Are 'cleanstagrammers' hiding the messy truth of their tidy homes?

Photo: Shutterstock
Photo: Shutterstock 

When her first child was less than a month old, Gemma Bray found herself on her hands and knees, scrubbing the floor of her downstairs bathroom.

"I'd had an episiotomy, but my health visitor was due round and in the state I was in, I felt it was more important to have a spotless house than to rest and let my body heal."

The state she was in, admits Bray, was one of constant anxiety and feeling overwhelmed. "I had a baby who wouldn't sleep and couldn't be put down. The only thing I felt in control of was how clean my house was."

Twelve years on, Bray, 37, is better known as The Organised Mum to her 142,000 Instagram followers, and part of the "cleanstagrammer" boom sweeping social media.

Where Instagram was once full of clean-eating gurus showcasing their latest green smoothie, it's now full of cleaning influencers such as Bray, Sophie "Mrs Hinch" Hinchcliffe (1.9 million followers) and Lynsey Crombie, "Queen of Clean" (111,000 followers), showcasing the genius cleaning hacks behind their sparkling homes.

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

A post shared by ✨ Queen Of Clean ®️✨ (@lynsey_queenofclean) on

Soda water works wonders on windows, apparently, while clips of lavatory bowls being descaled with Coke and sinks being polished to a blinding shine are attracting the tens of thousands of likes once reserved for photos of smashed avocado on toast.

Earlier this week, it was even announced that job sites have seen a surge in applications for cleaning roles. Besides the Olivia Colman-effect ("I used to work as a cleaner and I loved that job," she declared in her Oscar's acceptance speech on Sunday), Jobs Today suggest that cleanstagrammers - many of whom have books about to hit shelves - and the Netflix series Tidying Up With Marie Kondo, are behind the uptick.

Some are certainly cleaning up: Minky, an online company selling cleaning equipment, saw a 10,000 per cent increase in demand for their antibacterial cloths last summer after Mrs Hinch recommended them in an (unsponsored) Instagram post.

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Easho, a household website which does have a paid partnership with the star, says she has a "Delia effect" on sales of their cleaning products, whenever she posts about them.

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

A post shared by Sophie Hinchliffe (@mrshinchhome) on

However, just like clean eating before it, could excessive cleaning cover up - and tip over into - another compulsion?

"I'm a worrier," Sophie Hinchliffe, 28, a housewife from Essex, admitted in a recent interview. "For me, to keep my mind off what was worrying me would be to clean and organise something and love the end result. It helps me control my panic attacks, too."

Even those who could afford an entire army of cleaners aren't immune. "I cannot function if there is a physical mess around me," Gwyneth Paltrow told Harper's Bazaar in 2016. "If everything is falling apart, I go on a cleaning frenzy... I cannot sleep with dishes in the sink."

Thirty-eight-year-old Crombie's blog, meanwhile, reveals her own "cleaning addiction" began when she went into premature labour with twins at 28 weeks, after the traumatic breakdown of her first marriage. "The need to scrub away at my skin and my home was the only way I could deal with the situation and wash away the badness and dirt," she writes.

Cleaning is a common means of exerting control, says Sir Cary Cooper, a professor of organisational psychology and health at the University of Manchester. "This is why it's therapeutic to have a spring clean," he says. "But there's a tipping point. And people with obsessive, anxious or perfectionist tendencies, are the ones most likely to cross it.

People who are vulnerable - perhaps an overwhelmed new mother - are also prone. Relentless cleaning can be used as an avoidance behaviour: it offers a distraction from stress. And a spotless home, they reason, shows the world they have their life in order."

As Bray admits, the reason she was scrubbing her bathroom floor that day was to show her health visitor how capable she was, when she felt anything but.

"You may not feel in control at work, your relationships, or your two kids under five - but you can control your house," says Cooper. "But if you're not careful, your house, and your need to clean it, can end up controlling you."

According to Cooper, signs a cleaning habit is becoming a compulsion include the amount of time spent cleaning each day, whether it interferes with their social life or relationships, whether an inability to clean for whatever reason causes stress, or whether cleaning is prompted by intrusive or obsessive thoughts about dirt or contamination.

"There are similarities with disordered eating and exercising," points out Debora Robertson, author of Declutter: The Get-Real Guide to Creating Calm From Chaos. "While cleaning is good, just like healthy eating and exercise, there's a limit. Hours of scrubbing is less about cleaning and more about trying to create order in your world."

Robertson also believes obsessive cleaners have more in common with hoarders than you'd think: "If somebody lives in a very dirty home, it's often a sign of depression. And hoarding is an obsessive behaviour. They're all similar behaviours manifesting in different ways.

"When I wrote my book I found research that said, ironically, a lot of hoarders are perfectionists. Somebody with a healthy attitude to tidying does a little bit here and there. But many hoarders are waiting for that magical day - that never comes - when they'll finally have a big clear out. But until that day arrives, they won't bother. They're all or nothing."

Cooper says our childhoods often influence our cleaning habits: "If somebody's mother was anxious about mess or dirt, they're more likely to model that behaviour; their children can't touch or play with certain things, they can't go in certain rooms, they worry about dirt and germs making their child sick."

However, Robertson points to emerging studies suggesting that overusing chemical cleaning products, and living in a too-sterile environment, can actually lower immunity.

"Our homes have always been tied up in our self-worth," adds Cooper, "but social media has made them a very public badge of honour. Scrolling through endless images of glistening, immaculate, perfectly decluttered and styled homes has become the norm.

But Instagram and Pinterest just offer an edited snapshot, and not the full picture. These people may appear to have a perfect home, but at what cost to their stress levels, free time and general happiness?"

Bray got her anxiety under control by setting cleaning limits for herself, which formed the basis of her TOMM method (The Organised Mum Method) she encourages her fans to follow: "I allowed myself just 30 minutes of cleaning a day, five days a week. And I found when I did that I got more done and felt happier.

"My followers tend to fall into two camps: those who want to get on top of their cleaning, and those who over-clean and want to rein it in. The latter have been striving for perfection, but you have to let go of that because it can burn you out. Which is why I often show the less than perfect parts of my house on my feed, to show people it's OK."

Robertson adds: "I had a friend once who used to vacuum herself, and her three young children, out of the front door each morning. That's a joyless way to live, isn't it? As my mother always used to say, 'When it comes to housework, good enough is good enough'."

The Telegraph, London