On Bags

It’s 10:43 a.m. and I’m late. I’m supposed to meet a friend at the Brooklyn Museum at 11, but my cat was needy this morning, and today’s dour sky doesn’t invite pedestrians.

Nevertheless, I grab a beige shoulder bag from the door hook and make a mental list of what I’ll need: Wallet? Yes. Keys? Yes. Headphones? For sure. Book? I’ll probably get bored on the train. Water bottle? I’m always dehydrated. Comb? Compact? Mini lint roller? Advil? Each item sails into the bag. By the time I’m finished it’s the close cousin of a bowling ball, both in size and shape. I grab a jacket too, just in case. And a granola bar. And an umbrella. And then I leave.

My mid-sized bag, the aforementioned beige one, is meant to limit the amount of stuff I carry with me–for really massive hauls I have the Big Black Tote. Ideally, I’d carry as little around the museum as possible because bags are heavy, and shoulder strain can really distract from the paintings. Intellectually I know this, but some inner compulsion demands that I prepare for every foreseeable circumstance: dehydration, starvation, boredom, lint. I blame myself to some extent, but mostly I blame bags.

It’s rare to see a woman without a bag. Especially in New York, The Bag is as much fashion accessory as it is utilitarian carry-all. The perfect bag cherry-tops the perfect outfit; ideally, it coordinates with your shoes. (“Goes with” is the term What Not to Wear‘s Stacy London prefers, never “matches.”) Entire design houses–Coach, Birkin, Burberry, Louis Vuitton–became household names thanks to handbags and still rely on handbag sales as revenue cornerstones. (Prada just released the Inside Bag, retailing at $39,760, in hopes it will reverse declining leather goods sales.)

It’s difficult to pinpoint why bags irritate me the way they do. Perhaps it’s because I’m always cramming too much into mine. Perhaps it’s because they seem inherently sexist–a frivolous accessory designed to make up for the lack of substantial pocket space in women’s jeans. (Sure, plenty of dudes carry briefcases to work, but when they’re not packing laptops and paperwork their keys, chapstick, and phones fit fine into their roomy pockets. Even though handbag sales for men are reportedly on the rise, the fact remains that bags for men are seen as extraneous, while bags for women are akin to an extra limb.)

Perhaps it’s because of the sheer weight, both physical and psychological, that handbags impose on their carriers. A stuffed bag is a restriction. When I’m carrying a heavy shoulder bag, I tire easily. I sweat more. I can’t accomplish side tasks; it’s straight to my destination and straight home lest I keel over from the effort of keeping my heavy bag aloft.

My bag holds me responsible. If someone near me needs Advil or a comb or toothpaste or lotion or dental floss or a nail file or deodorant or gum (but no moochers) or contact solution or a tampon or powder or lipstick or an umbrella, I’m their go-to gal. (Note: That’s not even the full list of things I regularly carry with me.) I am a mature, responsible adult, therefore I carry supplies. If I’m caught without any of these items, it’s my fault. I have been careless. I have failed.

My bag makes me vulnerable, not only to the accusatory voices inside my head, but also to flesh-and-blood people. It’s easy to grab a purse or cut its strap or nick a trinket from the yawning mouth of a tote. Carrying too many things screams abundance, and flashy hardware is austentatious. An expensive bag is a status symbol. Heavy bags make running difficult.

For a while I simply tried to pack less, but that never worked. So I went drastic. Yesterday I left my apartment around noon to buy eggs at the corner deli. I slung a jean jacket (pocket level: 4) on over my summer dress and grabbed my phone, keys, and $10. And then I left.

Bag-less, I descended the stairs in minor crisis mode. What if my lips felt chapped? What if it started to rain? What if I wanted to listen to music? My over-preparedness instincts screamed at me to about-face, to pack at least a few extras, just in case. I ignored them. My arms hung loosely by my sides.

On Bags

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