered exterior mirrors their interior, but we aren’t actually welcomed into their daily lives. We know nothing of the emotions, moods, conversations, even turmoil that consume it—the very things that add character and texture to everyday existence.
My grandfather walked around his garden as if he was letting the flowers dictate his movements, only ever showing anger—mostly at himself for not creating stronger barriers—when he found his vegetable plants scavenged; my grandmother talked to the animals that would flock to their yard, even the raccoon that would come out at night, as if they were her friends. He would always show me the flowers, including the dandelions and buttercups he knew I loved, that sprouted up in unexpected places and encouraged me to make a bouquet out of them for their kitchen table; she would always point out the different birds fluttering between the birdseed and the birdbath, making up backstories for each of them. Was this my first encounter with beauty? In my grandparents’ garden, seeking out beauty meant wrestling with the spectrum of emotions that wash over us, the inevitable cycle of chaos and unpredictability, and the particular habits that others would likely find strange and ridiculous, but that become, for that very reason, an essential part of who we are. Maybe I should have a routine more like theirs.
Art Credit: Elisa Breyer. How to Use a Tax Sheet, Oil on canvas, 100 × 100 cm, 2022, courtesy of the artist.