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01/23/2019 10:17 EST | Updated 01/23/2019 10:59 EST

Clearing Out The Clutter In The Way We Talk About Marie Kondo

This sweet, cheerful organizing expert has emerged as a polarizing figure

Organizing consultant and author Marie Kondo in New York City on Oct. 18, 2018.
Gary Gershoff via Getty Images
Organizing consultant and author Marie Kondo in New York City on Oct. 18, 2018.

Marie Kondo is tiny: she stands at a mere four feet eight inches. She smiles a lot, not in a forced unnatural way, but like someone who feels genuine contentment. In the first episode of her Netflix series, "Tidying Up With Marie Kondo," she visits the home of a couple with two young kids, and their baby daughter asks to be held by her — she must have an in-person presence that's as soothing and serene as it seems on TV.

Kondo's optimistic approach to organization has led her to international acclaim; her 2014 book, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up has been published in over 40 countries. The Netflix series shows her helping many people in vulnerable situations: a widow who's afraid to get rid of things that remind her of her late husband, a family of four struggling to adjust with downsizing from a big house to a two-bedroom apartment.

But somehow, this sweet, cheerful organizing expert has become one of the most polarizing figures of 2019, so far. Why is she so controversial?

Common Criticism 1: Her technique is impractical

In case you've been living under a particularly cluttered rock (no judgment — we've been there), her KonMari method is a six-part process that takes a thorough, holistic approach to cleaning your house and, as a result, improving your life.

The part of the method that everyone knows is that you're supposed to get rid of stuff that doesn't "spark joy." Like many translations, it's imperfect: the Japanese word tokimeku literally means "flutter, throb, palpitate." In her show, Kondo describes it as the feeling you might get when you hug a puppy.

Boston Globe via Getty Images
Marie Kondo helps Claudia Logan and her 16-year-old daughter organize their dining room/office.

The criticism, of course, is that lots of items are necessary without bringing joy (e.g. Mindy Kaling's very solid joke that the KonMari method caused her to throw out "all my vegetables and the electric bill").

As great as that would be, it isn't actually what Kondo is advocating. Even if your cleaning supplies, mattress or toothbrush "are not sparking joy, they are helping you every day," she explained to a Reddit user in a 2015 AMA. "You have not realized that they are making you happy. They are sparking joy to you, subconsciously."

Common Criticism 2: She's weird and wacky — often code for, "She's Japanese"

In the KonMari method, objects have feelings. Clothes don't like being cluttered together in a closet, she says, or swept away under the bed. If an object doesn't bring you joy, you're supposed to thank it for its service to you before getting rid of it. She wants you to make your socks feel appreciated.

A piece in the Guardian describes Kondo "waking books up" by tapping their spines, which it follows up this way: "Surely the way to wake up any book is to open it up and read it aloud, not tap it with fairy finger motions — but this is the woo-woo, nonsense territory we are in."

WATCH: Marie Kondo shows us how to fold stubborn items. Story continues after video.

Yes, talking to your clothes and belongings might strike some of us as odd. But before you dismiss it, take a look at her cultural background.

When she was a teenager, she worked as an attendant maiden at a Shinto shrine. Shinto is the traditional religion of Japan, although it's more of a system of ritual practices than a religion in the Western sense.

Kondo doesn't describe her method as Shinto, but there is some overlap, she's said. "In Shintoism and in shrines, tidying and cleaning are regarded as mental cultivation and spiritual training," she told The Telegraph in 2016. "I suggest people develop their home as if it is their own shrine."

The tendency to dismiss cultural practices we don't understand as weird or silly is one of the oldest forms of unconscious racism, and one that can be deceptively easy to fall into. Lots of people who criticized Kondo's methods probably didn't know they came from ancient cultural practices they'd never heard of.

Jemal Countess via Getty Images
Marie Kondo attends the Time 100 gala in New York City on April 26, 2016.

Sometimes, though, racism against her isn't veiled at all. Her choice to start the decluttering process with a brief acknowledgement of the house has been the subject of some ridicule: she's thanking the house "for being a house, basically?" The Guardian asks incredulously in a snarky piece from a series that chronicles stories "you don't need to know about."

And a 2016 New York Times profile of Kondo quoted a KonMari critic who told the reporter that the technique would work "if you're a 20-something Japanese girl and you live at home and you still have a bunch of your Hello Kitty toys and stuff."

That comment was not the only one reporter Taffy Brodesser-Ackner heard "that was tinged with an aggressive xenophobia and racism," but "it is the only one that can run in a New York Times article."

So why are we so terrified of tidying up?

Anything related to self-improvement is going to inspire some knee-jerk defensiveness — that's just human nature. And a lot of us have very complicated relationships with our stuff.

It's OK to be afraid of how hard it is to part with the things we've accumulated, or to worry about how much time and energy it will take you to get organized. Self-improvement can feel like a never-ending, Sisyphean exercise, and it's difficult and frustrating for all of us to look directly at our own flawed habits.

If her system doesn't work for you, that's fine. But here's what it's not OK to be afraid of: Marie Kondo barging into your life, burning your books, stealing your stuff, forcing you to use her "weird" methods, and judging you for being a terrible lazy sloppy disorganized awful person. That's just not her style.

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