Are cleaning gurus sweeping an epidemic under the carpet?

Good morning, how are you, the world is ending. Evidence: in three days, “cleanfluencer” Mrs Hinch sold more than 160,000 copies of her first book, revealing “How a spot of cleaning is the perfect way to cleanse the soul.”

Working backwards, it’s clear the end started not with a bang, but with a cupcake. Those were gentler days, malleable and doughy, when, without anybody really noticing, fairy cakes graduated from children’s party snacks to fancy ladies’ treats. They looked the same – a soft, disembodied knee of dough, painted blue and scattered with sugar beads – but fundamentally, cupcakes were a very different proposition. They were playful but naughty, camp nods to childhood from the lofty lifeguard’s chair of adulthood. They were comically feminine, like tiny iced drag queens.

It's on Instagram that the bleach preachers really clean up

They were expensive and beyond sweet – they passed sweet three miles earlier and continued on, over a caramelised cliff. To bite into one was to have already succumbed to three long minutes of “I couldn’ts” and “I really shouldn’ts,” having arrived at “I, a professional lady who has navigated the world of work and love and emerged, limping but alive, deserve such a thing.”

But crucially, the success of the expensive cupcake ushered in a glamorisation of baking, and then (in reaction, perhaps, to more men staying at home so their partners could concentrate on careers) of housewifery. Into this ancient drudgery crept a wolf in grandmother’s nightie, today revealing its teeth again in the form of cleaning.

Marie Kondo’s Netflix series led to charity shops overflowing with joyless jeans, but it’s on Instagram that the bleach preachers really clean up. Alongside stories of running achievements and pub gardens and babies’ first steps, a woman will cheerfully introduce her cloth and duster by name before cleaning her windowsills.

Adverts for dinner plate organisers and handheld Hoovers appear after advice to replace the photo frames in a different order once you’ve cleaned, because then it feels like you have a whole new windowsill. Such is Mrs Hinch’s charisma that it’s possible to lose whole afternoons to her videos about understair storage. Her #HinchArmy share selfies of themselves holding Dettol bottles and pictures of their living rooms, modelled on Sophie Hinchliffe’s all-grey home, the sweet stench of Zoflora vibrating through the photos. Thousands queued at her book-signings – many cried when they reached the front of the line.

Hinchliffe’s origin story is familiar – a woman with an anxiety disorder who found a way to silence it with repetitive tasks. And while I don’t doubt either the anxiety or the use of cleaning as therapy, when I read about her I can’t help but hear again the beat of apocalyptic drums. Recent books about running or swimming away from anxiety are inspiring and beautiful enough to have created a new genre, a rebranding of self-help with sad young women in mind. It’s a template that Mrs Hinch’s agents have capitalised on, marketing another return from ill mental health through an exhausting and obsessional hobby. But, while there’s nothing wrong with promoting a method for dealing with anxiety, I hope these attempts don’t overshadow the more pressing issue, which is, why is there such an epidemic in the first place? Often when discussing mental health, it feels as if influencers have been given the job of doctors or politicians, doing the best they can to stem the bleeding of an amputated arm with a variety of unicorn plasters. Swipe up to buy.

And call me a cynic, call me a bore, call me, shudder, a feminist, but having ridden on the backs of our mothers as they clambered out of domestic drudgery, of lives limited by the four walls of a kitchen, doesn’t the idea of elevating house cleaning to something close to godliness leave a sour smell? Feminism and housewifery are not mutually exclusive, but true equality will never happen if we aren’t equal in the home. Cleaning is a skill everyone should learn, along with how to cook a meal and wire a plug – things that have too cutely been described as “adulting”. But to focus on it as a wellness cure is to swerve into dark bushes, especially when Mrs Hinch’s fans are exclusively women, looking for release from panic, or meaning in lives undone by motherhood, or perfection in the form of a sparkly sink – or all of the above.

Cleaning is an endless task that can never be completed. Housewifery in 2019 requires its women to focus only on the spot in front of them, ignoring the world being repainted outside. But it is not possible to distract yourself with a single stain forever. Mrs Hinch finds increasingly obscure places to dust – today I saw her spray the underside of an open window – tomorrow the throw cushions will inevitably have sunk, and there will be plates to wash. A mark will appear on the wallpaper, and spread extremely slowly. Dust will swarm in the spring light and settle silently on the blinds. A chair will move. In the plughole, hair is knotting.

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