Now in my sixth consecutive year at university, I’ve almost gotten used to the economic instability that comes with student life. While I definitely don’t regret taking on a self-funded PhD in English literature, I’ve felt compelled to work as much as possible to make a living, whether through writing or retail. It’s part of the unavoidable, propulsive tide of hustle culture, guilting us into monetizing every waking moment we have before the inevitable burnout.
Even though I thought I’d purged my social media of content creators who no longer serve me (read: those with unattainable bodies and a fondness for Facetune), girlboss content continues to shape my expectations of women. I’ve been constantly bombarded with videos of women in matching workout sets heading to their 7 a.m. gym sessions before a full day of work, all while maintaining a pristinely healthy diet. This lifestyle isn’t feasible for most of us. Despite knowing this, recently I’ve fallen into the "that girl" trap.
As a result I felt this never-ending sense of guilt for not constantly monetizing my time or using it to be ultra productive. I wanted a radical shift in my outlook on working life, which slow living seemed to promise.
Slow living is essentially the practice of living more consciously and intentionally, explains Elsa Grace Evelyn, a content creator on TikTok and Instagram who inadvertently introduced me to the concept. Her videos, which showcase beautifully edited fragments of her life and the things that she loves, all centre around slow living. That might mean foraging, wild swimming, upcycling old clothes and furniture or just taking the time to appreciate nature.
Curious as to how people afford the time and the money to live slowly, I reached out to Elsa for guidance. To begin, I asked her what slow living means to her. Elsa tells me that her days are spent "focusing on living in the present moment" and practicing rituals and crafts that help her to live as sustainably as she can.
I ask Elsa what kind of rituals she means and she says: "[Standing] barefoot beneath the trees in a magical dark forest or bathing in a local river surrounded by a group of women." Elaborating, she tells me that these are moments for her to stop and feel stillness. "The rawness of floating in the water, watching branches sway in the wind, and looking out for wildlife is my greatest pleasure in life," Elsa says.
As wonderful as this sounds, I wasn’t sure I was capable of switching off like this. It seemed like a near impossible task when my working life is so unpredictable and, at times, all-consuming. Even still, I couldn’t help wondering how pleasant it would be if I could get to this stage.
If you’re less inclined towards the spiritual side of slow life, there are practical elements too. It has the potential to be incredibly sustainable, ethical, and affordable. Elsa gathers herbs, plants, and flowers to use in tea blends, ferments, and nourishing meals. Upcycling is also a huge part of the slow lifestyle; Elsa tells me that she harvests nettles to use for dye to breathe new life into old clothes.
Unlike a lot of micro-aesthetics — typically reliant on overconsumption thanks to the terrifying output of the fast furniture and fashion industries — slow livers utilize secondhand websites like Gumtree and Facebook Marketplace. YouTuber Blue Ollis has used pallets to create a bed frame and old crates for storage. For those with a surplus of time and access to resources and a healthy budget, these can be great options. I wondered how easy it would be for me though, especially without access to my own car and working to various strict deadlines.
Feeling inspired and armed with new knowledge, I began my attempt to live as slowly as possible for a few days. Only time would tell if I could hack it.
As it’s Easter, I’ve gone to my family’s home in the New Forest, which is also only a 10-minute drive from the south coast. It was a glorious morning so my mom and I went for a long beach walk to make the most of the sunshine. While neither of us was quite brave enough to submerge ourselves fully in the sea, we waded into the water until it reached our calves.
After heading home I realized two things.
As a full-time postgrad currently studying in the northeast, life (notably, the cost of rent and price per pint) is substantially cheaper than it is in the south. It would be near impossible to find a house here for the price I pay in Durham, let alone one I’d actually enjoy living in. The cost of living here is steep and far from universally accessible, even if enjoying the forest and beach is free.
I was also conscious that I’d essentially spent the morning slacking off on the work I should’ve been doing. While I’m bound by tight deadlines and have a strict quota for the number of hours I need to work, life as a student and writer offers a certain flexibility.
However Elsa, who works part-time at a cafe, says that she uses her mornings, evenings, and days off to find balance and stillness. The essence of slow living, to her, isn’t about how much time you have but how you use it.
In the evening I ran a bath, lit some candles, and decided to use all the skincare products I’d brought with me. I’m usually more conservative with my toiletries but today I experienced a slither of luxury. As I took a moment to be still in the tub, it was the first time all day that my mind finally stopped whirring and compiling a never-ending list of arduous tasks. The bath felt like a long-overdue act of kindness to myself and I was very content.
Working irregular hours and living on a student budget has destroyed my love of cooking. As an avid foodie, I was hoping that the dietary component of slow living could offer a solution.
Slow eating, according to Slow Living London, describes "a type of conscious consumerism that encourages respecting seasonality, reducing environmental impact within food production and supporting local producers and culinary traditions." During my undergrad years in Brighton, I was lucky enough to be surrounded by bulk stores, fruit and vegetable markets, and family-owned bakeries. I regularly made elaborate meals from scratch as high quality, local produce was incredibly accessible and reasonably priced. Durham has a far more limited selection and big Tesco has steadily become my best friend.
At my parents’ home I’m fortunate enough to be 15 minutes' walk from a farm shop. For breakfast I got a mixture of oats, nuts, seeds, flaxseed, coconut chips, and chocolate chips for good measure. Most mornings, I blast some oats in the microwave and add nut butter for good measure but on this occasion I decided to dedicate a bit more time to my porridge and make it on the stove.
Adding a little more time and care to my food made all the difference and I decided that I’d try to approach cooking like this as much as possible in the future. Whether I can get these kinds of ingredients in the northeast is a different matter entirely.
I was keen to take a holistic approach to slow living and this included paying more attention to my body. I’ve become increasingly sedentary over the past few months and I’ve been eager to do something about it. Alongside spending all of my working hours on a laptop, running, and HIIT-style exercises have become substantially more difficult since getting COVID last year. I was looking for something to re-energize me.
Elsa recommended carving out sacred time for restorative yoga in the evening but also using this time for meditation, breathwork, and connecting with nature. Taking my mat to the garden and conscious of my new limits, a 30-minute yoga session was the perfect length and difficulty level for me. Unlike the gym classes I normally attend, yoga helped me to focus on my body’s needs and move instinctively. The backache I’d developed from a morning hunched over my desk disappeared and my whole body relaxed.
Meditation, however, proved more difficult. I struggle to switch off at the best of times and trying to think about nothing for 10 minutes was much harder than I’d anticipated. Using the guidance Elsa had given me, I planted my bare feet on the ground and turned my attention to the physical sensation of my breath and the rising and falling of my chest. As my focus turned towards the here and now, any anxiety I felt began to dissipate, just like magic.
Now on the fourth day of my slow living journey, I was beginning to understand how much of the lifestyle centers around other people. While staying with my parents, I realized how fortunate I was to live in a community that made slow living attainable.
During the first lockdown my neighborhood, like countless others, became the beneficiary of a local mutual aid group. In the midst of uncertainty, the community group chat offered a sense of solidarity that was sorely needed and it has stayed relatively active ever since.
In the years since I’d started university, my childhood bedroom had quickly become a shrine to the unreasonable number of books I’d accumulated over the years. Although I wasn’t intending to become a full-on minimalist, I knew a lot of the books I owned needed to go. Fortunately, I was able to give many of my old books a loving new home.
Although I’ve managed to drastically reduce my consumption over the years, I’ve struggled to curb the regular visits to Waterstones. But with a great selection of charity shops and local little libraries, at least while staying with my parents, I realized that permanently changing my book-buying habit might be easier than I thought.
Up until this point I’d found slow living achievable for the most part. My wardrobe, however, made me question how slow the clothes I owned truly were.
I’ve definitely bought my fair share of fast fashion pieces in the past, a choice exacerbated by my small income and perpetual student status. And with a 32G chest, my bodily proportions have made buying new a necessity rather than a choice.
But thanks to the rise of TikTok trends and the minuscule lifespan of micro-aesthetics, there’s been a noticeable decline in the quality of secondhand clothing. As the output of fast fashion brands grows exponentially, I’ve noticed that the clothes I’m buying don’t last nearly as long.
As with my books, I began whittling down my wardrobe. I sorted my clothes into four piles: keep, mend, eventually replace, and donate.
Perhaps I’d gotten used to the poor quality of high street clothes but trying these on felt like a totally new experience. They fit my body in a way I wasn’t used to seeing and the fabrics were thick and incredibly soft. If I could afford to do this with more staple items, I thought, then I wouldn’t mind giving up fast fashion at all.
As I headed back to Durham, I had to come to terms with losing a lot of the resources I had access to at home. There’s a certain luxury in knowing that the forest and the beach are just round the corner, as are countless local produce and charity shops. My days felt longer and more fulfilled, and I finally felt a sense of separation between work and time off.
Since returning I’ve made sure to ritualize my evenings and carve out time for solitude. But it’s definitely been harder since my workload has steadily risen and I’ve resumed my quasi-student social life. Even if it’s just taking the time to really enjoy a hot shower or light a candle, I’ve found small ways to find peace each and every day.
Ultimately my greatest lesson has been that while slow living may not always be practical, slowing down definitely can be. And that’s something I’m more than happy to make time for.