Becoming a Bag-free Lady
by Susan Lebow
Ever since the beginning of his-story, women have been the carriers. We carry the babies, carry the milk, carry the food, carry the water. We carry intangibles too--like the stigma of his-story’s version of Eden, and the blame for the violence against us. We carry the weight of most of the unpaid work of the world, as well. Take cooking, for instance. I was watching “The Great Chefs of the World” on public TV, and though most of the unpaid cooking in the world is surely done by women, this show couldn’t find even one woman chef to feature.
Of course, there are many other forms of carrying that women do. You can think of your own particular favorite, but it’s the most common form of carrying that interests me. While waiting in the car at Safeway, watching people, all in such a rush, I noticed that women who entered the store carried a handbag, but not one single man did. Yet miraculously, everyone who came out had groceries. I wondered why a man could walk into the store bagless, and come out with as much stuff as a woman, who it seemed had to have a bag to enter. There must be some unwritten law at work, because this behavior was consistent, and without exception. The need to carry must be deeply embedded in the female psyche, and almost completely unconscious, judging from the vehement rationalizations I get from women who defend to the hilt the carrying of their bags everywhere. Like something awful would happen if they put their burden down.
Now if you carry a daily bag, have you ever noticed how attached you are to it, how much like your personality it is, what it says about you? To many women, a purse is a major status symbol. Odd how we glamorize our burden. There are rows of bags in department stores, even whole stores devoted exclusively to women’s bags, and they are expensive. Have you ever accidentally gone out without your bag? You feel sort of exposed, naked, at loose ends, even a little naughty. We grab our bags on the way out, the reason long ago forgotten, just the gnawing need to be prepared for emergency, any emergency, always thinking there will be an emergency and we have to be prepared. Crisis junkies, permanent stress, bag ladies we are, and bag ladies we fear to be.
Have you ever noticed how large some women’s bags are? I have wondered if the women are preparing to run away from home. We know home is not a safe place for many women. Have you ever weighed your bag? Some of us heft as much as fifteen pounds. Or have you ever had to suffer the dumb jokes about how messy or silly or telling or predictable the contents are? No doubt you’ve seen the “experts” on TV supposedly able to determine what kind of a person you are by the contents of your bag.
And then there is looking for a place to put your bag when you sit down in a restaurant or nightclub, and what to do with it when you want to dance. One night at a club, I sat and watched a woman, maybe 40, alone, sitting up so straight, nervous, overdressed, anticipating. I imagined her recently divorced, out for the first time in the single scene, humiliated but trying. Finally a man asked her to dance. She sprang to her feet, too grateful to be chosen, her beaded bag hanging over her shoulder. As he escorted her back to her table, I overheard him scolding: she had embarrassed him by carrying her bag onto the dance floor. She held her eyes to the floor, feeling a fool, ashamed, and I couldn’t help asking in a loud voice why he didn’t leave his wallet on the table. He seemed stunned at my bold intrusion. She gave me a broad smile.
And then there’s the big one: snatched. Clutching your bag while walking down the street, a male or group of males walking behind or toward you, your vise-grip telegraphing the fear it might be snatched. What a set-up. And then there are those days when the media send out particularly vicious fear-vibes. You know, the blurbs in between commercials that recount in explicit detail a brutal rape and murder that occurred. Or the promos for some sickening, must-see movie of the week. I have always felt these to be intentionally terrorizing, designed as news or entertainment, but sending a very clear message. You hold on even tighter, feeling especially vulnerable, your bag seems neon, a target, as if your genitals were on the outside of your clothes, exposed, and they could be snatched. Think about it.
Next time you go out, notice all the bag ladies. I wonder if the size of a woman’s bag and the size of her abuse-load have any mathematical correlation. Notice what you actually use in your own bag. Get up the nerve to minimize the load, and begin eliminating those unnecessary things that only a good girl scout would need to always be prepared. Or try carrying only a wallet and keys. You’ll feel strange at first, bagless, like you’re breaking the rules, those unspoken ones we never agreed to obey in the first place, the ones that seem inevitable, the ones we must discover in order to break.
Try wearing clothes with pockets you can actually use. Women’s clothing and bag designers are mostly men--even Liz Claiborne is a man now--and they’re getting rich off our neurosis. I bet they cooperate together, purposely putting unusable pockets in most of our clothes. Oh, yes, and wear something that won’t show the bulge. God forbid we have a bulge.
I carry a small wallet, the kind made for business cards. It’s enough for cash, driver's license, and one plastic card. You need only carry the keys (and only the ones you actually use).
If you’ve never gone bagless, you have to try it. When done on purpose, you feel a little dangerous, a little more power-full and care-free, less vulnerable, less of a target. At first you may not know what to do with your hands, so wear a coat or pants with big pockets. You may find old habits die hard as your hand clutches the little wallet in your pocket, but you’ll soon relax your shoulders, and appear less of a victim. We know that predators look for victim behavior.
Look around. Men are not bag ladies. A bag man is a guy who carries the cash for a bookie or the mob in the movies. A bag lady is a very different picture. We women indulge our burdens like they are necessities. I wonder what would happen if we just put our burden down. Think about it.
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