When rest is a rebellion

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A sketch of a cute pink and yellow bed.
I think it is a shame how much money we spend on beds and then how little we use them. Maren Savarese Knopf

Existing without producing is the new thing

“Bed rotting” is a term first coined on TikTok to describe the reclamation of time by passing it in bed. Contrary to the highly consumerist and productivity driven landscape of self-care, bed rotting is a radically non-expectant and low stakes act.  

As such, to “bed rot” you simply need lay in bed. The way in which you do so follows no rules and is uniquely personal – just as long as you’re under the covers. 

The trend boasts an end to the optimization and productivity of modern wellness ideas that often disregard ‘low culture’ methods, such as binge watching your favourite TV show, eating a whole pizza, or falling into the endless scroll cycle of social media.  

Rather, bed rotting seeks to embrace the idea of, after full days or weeks of work/life demands, doing nothing but ‘rotting’ as a critical intervention of self-care. In fact, Audre Lorde referred to self-care as a means of self-preservation, saying that “caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.”  

Bed rotting has become a viral hit online with thousands of mostly femmes posting their bed rots on TikTok. The trend is present elsewhere too. American author Ottessa Moshfegh released her novel My Year of Rest and Relaxation in which the protagonist can only be described as endeavouring to spend an entire year ‘rotting.’  

After spending months adrift, in unlikeable jobs and struggling with work, life and her relationships, the unnamed narrator, a 20-something woman living in New York, reveals her project of ‘hibernating.’  

The narrator recounts how “[t]hings were happening in New York City – they always are – but none of it affected me. This was the beauty of sleep – reality detached itself and appeared in my mind as casually as a movie or a dream. It was easy to ignore things that didn’t concern me.”  

Similarly, bed rotting has been positioned as a method to ‘detach’ oneself from reality, turning off your brain and simply existing in the confines of your room.  

However, bed rest, like bed rotting, is not new. In fact, bed rest can be traced all the way back to Hippocrates, who recommended it for its medicinal benefits. Since the time of Hippocrates, bed rest has been linked with ideas of women’s wellness.  

Throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, female hysteria was one of the most commonly diagnosed ‘disorders.’ Female hysteria was typically described with a broad range of ‘symptoms’ that included anxiety, shortness of breath, nervousness, and fainting.  

By and large, the common diagnoses were founded upon the idea that women are somehow predisposed to mental and behavioral conditions. Hippocrates himself coined “wandering womb syndrome,” otherwise known as hysteria, which was believed to result in a variety of physical and mental conditions. 

Throughout the late 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century, discussions of female hysteria, its causes, and potential treatments continued. American physician Silas Weir Mitchell posed a potential treatment around the 1850s which he called “the rest cure.”  

The rest cure prescribed lots of bed rest and the strict avoidance of all physical and intellectual activity. According to Mitchell, this treatment was preferential to women, especially those who showed symptoms of having hysteria.  

Interestingly, Mitchell prescribed the rest cure to American writer Charlotte Perkins Gilman who wrote The Yellow Wallpaper, a psychological horror story. The story explores the mental deterioration of a woman who, at the advice of her doctor and in accompaniment with her husband and brother, is forced to perform the rest cure.  

Now, years later, we continue to have intimate and complex relationships with rest and rot. Despite its earlier links with female hysteria, what is now known as bed rot has, according to Dr. Courtney DeAngelis, positive benefits in calming the body and easing stress and exhaustion.  

Moreover, Dr. Nicole Hollingshead, a psychologist at Ohio State University says, “Society tends to put too much emphasis [on] and, in some ways, [glorifies] being busy or productive all the time…This can lead to feeling burnt out and not allow us time to rest or recharge without labeling this as ‘being lazy.’” 

Perhaps in some ways, bed rotting offers an avenue to ‘reclaim’ the rest cure previously prescribed for female hysteria, while at the same time forcing us to reframe hysteria. Bed rotting is an interesting avenue to explore the links between women’s subordination, the history in the medicalization of women’s subordination, and rest.  

In practical amounts, bed rotting is a perfectly fine practice and subverts cultural ideas about productivity. However, Dr. Ryan Sultan explains that, “while bed rotting can provide respite from the pressures of modern life, it’s important to approach it with mindfulness and intention.”  

In many ways we have come far in reimagining the ‘rest cure’ used as a mechanism in women’s subordination. Yet, we must be critically aware of the history and intentions behind women’s rest. Especially in creating narratives of fragility, particularly with white women, and an inability to cope with modern realities.  

If we aim to imagine self-care – like bed rotting – as a radical act in the ways that Audre Lorde claims it to be, we must ensure we do not fall into a sad and sunken place (between the covers) that prevents us from taking concrete actions to address systemic and social injustices that may have brought us to our beds in the first place.  

However, bed rotting dually poses an intimate and personal space without expectations to rest. From there, we can begin to imagine what a world might look like where we don’t need to seek rotting as a form of escapism.  

With that being said, go forth and rot on – but mindfully.

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