The latest phrase to jump from TikTok hashtag to aggrieved headlines is 'bed rot', a term used to describe, surprisingly, rotting in bed.
Not in the literal sense, obviously. It refers to staying in your bed by choice for hours at a time, doing whatever activity takes your fancy: endlessly scrolling, gleefully snacking, watching every new episode of Black Mirror, staring contentedly at the ceiling or catching up with friends on the phone with your legs kicking behind you, '90s sitcom style. The activity (or lack thereof) is not the point. The staying/rotting/festering in bed is.
Is bed rotting different from a duvet day?
This isn’t a new invention. The phrase 'bed rot' can be dated back to at least September last year on TikTok and at the time of writing has hit 224 million views. The practice is hardly radical either — it follows in the proud tradition of duvet day. For some, a duvet day may have connotations of sacking off work; for others, a duvet day has nothing to do with being ill or bunking off work and everything to do with being absorbed into your mattress by choice.
What is new is using deliberately off-putting language to describe this behaviour. In the same vein as the fairly recent goblin mode or going 'feral', it deliberately evokes a sense of grossness. Linguistically, a duvet day feels gentle and generous, while rotting in bed conjures up a sense of decay, of life collapsing in on itself. Bed rotting doesn’t shy away from the sticky experience of staying in the same clothes all day or the lethargy that can come from lying down for hours on end.
Dr Audrey Tang, a chartered psychologist with the British Psychological Society, says that "it sounds like a bit of a reaction against all of the healthy, wellness, self-care-type trends that we hear all the time. It has a much more grimy feel to it and because of that, it does suggest that people are getting a little fed up of all of the clean living, clean eating etc."
This sense of rebellion is directly opposed to the language surrounding mental health and self-care — and that's deliberate. "It suggests to me that people are either fed up with the term [self-care], they don't want to use the term or they are rebelling, saying 'I'm just staying in bed and rotting there and you can deal with it how you want to'."
It fits quite neatly into a generational divide that's alive and well in digital media: the tension between those who see it as a moral obligation to always be productive and/or presentable and/or in the office and those who don't. Every few weeks there’s a headline about someone pushing back against working from home or not working hard enough, with younger generations either implicitly or explicitly the target of the criticism.
Bed rotting is confirmation of the laziness that working from home or, more broadly, 'being young' encourages — or so the thinking seems to go.
Bed rot is nothing new
The point that is being missed here is that bed rotting is a deliberately provocative name for something people have done for decades: make use of the most comfortable space in their home even when they are not sleeping. People do it because they are sick or disabled or they had a big week or they had an argument with their flatmate or just because they want to. It could be because they are feeling lazy or 'naughty' but equally it could not be. It is deliberately poking fun at the idea that the only options available to people are to be an active member of society or to be mouldering at home.
It’s deeply normal to have slower, lazier days when you collect yourself by whiling away the hours in bed, or to reject societal expectations by embracing a kind of introverted hedonism, no matter how it affects your appearance. It’s not disgusting or particularly unusual.
When Audrey has written about this impulse, as in her book The Leader's Guide To Mindfulness, she called the phenomenon 'the 24 hour wallow', which she sees as essential but recommends a time cap. "Rotting is ongoing in the same way wallowing can be a bit ongoing and if it does last longer than, say, 24 hours, we have to ask ourselves, Is this a self-care intervention or is this a habit? And if it's the latter, is it a problem that's affecting my daily life?" Problems can include it disrupting your sleep hygiene, or when it becomes difficult for you to do anything else.
A lot of life is spent pretending that human beings are not disgusting. We find ways to talk around our bodily functions, our anatomy and our basic needs to avoid remembering we’re just animals, too. It’s still too hard for people to say 'poo' without cutesifying it as 'poop' or 'BM' (bowel movement), even though our guts impact us every day. Greasy hair must be concealed at all costs for fear of someone assuming you are an oily, lazy — and therefore bad — person.
So of course there is something quite freeing about using deliberately loaded language to describe otherwise normal behaviour.
But perhaps the need comes less from the huge generational differences in our behaviour and from the fact that on modern social media like TikTok, you see so much of 'normal' life being described in ways that wind people up.
Bed rot sounds gross but the experience of life is gross. The reaction to the phrase says more about what we project onto the idea of resting even in the non-aesthetic ways: a lack of hygiene, an example of laziness, that it is a moral failing to be a bit gross.
It’s not; it’s just life — as is rest, surrendering to the Netflix algorithm or accidentally finishing a tube of Pringles. Tuning out is neither morally good nor morally bad.
It’s just another way to alleviate shame through validation that underlines life as a sweaty, festering mess of unmet expectations and self-imposed standards. There is no moral good or bad to it. It’s just fine. And if you have to name it bed rot to feel better about it, all power to you.