Life

From Cookies to Crown Molding: How DIY Became Women’s Empowerment Project

“It’s so spooky in here,” Hannah Dugan said as she led me into her basement. Located deep in the forest, the place looks like a scene from the movie “Saw”, with neatly arranged drill bits and nail guns on the shelves. The basement walls are made of stone one meter deep and have no windows.

Dugan is not a serial killer, but a well-known internet celebrity who specializes in DIY, always decorating his own house and posting these videos online. Nowadays, there are more and more such Internet celebrities.

In the United States, more and more women are using hardware tools. In Virginia, Cass Smith, who posts videos of her work on social media under the online name Cass Remodeler, built herself an office in her basement using two Ikea dressers. Elise Hunter from Utah, whose social media account is called “Happy Hunter Family,” shows her hand-painting flowers in the video. Hunter built a dollhouse for her two young daughters, and the wallpaper was her hand-painted floral pattern. It’s not just homeowners who do these manual tasks, but renters too. Shelby Van Hoy also hand-wrapped the ceiling of the dining room in the apartment she shares with her husband, son and large dog on Manhattan’s Upper West Side.

How popular is this trend right now? The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics conducts surveys every year on various aspects of the nation’s life span. The results show that Americans spend less time doing DIY interior maintenance, repairs and decorations than they did 20 years ago. But delving deeper into the data, another trend becomes apparent. While men still do more hands-on work than women, the amount of time they spend doing this has remained essentially unchanged over the past five years, while women’s time commitment has increased by 60%. This is partly because the number of women reported doing this activity has increased by almost 20%, but partly because they are devoting more time to it. In 2017, female hands-on enthusiasts spent nearly four hours per weekend working on various projects; in 2022, that number will be closer to five hours.

Post-pandemic, the do-it-yourself craze has taken off. “Stanley Black & Decker” is a professional hardware tool manufacturer whose product audience is often considered to be predominantly male. The then-boss James Lowry said that despite experiencing a period of home isolation since April 2020, in the early summer that followed, sales jumped by 30% to 40% year-on-year. This was due to people who were forced to stay at home. People are beginning to discover or regain the joy of doing things themselves. He said in January 2021 that the company’s sales in the North American retail market had experienced an unprecedented surge. What’s less known, though, is that it’s women who are driving this surge.

Amid this craze, women who posted videos about their handicrafts began to become popular on the Internet. After Hunter opened a social media account in 2020, her videos became a huge success. One of her early videos showed how to make a decorative lamp from an old lamp, a pile of wooden beads, and superglue. Similar lamps sell for up to $695 on the market. Van Hoy, another hands-on enthusiast, recalled what it was like when she and her husband moved to New York before the virus began to spread. “When I started renovating that apartment, my career took off,” she said.

Something similar happened to Dugan. In September 2020, when everyone was trying to avoid contact with other people, she posted a video titled “I Moved into the Forest Alone.” That was her “breakout” moment, she said. Now, she has over 1 million subscribers on social media.

The craft projects these women worked on varied. In terms of aesthetic style, Van Hoy has a retro European style; Hunter’s home is like a kaleidoscope, full of girly tones and wallpapers; Dugan’s home is becoming more and more like a fairy tale cabin, and she has even adopted a litter of The mouse cub, whom fans often compare to a “Disney princess on the run,” is like Cinderella, except her fairy godmother conjures up a Dewalt drill for her instead of a ballgown.

These internet celebrities seem to fall into three broad categories. From a cursory observation, most of them should be mothers with young children, renovating their own homes through DIY, such as Hunter and Smith. You can think of them as real housewives who, while taking care of their families, can also build their own customized wardrobes. They usually renovate their own suburban single-family homes.

The second group, like Van Hoy, is particularly good at “renter-friendly” upgrades. Most of their decorative materials look like giant stickers: “peel-off” wallpaper, which can be easily stuck on the wall and removed just as easily; and “self-adhesive paper,” which imitates marble and can keep the colors monotonous. The laminate countertops look like $3,000 marble slabs, but only from a distance. Van Hoy rents a two-bedroom apartment, and she can definitely be regarded as the queen of “invisible Velcro”. This kind of very sticky Velcro can stick many things to the wall at will without damaging the wall.

“There’s hundreds of Velcros in here,” Van Hoy said, pointing to the roundel on the ceiling, the tiles behind the fireplace and the paneling she’d put on the wall. However, in a small apartment in a big city, there isn’t much room for power tools, so most of the modifications she made to her home were done by hand. “Did you see? Every wooden tenon here was sawed by me myself.” She added.

The third category is the most radical do-it-yourselfers, who seem to have integrated the do-it-yourself concept into every aspect of their lives. Dugan initially posted a video titled “Building a Liveable Station Wagon While Traveling Around America.” Since then, she has bought two cabins, a house, and a large number of tools to upgrade and renovate the house. Rachel Metz quit her job after suffering from cancer and now renovates full-time.

Almost all female do-it-yourselfers have these three things in common. First, part of their original intention is to save money. Smith once said that her “ideas were getting bigger and bigger, but the budget was still limited.” Secondly, they are unwilling to wait for others to help. Hunter said she picked up power tools because she no longer wanted to wait for her husband to be available to help her. Similarly, Van Hoy says, “When an idea pops into my head, I want to do it right away.” In the end, they both learned a lot about how to do it themselves from the video site.

Over the past 70 years, various changes in society have made it easier for women to take matters into their own hands. Gender roles are less rigid today than they were in the 1950s and 1960s. In the past, boys learned carpentry and girls learned to bake cookies. In addition, power tools, which became popular in the 1980s, have made it easier for women to complete woodworking tasks such as drilling and sawing, even if they do not have the muscle strength of men. In addition, TV shows with a do-it-yourself theme also provide a lot of inspiration.

Before the rise of renovation reality shows in the 1990s, people could only see the homes of friends and family or characters from TV series, but these shows exposed thousands of home improvement cases. Nowadays, people can see any home in the world on social media, as long as the owner is willing to share it.

Online video platforms that emerged around 2010 have made it easier to learn basic skills. Instead of reading a DIY assembly manual full of jargon, find a video to see how others do it. Short videos with female protagonists are particularly popular. Most of the popular videos are exciting stories that combine challenges and beauty. “People like to watch transformation-related videos,” Dugan said, “but they also like to watch women suffer.”

Many female DIY experts are adept at combining femininity and power tools. “Go ahead, girl!” Hunter said bluntly in his social media profile. “Holding my baby girl in one hand and holding a power tool in the other!” Others’ introductions were more tactful. “I’m not trying to say anything radical,” Dugan said, “but it’s really exciting.”

To prove this point, I picked up the nail gun for the first time, pressed it against the board, felt the vibration when using it, and listened to the loud “buzzing” sound. When I pulled the trigger, I immediately understood what an addictive hobby this was. The thrill of shooting a rapidly rotating nail into a block of wood is truly unique. I was instantly hooked and subsequently added the air nail gun to my Christmas gift list.

Professor Laurie Santos of Yale University believes that people often think that finding a better job or owning a bigger house will make them happier, but lasting happiness often comes from seemingly trivial things, such as being with a loved one. Interact or take time out to reward yourself for your hard work. Other research also shows that accomplishing small goals is a source of happiness. And DIY is full of small goals like this: buying materials, cutting them to length, nailing them together, and so on.

Making your home more beautiful may not seem like such a profound pursuit. But when night fell, I couldn’t help but imagine that in a forest in the American Midwest, Dugan was lighting a fire in a firepit he dug. Cutting wood, staining wood, and installing boards are simple tasks that we ordinary people can’t do for a few times before getting exhausted, but that’s not the case for Dugan. Maybe we will soon be able to sleep on the wooden bed she handcrafted piece by piece. While women like Dugan beautified or improved their living environments, they also achieved something greater: they created incredibly beautiful lives.

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