Stop It, Smug DIYers

With the economic downturn has come a flood of articles on do-it-yourself activities. On the one hand, this really excites me, because I love giving people the tools they need to do things on their own and to get adventurous, whether they are refinishing furniture or learning to make pickled foods. On the other hand, it comes with a whole slew of attitudes that often aren’t deconstructed at all. In the process of claiming to be promoting independence and sustainability, people ride roughshod over some serious social issues that don’t magically go away just because you have a cute apron with honeybees on it.

A recent piece at NPR informed readers that it ‘doesn’t take much to do it yourself in the kitchen,’ complete with handy recipes. Except that it does take much, as many of these recipes actually illustrated. Time is required to round up ingredients, prep the food, and in some cases allow the food to age so it will fully develop. You need space in your kitchen to make the food, along with implements that are not necessarily standard, and you need energy. All of these things are costs; maybe not in the direct sense of dollars and cents, but they do need to be factored into the relative ‘ease’ of doing something in the kitchen.

Andrea put it well in an email exchange with me:

I was just pondering what “milk” means. It used to mean: work long enough to earn $3 or $4, go to the store, buy a gallon. At my previous $26 and change pre-tax per hour, that’s…call it ten minutes of work for a gallon of milk…A gallon of milk is now an hour or so of physical labor, of painful hands and forearms.

I am a huge fan of diy; I make my own bread, yoghurt, and soft cheeses, for example. I make pasta from scratch. I like making my own food and I adore chances to experiment and play around with recipes and ingredients. I am also under no illusion about the costs of these things, the investment of time, space, and energy required to make them happen. For me it’s easy because of my lifestyle; for someone else, it is not easy. Pretending like it is does a service to absolutely no one.

There’s a certain sense of smugness in the diy community that becomes rapidly irksome when exposed to it for any length of time, a sort of one-upmanship that seems to consume people as they attempt to prove that they are the best at it. At the same time, they want to tell everyone that it’s effortless and easy and requires no special skills or investment on the part of participants, shaming people who don’t or can’t engage in diy. The message is clear: you will never be good enough because someone will always be better than you, but at the same time, you should keep trying, because it’s so easy.

The diy movement presents itself as cheap and resourceful. It may be cheaper for some people, particularly those who don’t have to consider how to budget their time and energy. For others, it’s actually extremely expensive and not at all practical. People with limited time resources may not be able to get involved in diy because it costs them too much; when every minute represents billable time of some form or another, the time needed for projects simply can’t be part of the budget.

This includes not just people who are working, but also those who balance additional responsibilities, like parents, people with disabilities, and those heavily involved in volunteering in their communities who don’t have a lot of spare time on their hands. All of these activities have both personal and social value; it’s not that people are worthless and lazy because they can’t do diy. They are simply budgeting their time in different ways, ways that don’t effectively allow for participation in diy. Telling them that they should just try harder isn’t a very effective way to get them interested in the movement; what motivation do people have to join a community that constantly shames them?

Saying that diy is always easy and is the best thing for everyone to be doing is a demonstration of a woeful ignorance about the lived realities of other people. Not everyone lives and functions in the same way and to pretend otherwise is patently foolish. With this many people on Earth, it’s safe to assume that humans are not one size fits all, and that an ‘easy’ activity isn’t easy for everyone.

Baking a loaf of bread, from start to finish, takes me at least three hours. I need to proof the yeast, mix the dough, knead it for twenty minutes, let it rise, punch it down, allow it to rise again, and bake it. For much of this time, I need to be around to babysit the dough; at the very least, I need to stay in the house or around the garden and keep an eye on the clock. I lead the kind of life where three to four hours of dedicated time to bake bread isn’t a problem; I can let bread rise while I work on a story, take a break to punch it down and do some editing during the second rise.

Not everyone can do that. Which is one reason I bake bread for the people around me who don’t have that kind of time; because to me, diy shouldn’t be a selfish endeavor used to prove moral superiority, but a form of community-building and an expression of solidarity. Shaming people who can’t or don’t bake bread doesn’t accomplish anything, so what’s the point? I don’t need to trash other people to feel better about myself, and yet, there’s a hint of trashing involved in the way people talk about diy that I find deeply distasteful.