Let’s be clear: I’ve never really been a purse person. My checking accounts or credit cards were never stretched to the breaking point in pursuit of a soft, buttery clutch or Swarovski encrusted tote; I’ve never gazed wistfully at the accessories on display in the windows of Barneys, Louis Vuitton, Bergdorf or any other number of the luxury goods palaces that line the streets of the Upper East Side or Soho. I had a hard time identifying with the more consumerist themes in Sex and the City. I don’t like Marc Jacobs and I strongly believe that the term “hardware” belongs in the aisles of retailers like True Value or Home Depot.
I’ve owned bags, yes – canvas totes, small leather purses, maybe a pocketbook or two picked up from Forever 21 or DSW – but the particular sort of “must have” style statements that found popularity in the mid-to-late ’90s and retain a relentless grip on the Western female imagination never got my pulse racing. Still, I am a creature – and product – of 21st century American cultural conditioning, which means that, like many Western women, countless decades of exposure to, consumption of and experience within the lifestyle industrial complex had their intended effect. (I am a veteran writer and editor of women’s service and fashion magazines.) Comeliness, I was made to understand, was paramount. And preferable to competence. So it was with some trepidation that last year I jettisoned those totes and purses and pocketbooks for something significantly uglier but a lot more happy-making: A black backpack.
Writers Nora and Delia Ephron, in their 2009 play “Love, Loss and What I Wore” claimed, ”you know you have finally given up” when you start shopping for clothes at apparel retailer Eileen Fisher. If that’s true – and I don’t think it is – then my embrace of backpacks suggests that I have also thrown up my hands in defeat, the victim of middle-aged devolution. (I turned 40 a few months ago.) Or is it evolution? I’m become increasingly convinced that my newfound fascination with my backpack (InCase, $79.95 at InCase and the Apple Store) is evidence that I have simply, finally (!) hit my stride. My decision to choose function over form, comfort over costume, may raise eyebrows in the fancier, performative precincts of the Meatpacking District or Nolita, but it’s an eyebrow raiser that comes with one of the most important accessories of all: A feeling of freedom and a rejection of fetishization.
Made from nylon and lined with foam and faux-suede, my backpack holds my daily necessities (laptop, tablet computer, yoga gear, snacks, water bottle) AND allows me a sense of movement that no purse, no matter how well-designed or expertly reinforced has given me before. Thanks to the sturdy zippers on my backpack, I am no longer afraid of having my wallet snatched on the subway; and thanks to the numerous convenient compartments, I don’t have to go digging through discarded wrappers, receipts, and other detritus to find my keys, MetroCard or gum. (I can carry upwards of 10 magazines on my person at any given time.) Perhaps most importantly, thanks to my InCase’s wide padded straps, which make displacement of the pack’s weight over my upper torso natural, even downright comfortable, I can finally walk with ease and still have all of my belongings on me. And lose 10 pounds in the process.
The women I’ve admired the most over the course of my life always have two things in common. #1: They are older than me, and wiser. #2: They just don’t give a shit. (#2 seems to be the logical outgrowth of #1.) I like to think that my backpack is me not giving a shit. My embrace of ease over appearance means that I’ve finally hit a point where what I want and need matters most. Throughout our lives, women are encouraged to look outward more than inward, to prioritize others’ needs, wants and feelings, to concern ourselves with what others think of us, especially men, whose desires we feel compelled to anticipate, reflect and cater to.
No more. Although I will always struggle – mightily, even – with the push and pull of staying true to myself while not lapsing into selfishness, I’d like to think that my backpack marks a new phase in my maturity, a symbol that what’s important in my life deserves a comfortable place to call home, optics be damned. (I am reminded that bags and other portable containers have long served as convenient metaphorical receptacles for humanity’s hopes, dreams, and fears; they didn’t call it Pandora’s Box for nothing.) That said, maybe I’m overthinking all of this by looking for something meaningful in what is simply the natural outgrowth of an aging skeleton and increasingly mobile lifestyle. Maybe I’m just cheap and lazy. Maybe my backpack is really just a backpack.