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Drawing of a woman in bed.

Bed rotting: the social media trend the Victorians would love, especially writer Elizabeth Gaskell

Social media has created a number of crazes recently under the theme of “wellness” and the latest, it seems, is “bed rotting”. It involves retreating to bed, indulging in snacks and TV, ignoring life’s responsibilities, and only emerging again when you feel finally properly rested (or when the muscle atrophy starts to kick in).

There are hundreds of TikToks devoted to the idea. Most of them feature muted colours, soft-looking bedding, and an aesthetically and deliberately cluttered bed, while the captions or narration tell you that there is no better way to spend your time.

But this concept has long been among the multitude of associations and meanings of the bedroom in culture and art. The bedroom was the site of sleep and of sex, but prior to modern hospitals it was also the place of birth and death, literally the place we began and ended our lives.

Literature has reflected this in suitably dramatic fashion. In fact, well before TikTok and Instagram, the Victorians were already turning the concept of languishing in bed into a fine art.

Quarter life, a series by The Conversation

This article is part of Quarter Life, a series about issues affecting those of us in our twenties and thirties. From the challenges of beginning a career and taking care of our mental health, to the excitement of starting a family, adopting a pet or just making friends as an adult. The articles in this series explore the questions and bring answers as we navigate this turbulent period of life.

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Good for the soul

Bed rotting is in line with other recent fads rejecting the simultaneous popularity of hustle culture and productivity cults. That mindset is still going strong on social media, too, but so are these new trends that promote slow living over trying to do something useful with every waking moment.

As with the popular “goblin mode”, which was the 2022 Oxford word of the year, bed rotting uses an exaggeratedly grotesque phrase to describe, in particular, women’s inactivity and withdrawal. This emphasises just how transgressive it is for a woman simply to do nothing and go nowhere.

Yet in describing these trends in grim terms, social media has somehow romanticised the idea. There’s nothing especially goblin-esque or genuinely disgusting and slovenly in these videos. It’s all very clean, peaceful and cosy. Bed rotting isn’t rotting at all – it is bed flourishing.

This romanticising is similar to perspective taken by 19th century artists of the “bed rotting” women of their era. Images of sickly women becoming one with their mattress became common features in novels, art, and non-fiction.

In particular there was the rise of the popular deathbed memoir, which romanticised the unwell woman. It depicted the act of retreating to bed for the final time as a cleansing process in which the woman confessed her sins and renounced any ill-will towards her friends and family.

In 1832, for example, the Reverend Henry Revell published An Extraordinary But Authentic Narrative of The Penitence and Death of The Notorious Mrs. D***. Before Mrs D. was bed-bound, Revell describes her as “depraved as well she could be”, but the sight of her surrendering to rest was a “stupendous display of mercy”. Being in bed is literally good for the soul.

Making a statement

The Victorian writer who’d certainly have had something to say about bed-rotting TikToks is Elizabeth Gaskell. Parts of her 1855 novel North and South embody the thoughts and feelings behind the trend.

Beds feature a lot in the novel, not simply demonstrating the close boundary between rest and death, but also as a symbol of privilege, class and the exploitation of workers. Two women bed-rot in North and South: mill-worker Bessy and the middle-class mother of protagonist Margaret Hale. Only one of them is romanticised, though.

Black and white drawing of a Victorian woman lying on a sofa.
Illustration of Bessy sleeping on her settle from an edition of North and South.

While Maria Hale lounges around on a fancy water bed, poor Bessy, curls up on a (probably actually rotten) settle (an early sofa bed) and succumbs to a disease contracted from dangerous working conditions. Bessy’s retreat to bed, enforced by the physical damage of employment, turns her into something almost saintly. Maria is simply being melodramatic.

I see both Maria and Bessy in the TikToks. There are those who return to bed because the pressures of work and school are taking a toll on their mental health, and there are those who just want to show off their nice bedroom.

What is noticeable about all of these examples, modern and Victorian, is that it focuses on the woman alone in her bed. It shows a woman who has rejected, by choice or by force, everything that is socially expected of her: work, being among people, and even sharing a bed with a romantic partner. However, they’re not really alone.

Bed rotting isn’t bed rotting unless it’s being observed, documented, envied and romanticised by other people. Bed rotting is presented as a personal, private act of self-care, but it’s actually quite a public statement – as Gaskell presented Bessy’s death as a statement against industrial exploitation.

The TikToks do seem quite performative. Are we really retreating from work, responsibilities, school and our social lives, if we still want people to notice and care about our absence? Whatever the motivation for the trend, one thing is abundantly clear across the centuries: rest is something to be cherished as much as any moment in life. And on that note, I’m going back to bed.

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