Hey Good Housekeeping, it’s not okay to use OCD as an adjective to mean ‘being clean’ – Metro
Hey, Good Housekeeping.
I’ve always been a fan. I have no issues with your home decoration tips and greatly appreciate your rankings of sex toys and your investigations into biscuits.
But even the best magazines are capable of f***ups, and this is one of them.
In their most recent issue, Good Housekeeping published a feature on staying healthy while travelling. As part of that feature, they advised their readers to ‘be a little OCD’.
Now, to be clear, when Good Housekeeping declared readers should ‘be a little OCD’, they didn’t mean that they should be plagued by obsessive thoughts, feel constantly on edge and filled with fear, or be unable to break out of rituals that affect their quality of life.
Nope, to ‘be a little OCD’ means to ‘use a paper towel to open the lavatory door on an airplane to avoid picking up viruses and bacteria’.
This is a problematic thing to publish in a magazine for multiple reasons.
For one thing, it’s using OCD as an adjective – as something you can ‘be’ rather than something you have.
This is grammatically a bit weird (it’s akin to saying ‘be a little depression’ or ‘be a little anorexia’), but it also frames a serious mental illness as something you can just choose to be, and once you choose to ‘be’ it, that’s who you are.
It sets up OCD as a label, holding up the language that makes people think they are nothing more than their mental illness.
That’s not the intention, I’m sure. But these little choices in language matter when we’re still finding it so bloody difficult to talk about mental illness without judgement or misunderstanding.
Someone can have OCD. They can suffer from OCD. They can be taking medication and undergoing therapy to manage OCD.
But you can’t ‘be’ OCD.
That applies to people who genuinely have OCD, and to those who describe themselves as ‘a bit OCD’ because they like their biscuit tins to be neat. ‘Being OCD’ is not a thing. It’s a mental illness – not a personality trait.
The other issue with Good Housekeeping’s choice of subhead for this piece?
Yet again, it equates OCD with cleanliness – and that’s really not something we need.
For decades people have held up the stereotype that someone with OCD is someone who is super neat and organised. This stereotype tells us that you can spot a person with OCD if their desk is tidy, their kitchens are always sparkling clean, and they have a fear of germs.
That stereotype isn’t just annoying, it’s dangerous.
It’s that stereotype that prevents many people from realising they have OCD in the first place.
When your symptoms don’t look like this stereotype – strengthened through depictions on TV, people’s comments, and images of lined up pencils used in mental health articles – you’re less likely to recognise what you’re up against and get the help you need.
That’s something I’m still dealing with today. When I started checking doors, checking switches, and reciting rituals to feel in control, I dismissed comments that it seemed like I had OCD.
OCD meant you were clean, I thought. I’m messy. I told myself that my obsessive thoughts were reasonable and logical. They didn’t look the way I’d been told OCD was supposed to look, so that couldn’t be what was going on.
That prevented me from talking about things and asking for help. I’m still waiting for therapy, I’m still not sure how to deal with obsessive worries when they arise, and I’m still resistant to the OCD diagnosis – because I’ve spent so long believing that OCD had to involve an obsession with cleanliness.
Every linguistic slipup that uses OCD as a synonym for ‘really clean’ or ‘germophobic’ holds up these dangerous beliefs. They strengthen stereotypes. They reduce mental illness into just being ‘a bit particular’.
It’s just three letters, but the way you use them has a huge impact. It makes people feel alone, uncertain, and feeling unable to ask for help. It gives people the okay to continue calling themselves ‘a bit OCD’ because they want their mug to be perfectly clean.
‘OCD is often referred to as the secret illness,’ Claire Goldenberg, support group facilitator at OCD UK, told metro.co.uk.
‘People suffer in silence for years for so many reasons. They don’t know what’s wrong with them. They worry they’re ‘mad’. They worry they’ll lose their families, their jobs.’
‘If the idea is perpetuated that OCD is about orderliness or cleanliness, then these people who are suffering are less likely to realise they’ve got OCD and will suffer for longer.
‘Additionally, if a person is suffering with OCD and knows they’ve got it, then if they hear someone describe themselves as ‘OCD’ in a lighthearted way, they will be less likely to talk about their own mental health problems.’
Good Housekeeping is absolutely not the first publication to make this messup (the OCD/cleanliness connection is so strong because people have been linking them for ages), and they likely won’t be the last.
Even now, if you Google ‘Good Housekeeping OCD’, the first page to appear will be ‘Best House Cleaning Tips for 2017’.
OCD has been used and continues to be used as an adjective by people on dating shows, by magazines, even by Khloé Kardashian, who continues to call a segment on her website, dedicated to arranging things in her home, ‘Khlo-C-D’.
But that’s why it’s important to call it out.
People continue to think that this kind of phrasing is a-okay, that OCD is always to do with cleanliness, and that it’s funny or endearing to describe themselves as ‘a little OCD’.
Or they don’t think at all. It doesn’t cross their mind that using someone’s illness as an offhand description can be hurtful.
Good Housekeeping’s messup is an example of a mental health related messup, but it’s also an opportunity to make it clear to everyone that advising people to ‘be a little OCD’ is not okay.
Neither is describing yourself as a ‘bit OCD’, or using OCD as a way to compliment someone’s tidying skills.
OCD is a serious, life-effecting condition. It’s not fun, cute, or a hack for keeping your house looking pretty.
Thankfully, one of Good Housekeeping’s editors, Stephanie Dolgoff, has now apologised for the subhead, stating that she will ‘do better.’
That’s hugely appreciated, and hopefully the fact that this issue has been publicly noted and acknowledged means it won’t happen again.
We can all do better. We can all be a little more considerate of the way we’re talking about mental health issues and the impact our words can have.
Be mindful that when you use the term ‘OCD’, you are referencing an illness, in the same way you would be if you said ‘depression’, ‘cancer’, or ‘bronchitis’.
You wouldn’t tell anyone to ‘be more cancer’ so they’d shave their head. You wouldn’t say ‘I’m bronchitis’ when your throat is sore. You are not depression, but you may have depression.
So please don’t say people, whether it’s yourself or someone else, are ‘being OCD’. It’s not okay.