“Washed”—a more 2018 way of saying “slightly past the prime of your coolness”—is an inherently fun bit of slang, and Zach Baron’s charming GQ piece embracing his own washed-ness is fun to read. “Recently I turned 36, but I’d say I’ve been washed for some time now,” Baron writes. Two years ago, the writer got married and moved to Los Angeles from New York. “It’s been a blur of home cooking and ‘getting into red wine,’ crossword puzzles and daily exercise,” he writes.
As a thoroughly washed person of 40 who gets great joy out of creating new kitchen inventory workflows, I initially welcomed this advocacy for my people. Baron’s piece argues for the calm pleasures of washedness. Saying “washed” out loud about yourself, as Baron has done, neutralizes its effects. After all, if you’re washed, you’re chill. Who wants to be “unwashed” (or should we say, “pre-washed”) if that means being an aggressive tryhard like the “If We Could Be Boring” girl from Thought Catalog circa 2011? Nothing is uncooler than the striver who really wants you to know she drinks Aperol on a fire escape and lives “in a golden house full of only beautiful people.” The “washed” are fine with their red wine and their gardens, because they’re comfortable in their own skins. Didn’t we just spend a week or so deciding that “BDE” was simply this same quality of self-confident owning-it? Those who embrace the washed state for themselves can get their BDE on without leaving the couch.
But the more I’ve thought about it, the more the use of “washed” to describe part of the life-course of regular humans has needled me. This feeling begins with the word’s origins. I’ve heard “washed” applied most often to athletes—who, inevitably, have careers that end in their thirties, or their forties, if they’re very lucky. People levy the charge at entertainers, too; Baron points to the internet’s strenuous judgment of 48-year-old Jay-Z’s performance at Coachella this year as an example.
The widespread repurposing of “washed” for normals takes one of the most depressing things about sports and entertainment—the specter of the athlete or singer in decline, who must figure out what to do with the rest of their life—and imposes it on the rest of us mortals. It reinforces the idea that the fecklessness, restlessness, and physical vigor of your teens and twenties is when you’re at your best, and that once you develop routines, commitments, and responsibilities, you are done.
And the reclamation of “washed” feels a bit like misdirection. The moniker is framed as self-deprecation, but it’s actually a new way to assert your coolness, simply by redefining the terms of cool. Oh word, you have a group of friends who all play golf together weekly? You cook up a fresh pot of Ottolenghi pea and pine nut pasta on a casual Tuesday? That sounds suspiciously unwashed to me. (And it sounds fun, and good. Invite me over.) In fact, think too hard about what really counts as washedness and the whole concept starts to buckle. Is Jay-Z really “washed” because he got breathless while trying to rap and dance at the same time—or is he just the coolest 48-year-old of all time?
It’s also worth noting that “washed” is a sneakily rarefied term. The self-decreed “washed” are comfortable. Based on the profile of washedness Baron lays out, the most washed among us are often in a domestic partnership and have a stable place to live—two things that are privileges, even if they’re perceived as lame and deadening. The slackening ambition of the “washed” is not hurting their checking accounts, or it would have a totally different meaning—and not a cool one. The “washed” previously spent years (as Baron describes it) “tirelessly working on being, basically, a more interesting version of yourself”—a description of being twentysomething that implies a fair amount of material comfort, and seems to imply delayed marriage and child-having. Baron and I can embrace being “washed” because we spent all those years “building up something—taste, experience, judgment.” But what if you missed out on these self-building years, out of whatever accident of poverty or illness, or choice of parenthood or other obligation? What if you just spent your twenties anxious, and uncool, and never really felt like you knew where the party was? Is it still cool to be washed if you never had a chance to be unwashed in the first place?
But wait! A cursory Google search suggests that “washed” used to be a more useful—and equally fun—designation. An earlier Urban Dictionary definition of the word, from way back in 2003, is situational instead of existential. “Washed,” according to this use, described a weed hangover: “What one feels the day after getting completely stoned. One feels tired, lazy, and even the slightest movement requires immense effort.” I like this contextual “washed,” which invokes the blankness of a beach that’s been gently wiped clean by waves. This idea can be useful in applications beyond marijuana. I wish I’d known earlier that life could have periods of dormancy and activity, and that a dormant stretch doesn’t mean the end. How freeing! Plenty of people have done it; just ask any mom who goes back to work after seven years at home with kids. Imagine if we understood that a person could be washed one year, and happily unwashed the next?