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A desk next to a bed in a bedroom
It’s a bedroom and it’s an office. Where’s the privacy?
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The myth of bedroom privacy

Private bedrooms are a historically recent invention. Covid-19 made them public again.

Writing to her mother in July 1770, a bemused Marie Antoinette — just 14 years old and newly arrived at the court of Versailles — wrote of her daily routine, “I put on my rouge and wash my hands in front of the whole world.” The sheltered and unprepared dauphine of France wasn’t used to the sort of public display of intimate routines that characterized French royal life. Dressing, bathing, and dining were all spectator sports for members of the hereditary nobility with “Rights of Entry,” people whose official roles as intimate helpers meant proximity to the royal family and signified prestige. In her 2001 biography of the ill-fated queen, Antonia Fraser relates that on their wedding night, the dauphin and dauphine began the most intimate aspect of their married life not in romantic seclusion but in a room full of people invested in the young couple successfully consummating the union of the Habsburg Empire and France. (Unfortunately for all concerned, they wouldn’t do so for several years.) The Archbishop of Reims blessed the marriage bed, King Louis XV handed his grandson a nightgown, the Duchess of Chartres did the same for Marie Antoinette, and then the duchess and the king essentially tucked the young couple into bed.

Privacy? Not when the future of the French royal family was at stake. The 2006 Sofia Coppola film inspired by Fraser’s book dramatizes this scene along with Marie Antoinette’s morning routine, a farcical sequence in which she must wait, naked and shivering, as higher and higher ranking members of the court saunter into the royal bedroom to help the dauphine put on her dressing gown. Watching the film or reading Fraser’s biography, it’s the one thing about Marie Antoinette that actually seems pretty relatable: Given her druthers (which, of course, she wasn’t), she’d probably rather put on her own dressing gown and be left well enough alone. Wouldn’t we all?

A gilded 18th century bedroom, refurbished in 2019.
Marie Antoinette’s bedroom, in which the royal court would watch her dress, etc.
AFP via Getty Images

When we talk about privacy these days, we’re often concerned with Big Data and what’s happening to the information our smartphones share about our comings and goings, less so with the king of France watching us sleep. One can scarcely participate in modern life without handing over the keys to our online lives and accepting that companies are harvesting our data, and there’s not much we can do about it. Tempting products follow us around online; we know why, and it’s a fact of life as inevitable as the passive-aggressive dressing gown shenanigans of Ancien Régime Versailles. But the sort of physical privacy that Marie Antoinette craved is something we’re more likely to take for granted now, even as our digital lives are laid bare. It’s even built into the language of real estate: A one-bedroom apartment may be modestly scaled, but it has a bedroom, which means there’s space within the home that’s cordoned off from public view.

This was more or less the status quo until the Covid-19 pandemic, when suddenly people in nearly every kind of household configuration found their relationship to personal space, home, work, and the outside world transformed. The change was especially acute for families with two working parents and school-age children who needed quiet places for remote school or work, which meant seclusion from the noise of the household and a suitably professional backdrop. What if the living room is noisy, but the bedroom offers no vantage point without visible evidence of intimate life — laundry, ephemera, stacks of sheets and towels, toiletries, or prescription bottles? The traditional 20th-century party trick of making living rooms and dining rooms “presentable” for company by simply moving clutter into the bedroom or hall closet didn’t work when the entire house was on display over video chat. Both digitally and physically, we were putting on our rouge in front of the whole world — or at least the whole office.

Where did these notions of domestic privacy come from? Though beds are among the most ancient innovations of Paleolithic design, private bedrooms have only been commonplace for about a century. Yet their allure as sanctuaries is so powerful as to seem almost eternal. Design historian Juliana Rowen Barton, associate curator for the exhibition “Designing Motherhood,” says the bedroom is one part of the American home that has been remarkably consistent in terms of the value and perception of privacy. “Though rooms like the kitchen have oscillated between public and private, the bedroom’s relationship to privacy in single-family homes has never been challenged. For many folks, the dynamics of the pandemic flipped things upside down as we do everything at home now.”

In Get Out of My Room: A History of Teen Bedrooms in America, historian Jason Reid notes that prior to industrialization, it was very common for families to sleep (or even live) in a single room, collectively warmed by a single heat source, though this varied considerably by class. And when increasing urbanization and a shift away from the agrarian economy made middle- and upper-middle-class Americans wealthier, one way they differentiated themselves from the working poor was what urbanist Dolores Hayden termed the “isolated household.”

In the middle- and late-19th century, social reformers were increasingly concerned with hygiene, which was a marker of class distinction. Indoor plumbing, central heating, plenty of windows for cross-ventilation, and enough space for members of a household to sleep alone all composed the new middle-class ideal.

“A successful family,” writes Reid in Get Out of My Room, “was expected to live in a detached or semi-detached home with enough square footage to accommodate the privacy demands of parents and children alike while cramped tenements, boarding houses, and other dwellings associated with the poor were to be avoided at all costs.” Privacy was decency. If the working poor lived cheek by jowl in tenements with limited facilities for personal hygiene, then the middle-class Victorian home was the exact opposite: cleanliness, order, and separation. Where and how you slept was a reflection of the kind of person you were.

But then as now, this aspirational privacy didn’t necessarily mean that bedrooms were not social spaces. Michelle Janning, a professor of sociology at Whitman College and the author of The Stuff of Family Life: How Our Homes Reflect Our Lives, cites the “thermostat wars,” a term coined by the social psychologist Paul C. Rosenblatt, which instantly calls to mind the subtle but important domestic compromises that take place between couples who share a bedroom. It’s not so much that the pandemic year upended our domestic routines and made bedrooms social, it’s that for many Americans, remote work and school made private spaces social in a new way.

“When you realize some kind of norm is violated you realize what that norm was,” says Janning. “As soon as the bedroom becomes a space for other tasks like work, then you realize how sacred that space was and we realize how much we cherish that. Bringing your laptop into your bedroom — even pre-pandemic — we were infiltrating the space. But with lockdown, you have no other option.”

Which brings us to technology in the bedroom and a question many of us don’t want answered: How bad is it, actually, to gaze at a smartphone under the covers? The short answer: It’s bad. The longer answer? It depends. Rachel Salas, a professor of neurology at Johns Hopkins who treats patients with sleep disorders, says our brains naturally associate different tasks with different physical places.

“If you work and sleep and worry and eat and do a lot of other things in your bedroom, your brain becomes conditioned to think ‘this is my do-whatever room.’ At night your brain is trying to wind down, but it’s in the same environment where it was ‘idea time’ or ‘stress time.’ We’re conditioned individuals.”

Salas says that for people with sleep disorders, getting electronics out of the bedroom is always a good idea, and it may be a good idea for everyone. “From a sleep perspective, even before Covid, if you can, you want to get electronics out of the bedroom (including the TV), so it just becomes a place to sleep, like a hotel room.”

Philip Gehrman, an associate professor of clinical psychology in psychiatry at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania, echoes this advice. “For people who are good sleepers, there’s an association between sleep and their bedroom,” he says. “Basically, it’s classical conditioning. When your bedroom is now your office and your workplace, that’s not good stimulus control — that’s all associated with waking activities.”

a black and white picture of a woman in children in a small, cramped room.
A family in their shared tenement bedroom, circa 1910.
Bettmann Archive

And there’s something else: You may have read that gazing at a computer or a smartphone before bed is especially ill-advised if you’re trying to improve your sleep, and something called “blue light” is the culprit. Gehrman explains that late-night doomscrolling has a twofold effect: one is the content, which is apt to feature worrying news, outrage fodder, or the dopamine rush of new “Likes” on social media, none of which help us relax. The other is blue light, which has a more subtle effect that can actually interfere with our circadian rhythm.

Researchers have recently discovered that in addition to rods and cones in the eye’s retina, we also have cells called photosensitive retinal ganglion that trigger alertness in the brain. These cells are more sensitive to blue light than to any other kind, and blue light is exactly what your smartphone and laptop emit. So even if you were pretty careful about keeping technology out of the bedroom before the pandemic, the domestic rearrangement of the last 18 months (not to mention the content of the news itself) may well have wreaked havoc with your sleep.

So where does that leave us now that we’re emerging from lockdown? Janning says the pandemic has been a grand exercise in “boundary work,” a term sociologists use for the formal and informal ways we make distinctions and mark distance in our social worlds. Though the physical effects of things like blue light impact all of us, not everyone is bothered by remixing the coded physical spaces of work and home the way we had to do during lockdown — it just depends whether you’re a segmentist or an integrationist.

“Segmentists are the people who have color-coded keychains, separate spaces for files for work versus home, who segment their work lives from their family lives,” Janning says, explaining that for these people, the collapse of work and home was a challenge. “People who have everything on the same calendar and wear the same clothes, use the same language at home and at work, they’re integrationists, a term that was coined by sociologist Christena Nippert-Eng.” For integrationists, scrambling the traditional sites of work, play, and rest at home might not have been so stressful.

During the pandemic, Janning studied the preferred working locations of college students and discovered one-third of her sample pool of 18- to 29-year-olds in the US were doing their homework in their bedrooms. But many of these same students would then attend virtual class somewhere else for the same reason that office workers might prefer to Zoom from the living room: It feels more professional and less exposed. Do you want to be seen by your professor or your boss with a treasured childhood stuffed animal peeking into the frame? It may depend on your particular job, but chances are, probably not.

Even as we return to in-person work, telecommuting on a large scale is likely here to stay for many people, and that gives us all reason to think about our relationships with work and home in fresh ways. “More than anything, it makes me think about the nature of privacy and domestic space,” says historian Barton. “Who’s entitled to that privacy, and what’s at stake with its loss. The blurring of lines between public and private spaces has ramifications we’re only just beginning to unpack.” Janning notes that in the scope of human history, private bedrooms are fairly new, but that the phenomenon of telecommuting has now added “disembodied surveillance” to the mix, stripping the bedroom of some of its status as a personal sanctuary. The admonishment to keep technology out of the bedroom may be good sleep hygiene, but it’s worth thinking about how technology is shifting our ideas of personal space. Maybe the Victorians were onto something after all.

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