February 12, 2008

Boxers vs. Briefs: the latest fitness debate

[By Merry]

Ever notice how depressing it feels to be surrounded by boxes?

I always used to think people who were overly concerned with neatness with neatfreaks. Actually, I still think that, but I’m starting to wonder if a little neatness now and then might be a good thing.

Some people, whom I shall refer to as boxers, live surrounded by Uncontrolled Stuff, a.k.a clutter. (Not to be confused with people who live surrounded by piles that resemble the aftermath of a tornado, but they know where everything is and they're not stressed about having everything out in view. That's Controlled Stuff.)

There's a theory that clutter is related to being overweight. A decade ago, the guru was Karen Kingston, author of Clearing clutter with feng shui. Now it’s Fly Lady, with her book Body Clutter. Even Oprah has gotten on the bandwagon with this notion, with her clutter expert Peter Walsh. Basically the theory is that clutter and excess weight are both used as some kind of buffer system between the boxer and the outside world. If you can't let things go, then you end up letting yourself go, as it were.

Note: these authorities suggest people who tend to live in clutter also tend to be overweight. My theory that people who live in clutter tend not to be in good shape. It’s possible to be thin without being fit, and that seems to be the dividing line.

People who live cluttered lives have more trouble letting go of things or more trouble making decisions. We accumulate clutter because we’re emotionally attached to our possessions or we don't know where they should go and so the stuff stays out on the kitchen table for days/weeks/eons.

You could make decisions for an indecisive boxer, if you want to spend the rest of your life playing nanny. But you can't forcibly take the clutter away from an emotionally attached boxer -- if you throw out all their stuff they feel naked and vulnerable, and consciously or not start gathering clutter again.

Living with clutter or with a lack of fitness is essentially giving up control over your environment, be it your living space or your body. Dr. J. wrote a blog post about a link between obese people and littering. I think it’s the same sort of behavior. I mean, the more you care about your body, the less likely you are to put junk food into it and the more likely you are to keep it in good shape. The more you care about the environment, the less likely you are to litter. Can we extend that to a cluttered home or workspace?

Am I whistling Dixie and postulating whereof I am ignorant? Please feel free to shoot this theory down. I'm open to debate.

Presumably people who practice a more lean, unfettered existence should be designated as briefs. I'm not sure how to verify that lean people are more organized around the house except by finding some lean, fit man and following him home to check out his personal surroundings. Could be an interesting research subject, but any grant money would have to pay for my lawyer's fees when I get arrested for stalking.

Probably that little snag is the reason I haven't found any scientific studies about this. But there's lots of anecdotal evidence, plus it’s on Oprah – what more do you want?

I do believe that people who can bring themselves to get rid of clutter Feel Better. And certainly people who are moving house are more stressed and crantankerous than the average human. Why else would people who fight be named boxers?

Note: the above post is talking about human boxers, not any four-legged friends you might happen to know and love. Honest.


  1. My former, late, boss was surrounded by clutter. Phone messages would disappear for weeks and he'd joke about doing an archeological dig on his desk.
    He did not wish to deal with, well, just about everything, and though he got into reasonable shape later on, he was overweight.
    About once a year he'd clear off his desk. The clutter maigcally re-appeared within a week. He seemed to feel better when surrounded.

  2. Very weird, but now that I think about it, I got suddenly very neat and organized (via Getting Things Done) and lost some weight at about the same time a few years ago. It's so nice to be organized!

  3. Hmmmm....I'm about as organized as they come; borderline anal you might say. I am the most un-packrat person you'll ever meet! So...even though I'm not obese I still struggle to keep my weight at a healthy level. So I think I'm disproving the theory : )

  4. Crabby!
    I appreciate the link to my Dr. J post! I need to clarify something however. The "tongue in cheek" post was written with the intention of saying not to litter. I did not say that obese people litter more, nor did I intend that to be alluded to.
    Thank you!
    Dr. J

  5. just to clarify.
    is this the same oprah who believed she "secreted" a TIFFANY'S BUBBLE BLOWER?



  6. Interesting theory! (And cute doggy too).

    Being a mixed-up sort of person, I have both boxery and briefish tendencies. I tend to put more self-discipline into body issues than I do my personal space--left to my own devices, I let things get pretty bad before I neaten up.

    The Lobster has been a good influence on me in the home-tidyness arena, and I've helped her in the eat-your-veggies and remember to exercise area.

    I keep arguing that there's a certain efficiency in not filing, tidying, etc too often--which is why my office has a door on it that closes so she doesn't have too see my "efficienct" sloppy piles of stuff all over the place.

  7. Carla, Oprah believes she's done what? Why would she want a Tiffany's bubble blower anyway?
    (I don't think I've ever sat down and watched an Oprah episode straight through. I have read her magazine once in awhile, but I'm not an expert in Oprahology.)

    Dr. J., yikes! That was me, not Crabby. :( She's good at research; I just get distracted by odd notions. And by even notions for that matter.

    Emily, dang! You're ruining the curve. But congratulations on keeping your weight at a healthy level.

    Anon, that's my goal right now: I'm going to throw out half my possessions -- but not by littering! Recycling, freecycling, that sort of thing.

    Leah, I think there are a lot of people like your boss. Being too neat seems to make them feel exposed.

    I suppose even if you become organized, you have more time to spend on exercise because you're not so busy trying to find where you put things?

  8. But Crabby, if you have things in efficient piles, then you /are/ organized, yes? It may not look pretty (sorry, Lobster), but if you know where things are then you've still got your act together :)

  9. As opposed to myself. I still haven't assembled my couch after the move because I can't find which box has the bolts in it. :(

  10. I'm pretty much a poster child for your theory-When I feel threatened by people(example after a bad break up) and want to be left alone, the amount of mess in my house goes up, as does my weight. When I am comfortable with people being up close, it goes down. There is also an element of control to it, as you say-when I feel in control of my life, stuff is clean. When I don't, it isn't. and emily, by saying you're a healthy weight, I'd say you are supporting the trend-being neat and a healthy weight both take a struggle, the issue is more one of is it worth it or not(I think, correct me if I'm wrong) and you seem to come down on yes.

  11. Kb,
    I don't know much about Fly Lady, but she refers to it as CHAOS (Can't Have Anyone Over Syndrome). It's easy enough for someone to say "oh, this place is a mess therefore I can't have anyone over until it's clean" -- and then the person becomes more and more isolated.

  12. Can you be both organized and messy? My father - an extremely intelligent man - had a reputation of having the messiest desk/office in the Federal Govt. Yet, he always could lay his hands what he needed when he needed it. Wonder what that means...

  13. missicat, that doesn't sound messy to me. Usually people who operate this way are visually oriented and function better if things are out in plain view, even if in piles. They know where things are and having everything piled high doesn't interrupt their workflow.

    It just looks like clutter to other people :) On the other hand, if everything is scattered about and you have to take 20 minutes to find your car keys, /then/ you've got a problem.

  14. Very interesting.. my aunt is big with the clutter (and by clutter I mean she has a dozen or so boxes of unopened Qtips) and she is steadily gaining.

    It would be a great sociology project. I'm sure you could find some money. After all they paid one of my teachers to spend two years in a biker gang. Anything is possible.

  15. Merry!
    My mistake! I didn't read the byline. The post you linked, had the lead post of my concern with childhood obesity. That was a serious post. Because I used the name MeMe Roth in introducing the topic, it attracted people who hate her to my post, and they are not as nice as the folks here. There is a Zen saying about how,"You can't stir a pond to make it smooth", and I think it's time for me to follow that wise advice :-)
    Dr. J

  16. Goodness. The Bag Lady had a pithy remark all thought out, then got distracted by the comments and now can't remember what she was going to say.

    She is a chubby, packratty sort of person, so perhaps if she would get rid of some of her clutter, she could also get rid of some of her bulk.
    But that all seems like work...

  17. This hits home a lot for me. When I'm stressed or emotional, my house becomes a disaster zone, and my nutrition and fitness goals go out the window. When I'm organized and less stressed, things stay tidier, I move more, and I eat better.

    Hmm... maybe my doc is right about pushing stress reduction on me! ;)

  18. Wow, I just reread this, and I have to apologize in advance for the super-long comment!

    First off, I have to thank Dr. J for clarifying that littering post was tongue-in-cheek and not intended to be taken seriously, because at first I thought it was serious, and I found it really offensive (not to mention filled with fallacious logic). So THANK YOU for posting in the comments - really. :)

    Here's the thing with stuff like this, though: the problem isn't the theory itself, it's the sweeping generalizations it makes. There are probably SOME people for whom clutter and weight are correlated. There are SOME people for whom it's not. There are thin people who are out of shape and fat people who are in better shape than many thin people (Sarah at "Fat Girl on a Bike" springs to mind). There are people whose body weights are mostly genetic and people whose body weights aren't. There are people who WERE naturally thin until they screwed their metabolism with too many diets and now they are naturally fat.

    Speaking for myself, I used to have lots of clutter. Now I have NONE, and haven't for quite some time. My weight is still exactly the same, and I'm not thin.

    I would also argue that clutter and weight symbolizing a loss of control is 180 degrees from reality in many cases (although again, probably not in all cases). It can also be about a different KIND of control: control over your emotions (by burying them), instead of control over your body (by dieting and exercising).

    And honestly, whatever you (speaking in the general sense) are doing, if you are doing it for control (as opposed to, "Hey, I like exercising just because I feel better!"), whether that control is over your body, your feelings, whatever - that's not healthy, no matter what you weigh. That is a sign of a disorder.

  19. I'm thin, marathon-fit and a total packrat. I might just be an exception to someone's rule, though, and I'm okay with that.

  20. Although we both are/were obese (I'm now just "overweight"), I weigh less than half what my boyfriend does. I do tend to have piles of stuff on/around my desk and on the floor, but I tend to be one of those "it's an organized mess! honest!" people. But, as I tell my boyfriend, I draw the line at biohazards.

    My boyfriend finishes something and then just leaves the wrapper where it is, and leaves plates and silverware in piles on his desk, on the floor... and they will never get picked up unless I do it or tell him to do it.

    On multiple occasions while he lived alone and I was visiting, I found nasty, moldy, crusty spoons or forks sitting on the carpet. There were always piles of cans and bottles and boxes and wrappers and other garbage all over everything. Once we moved the couch and found a HUGE colony of ants busily working on the HUGE pile of cereal that been brushed/wiped/swept under the couch.


    Is there any way to train him? Should I get, like, a cattle prod? Or a shock collar? >.<

  21. I think you must have read my post last week about my emotional breakdown regarding what to do with my attic full of stuff in my rental house. I'm actually a NEAT FREAK, but I let this one corner of the universe suck up all kinds of random crap from the past 10+ years. And I shut the door and forgot about it until last weekend when I rid myself of 90% of it... and it felt fan-feakin-tastic once after the horror of the situation calmed down.

    Anyway, I can see how there would be a relationship... Then again, I know plenty of skinny slobs. Especially boys in their 20s who might be jock-ish, but damn, their apartments smell like garbage and their bathrooms can't be used by a germ-fearing human.

  22. Yikes, it kinda sounds like you're basically repeating the sad stereotype that overweight people are slobs. Ouch for plump people everywhere.

  23. Merry, too funny-I like it. since I was the one who said control, I want to clarify a point that marste is talking about. When I say control, I don't mean control as in when people say "just have some self-control and don't eat so much", etc. I mean control as in do I decide or do other people decide what is going to happen every day, and do I feel I can handle it. because I 100% agree about a disorder in the context that she's talking about. and she's got a good point about generalizing-nothing is true for everyone

  24. Well, when I had less stuff and was organized, I was pretty thin, but maybe not very fit. I am now nowhere near thin, but also have nowhere near the clutter I did a few years ago when I was thinner. Clear as mud right? I am not organized, so maybe that is the problem - Virgo out of control - not a pretty sight. ;)

  25. I find it's more of a correlative thing than a causational thing... for me, when I am depressed, it is a real struggle to keep my living space clean. Things just pile up and overwhelm me. When I am down, I also don't want to exercise much, and I want to indulge myself in whatever I think might make me happy, so I gain some weight. On the other hand, if I instead force myself out the door to go running, I feel better, and am better able to cope with the mess I have made, and the whole cycle pulls itself back on track.

  26. Clearing clutter merely helps you get used to change, to enjoy change, which can help when it comes to changing eating or exercise habits... there's no relationship between overweight people and clutter or 'slobs'!

  27. Wow! Lots of thoughtful comments here.

    ErinSlick, I had a couple of aunts like that too. People who went through the Depression tend to hold on to things Just In Case, to the extent where they don't always remember what they have. Um... why was your teacher in a biker gang? Was there a sociology grant for that? Do tell!

    Dr. J, I noticed you had some cranky people in your comments. I'll have to check out MeMe Roth. (Is that Mimi or Meme?)

    Bag Lady, I hope you remember your pithy comment soon; I'd love to hear it. :)

    Practiceliving -- I think stress reduction is /always/ a good idea. I don't think you'll ever reduce your stress level to zero, but even a little helps.

    Marste, I agree that thin people can be out of shape and fat people can be fit. Generalizations aren't going to fit every person's situation, otherwise they'd be a law, like gravity. And Fat Girl on a Bike is amazing!

    bunnygirl, be exceptional. That sounds like a good plan :)

    chickengirl -- ye gads and little glow-in-the-dark fishes. I had a roommate who would leave her dinner plates on the coffee table until they were covered in fuzzy stuff. Couldn't move out fast enough. But we didn't have a relationship. Hmmmn... can you train your boyfriend with positive reinforcement? If he cleans up after himself, you'll give him a massage or promise not to talk to him during The Game? I just started reading Don't Shoot the Dog, which is about training animals like dolphins, who can't be /forced/ to do something, they have to be made to /want/ to do it. I'll let you know if I find any good tips :)

  28. thickchick, I remember reading about your rental situation. Those first tenants... yikes! I'm sure they were nice people (albeit with scary hygiene), but for some reason I was assuming (reading between the lines) that they weren't really into eating healthy food and exercising on a consistent basis. Was this a wrong thing to assume? You can be thin and not fit, it's just that people don't give you as much grief as they would would if you were overweight.

    And I hope your new tenants are wonderful!

    anon? Some overweight people are slobs, some aren't. My suggestion is that people who live in clutter (uncontrolled disorder) are not fit, whether they're thin or not.

    reb? I'm confused. Are you ahead of the game or breaking even?

    caro, I remember reading about one therapist who advised her clients to clear out a drawer when they were feeling depressed. Sounds kind of counterintuitive -- if you're really depressed it's much harder to get anything done. I like your idea of forcing yourself to run instead.

    weightlossguru, good point about getting used to change. We're can't avoid change, so we might as well accept it. I do think if you clear your clutter it's easier to /find/ your running shoes and car keys.

    Thank you all for these comments. I wanted to know what people thought about these ideas, and I appreciate all the people who contributed.

  29. I can't get past the Boxer - Briefs analogy. I also can't help wondering if Thongs might be anorexics in a sterile environment...

  30. snorfl! :)

    [Note to self: do not sip tea while reading anything Hilary writes]

  31. I don't see the two correlating very much in my life. I'm a slob. THen again I've got lots of little kids running around so I tend to use them as the excuse. (why clean when it's going to be messy .3 seconds later?) It might be related, but I'm not really willing to go make that connection. Beyond the obvious "healthy habits" correlation, it doesn't seem to go much deeper for me (that's not denial, is it?).

    (that said, I went through and cleaned my entire house after watching that Oprah...)

  32. Interesting thing to think about. I honestly don't know if one is the logical consequence of the other, or if both rather go in parallel. I'm probably a semi-boxer only. I pile on books in every corner of my shelves, mostly because I don't have enough room for more shelves and books are something sacred for me; on the other hand, you won't catch me with plates of cold food on a table for more than five minutes, nor with dirty dishes piled in the sink. I like having my living space "clear" (which is probably why I stuff everything in cupboards and shelves?). Maybe things will be very different the day I have a real apartment, with more than just one room with a fridge in the corner.

    This said, having a fit lifestyle doesn't necessarily go hand in hand with uncluttering. After all, when I've spent two hours exercising and taking care of myself, I need to go back to my classes, homework and job... not to doing more housework and cleaning. LOL

  33. I am a boxer...have actually been working at the flylady thing for almost a year...getting rid of clutter is tough. But once you start, just like exercising and taking control of your health, it feels good. And you want to do more. And it kind of came out of me taking control of my health and realising I *could* do things.
    Now weeding thru your stuff is tough...but it's amazing how much complete junk is in ther ewith the sentimental stuff. Maybe it's a throwback form working in an organised temperature controlled Level 2 biolab...I don't feel as much like being organised when I get home :)


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