Is your life a bit messy? Do you often pretend everything is fine when it isn’t? What if we could lean into, be okay with – and perhaps even own – our inner messiness? And is the ‘messy millennial woman’ so bad? Sarah Lang looks into it.
The barista at the café near my office is a super-friendly guy. Each time I stop in, he says “Hey, how are you?” in a way that doesn’t just feel token – and I’d say “good” or “fine” or sometimes “a bit tired, I need that coffee STAT!”.
About a year into this back and forth, I was dealing with a (since resolved) illness. So one morning when he asked how I was, I replied half-accidentally, and perhaps a bit defiantly: “a bit shit, actually”. He laughed and said, “That’s actually cool that you didn’t just answer ‘fine’. I had a shit day yesterday.” I think he meant it, as opposed to feeling uncomfortable and spouting out a nervous response. And saying what I did actually felt kind of freeing rather than embarrassing. Now, if it hasn’t been my day, my week, my month or even my year (to butcher a line from Friends), I’m more likely to admit it – and not just to my barista.
Particularly as women, we’re often expected to – or feel we’re expected to – have a tidy life for viewing purposes. To not show our ‘messiness’. By ‘messiness,’ I don’t mean having a messy house or being a messy eater, but rather that you might have a lot going on – and sometimes that means parts of your life are, to some extent, in disarray. You might be dealing with a messy breakup or relationship problems, you might dislike your job or be clashing with a colleague, you might be having health issues, you might be broke for the week, you might feel bloated, you might have had a bad night’s sleep, or you might just be having a shit day.
Many of us often put on a façade of ‘everything is fine’ when it’s not – with new friends, with ‘almost friends’, with people we don’t know all that well yet. (Some of us do it even with family members and long-time friends.) We might not mention ‘messy’ things if we think it could make us or the other person uncomfortable. But is pretending everything is fine actually serving us well? When there’s one layer of going through something difficult, then a second layer of pretending you’re okay when you’re not, that can be exhausting. What if we could be our ‘messy’ selves rather than trying to be our ‘tidy’ selves – and admit we just don’t have it all together right now?
The Messy Millennial Woman
Recently, the Guardian published a story by Rachel Aroesti – a former staff member and now freelance writer specialising in pop culture – called ‘How Messy Millennial Woman Became TV’s Most Tedious Trope’. The subtitle is “She’s charismatic, self-destructive, and increasingly tiresome”. Sure, quite a few Messy Millennial Women have been gracing our screens. Arguably that kicked off with Lena Dunham’s character Hannah from Girls (I found that topless ping-pong match deeply empowering because, yes a man can desire you even if you’re not hiding your wobbles).
After describing Maggie in the TV show Everything I Know About Love, Rachel writes that the “Messy Millennial Woman is everywhere. Over the last few years, she has dominated TV comedy-drama, especially in Britain. She is Fleabag [in Fleabag], Suzie in I Hate Suzie and Arabella in I May Destroy You. She is Aine in This Way Up, Jessie in Starstruck, Mae in Feel Good and Sasha in Mood.” (She forgot to mention the wonderful Ava in Hacks.)
Rachel is over it. “If you are a millennial woman who has never remotely identified with this personality – if you are (like me) a chronically risk-averse goody two-shoes – then Messy Millennial Woman’s domination may have felt overwhelming and alienating for some time now,” she writes.
Declaring that the Messy Millennial Woman is “ossifying into predictability,” Rachel writes “it’s time to move on”. Er, really? Are we moving away from casual misogyny in film and TV – for example, James Bond movies? Aren’t portrayals of the Messy Millennial Woman helpful to counter all the idealised (and sometimes objectified) women depicted on screens?
Being a Messy Millennial Woman doesn’t always have to mean recklessness, irresponsibility, impetuosity. Rachel points out that often a character’s qualities have to be externalised to be captured in film and TV, and this often shows up as reckless behaviour. But surely onscreen Messy Millennial Women can be role models not because some do reckless things (reckless isn’t always bad, btw), but because they normalise women dealing with messy lives. If it’s becoming a trope, yeeha.
Ava, a 25-year-old post-grad student from Auckland, has some thoughts on the Guardian article. “For someone on the outside unable to identify with it [being a Messy Millennial Woman], sure, yawn, stereotypes, boring. But for those who do identify with it… Holy fuck, it’s me! Maybe the people experiencing and identifying with it don’t find it stereotypical at all, but a reflection of their experience and self. The great thing about art – Ethan Hawke makes a good comment on it – is that we use it to find a reflection of our experience so we feel less alone in what’s happening for us. Granted, of those shows and films mentioned, I’ve only seen Fleabag and Promising Young Woman, but in both I highly identified with the vibe, and it gave me a sense of peace that there might just be others out there internally experiencing the world in a similar way to me.” (Hawke said art is exactly what we need when we don’t have the luxury of feeling normal.)
When it comes to being a Messy Millennial Woman, there’s the very valid perspective that it’s cute, quirky, endearing or at least refreshing to be a “hot mess” if you’re white, pretty, young-ish, middle-class-ish – whereas people of different ethnicities, backgrounds, ages or looks might be judged, marginalised, or even punished for it, and so they don’t let it show.
Your life experiences might make showing your messiness hard. Wellingtonian Kirsty, 35, says “there are very few people in my immediate life who can deal with me not being fine. I’m a single parent, teacher and eldest sibling. Neither of my parents is good with emotional stuff although they’re helpful on a practical level. So yes, I do tell people I’m fine a lot, when I’m actually struggling.” She wishes she could admit that more.
How to be messy
Google “how to show your life is messy” and the first three hits are articles titled ‘Your Life is A Mess? How to Fix It And Turn Things Around’; ‘My Life Is A Mess: 15 Ways To Clean It Up And Find Happiness’; and ‘My Life Is A Mess: A Step-By-Step Guide To Turn Things Around’. I mean, that’s great and all, but could we start by acknowledging it’s ok to have a messy life?
Beth Berry – the author of self-help book Motherwhelmed, a life coach, group facilitator, teacher and mother – published a blog entry called Life Is Meant to Be Messy (You’re Not Doing It Wrong). “Maybe we’ve been misled when it comes to the “messier” aspects of life (and I don’t mean our junk drawers),” she writes. “Maybe messy isn’t a reflection of our shortcomings at all. Maybe the real source of our struggle stems from the belief that life is supposed to be tidy…. I’ve now added mess avoiding to the list of behaviours that no longer serve me.”
“Being proper and sweet and nice and pleasing is a fucking nightmare. It’s exhausting.”Fleabag
We may not express our ‘messiness’ if we worry that people will think less of us. But if we’re more open with others, we might find that even that well-put together colleague or acquaintance may be hiding her messiness. Perhaps, if we lean into our messiness more, that might mean others share more with us. (I’ve found that to be the case, particularly when it comes to forging or deepening friendships.) What if we can help create a space where admitting messiness is okay and we don’t feel embarrassed or ‘lesser’ because of it?
No one’s saying you should overshare – your boss doesn’t need to know about your sex life. And don’t go off-script in a job interview! You could take it bit by bit. Maybe, if someone asks how you are, you could admit you’re having a bad day. Maybe tell a friend something that you normally wouldn’t confide. Maybe share something with a colleague, or someone you’re entry-level friends with, even if you’re just talking about your acne breakout (WTF? WHY? I’m 42). Then think ‘how did that go? Are they now shying away from me?’
Odds are they’re not – and owning your messiness may become easier over time. Maybe even start with your… barista.