The Gendered Nature of Being Unencumbered

If you ask almost any woman what she would change about women’s clothes I promise you “pockets” would come up about 95% of the time (other answers: sizing consistency, for fuck’s sake; quality construction; larger sizes not just being a size 0 sized up). When I think about my closet I can name four items of clothing with pockets, and two of those are essentially useless cardigan pockets. The few pairs of pants I own don’t even have pockets!

This has been an ongoing irritation for years, and one I’ve lightly thought about in feminist terms, but it’s only recently that I realized how profoundly (the lack of) pockets affects embodiment in very gendered ways.

Earlier this week I was walking from the bus loop to work, aware of the weight of my purse on my shoulder and my tote bag in my hand. And I noticed something interesting. All the women walking around and in front of me were weighted down with at least one bag, while all the men save for a couple with messenger bags were totally unencumbered. I could see the difference in how they walked. Their hands free to swing naturally or rest in their pockets, their posture upright and relaxed, their gait bouncy and full of energy. Huh.

On the way to a doctor’s appointment after work I went through downtown and again saw this great disparity. Women carrying at least one bag, often a blazer or some other professional accoutrement, in generally impractical shoes, while men bounced merrily along, in trousers and a button-down, sensible shoes and nary a bag in sight. Uh huh.

I’ve been thinking for some time about the gendered nature of embodiment , and trying to fight the gendered socialization that weighs me down. Recently at the beach with two other women I strode fearlessly from rock-to-rock, mimicking the bodily-trust I’ve seen in so many men (despite my less-than-desirable flip-flops) while the other two made their ways slowly, unsteadily, testing every step, not trusting their bodies to carry them safely across the terrain. In that moment I again felt anger at the bodily freedom and trust (most) men are granted (with the understanding that various intersections offer different freedoms and limitations) and the constraints and limitations so many women grow up with. Trusting my body is an ongoing project and one of the things I’ve worked the hardest at.
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But it’s not just the physical ease of being unencumbered, I’ve realized. It is all that it symbolizes and catalyzes. How often have you become the de facto “carrier” by dint of bringing a bag with you (and of course you bring a bag with you because your clothes don’t have pockets and even if they did have pockets it’s not like women’s wallets are designed to fit in pockets)? How often have you shoved someone else’s jacket, book, wallet, bottle of water into your bag so that they could walk unencumbered while you are ever more weighed down?

How often have you been expected to have all of the things that they don’t bother bringing with them because their female companion will have taken care of it? Bandaids, Advil, water, a snack, a deck of cards, gum, chapstick, gloves, any of the other myriad things you may carry.

And how often does this expectation of preparedness mimic the gendered expectations of caretaking women are taught to perform at a young age? How often does this leave you staggering under the weight of literal and metaphorical expectations while your male partner/friend/brother strolls easily, jumps up on a rock or to touch the bough of a tree, or just gets to sit down on the subway without figuring out the bag dance (on my lap is annoying, on the floor is disgusting, I can’t keep wearing it because it’s rude and the dude beside me is half in my seat anyway)?
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It’s also a question of functionality, which is, in itself, a question of subjecthood.

As a rule, men get sturdy, well-made clothing meant to last, with pockets and sizing charts that make sense. Whereas women get clothes that are shoddily made at the same price point, are increasingly made of sheer material that necessitates layering, lack pockets, have inane and contradictory sizing rules, and shoes that are at best uncomfortable and at worst downright dangerous.

This pocket thing, though. What’s behind it? Well, a big part of it is that women’s clothes are meant to be figure-hugging, if not skin-tight. And pockets hamper that. And why is that? Because full, functional pockets, would distract and disrupt the male gaze. Think about what men’s trouser pockets can hold–a full wallet, a key ring, miscellaneous change, and often even a small book. Compare that to what, say, women’s jean’s pockets can fit and you’ve got….maybe a cell-phone as long as you don’t mind it becoming one with your ass and, say, a chapstick in that weird tiny fifth pocket. Though that might be too phallic for viewers so best you put that in your purse. Anything else is bulky, uncomfortable, and unfeminine.

At base, it comes down to the fact that men are granted full subjecthood. They are expected to be doers, and need clothes that reflect and aid that. While women are granted (or forced into) objecthood. They are expected to be seen and get clothes that reflect and aid that.

And while there are some women who eschew women’s clothes for just these reasons, preferring men’s clothes for their functionality, ease, and the fact that their body isn’t on display in them, that isn’t the answer for everyone. Not just because of the social sanctions placed upon women who don’t perform femininity enough, not just because of our internal gender-police, but because women deserve a wardrobe of our own. One that recognizes and celebrates our full subjecthood, one that is designed for women’s bodies (and of course there is a wonderful and profound variation in the sizes, shapes, and needs of women’s bodies), and one that understands women as doers.

N.B. This piece dealt mainly with mainstream, binary conceptions of masculine and feminine gender performance and norms, but I’d be remiss in not acknowledging the wide variety of gender identities including non-binary, gender-queer, and agender identities, and the infinite ways that gender identities are presented and performed.

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120 thoughts on “The Gendered Nature of Being Unencumbered

  1. You know, I’ve often wondered how this whole thing began in the first place. I might just have to Google “History of purses” and see what turns out. At what point did carrying a purse become one and the same with femininity? At what point did it get decided that a woman should have to lug around a huge bag with everything but the kitchen sink in it, but a man gets to cruise around with little more than a flap of leather holding only the barest essentials? It’s absurd when you really think about it. Yet even though it pisses me off, I would feel so naked if I only went out with my driver’s license, payment cards, and health insurance cards. And cash, if I ever bothered to carry any anyways. I do this when it’s time to hit the bar and I wear a wristlet (and I survive!), yet on the day-to-day, I have a regular-sized purse with way more than I need. Kind of silly if you ask me.

    1. Yeah, I’ve wondered if it’s one of those things like high heels that were initially associated with men and then the tide turned and now they’re both sexualized and denigrated because they’re associated solely with women.

    2. I think a better way of putting that question would be to more precisely ask when the purse diverged from the shoulder bag and started eveolving into a fashion item of reduced practicality. It was certainly a most unrequired evolutionary step.

      I see so many women struggling with limp, unwieldly purses made of too soft leather or other material and barely a hint of even semi rigid form to them and I’m left to wonder why they would even bother to buy the things. Most of the purses I see have little to no structures inside to help organise them either. So many times, I see a woman set her purse down and it all collapses on itself into a formless heap seemingly designed to ensure maximum disarray of the contents

      I’m very rarely without my shoulder bag when I leave my flat. It’s essential to my job but also extremely useful in my free time as well. My girlfriend regularly asks me to carry things in it for her when we go out somewhere if I take it with me.

      I know quite few other guys who routinely carry shoulder bags or rucksacks and never ask their girlfriends or wives to stow things in her purse for them.

    3. There is a good introduction to the history of pockets in this article: https://medium.com/@dianakimball/close-at-hand-b4331294160d which talks about how and when the gender divide came about.

      Also, if anyone one wants to feed their inchoate rage about the gendering of what we carry, they can go look at “everyday carry” on the ‘net. For the uninitiated this consists of men on the internet displaying the items they carry around in a seeming attempt to prove their fitness to survive an upcoming zombie apocalypse/their jet setting lifestyle. Without fail these include a knife/and or knife bearing multi-tool and an assortment of expensive technology. I’ve yet to see such everyday items as pocket tissues, band aids, sunscreen…

      (Disclaimer: I’m a man and I carry these and a multi tool where ever I go (and a towel a la hitchhikers guide), though it does take a bag, but I’m more concerned with what my preschooler will get up to than zombies).

  2. Sorry to disagree with you but I have a partner, sons and grandsons and brothers. Lovely boys and men. What do you call a feminist, anyway, who doesn’t allow inequality or stereotyping whatever gender it applies to? That’s me (I also have granddaughters).

    Whatever the history behind it, women don’t have to lug around handbags if they don’t want to. Most want to. Women are practical. Men only have their pockets and the man bag doesnt seem to have worked. Poor men. My clothes have pockets and I have a handbag. There’s everything in the latter, minus the proverbial kitchen sink. I clear it out once a month but it fills up again in no time. If formal wear doesn’t have pockets women can choose not to buy it or perhaps appeal to many of today’s female designers to add them on.

    I appreciate being able to wear trousers and jeans. That’s truly liberated. I practically live in them. men don’t have the variety that women do. Perhaps that’s why if you go to the nearest mall and count the shops, you will notice that women’s clothing shops vastly outnumber men’s shops. If the quality isn’t quite there it’s to do with where they were produced, not who it was made for. There you go, got that off my chest. 🙂

    1. I am unclear on several of your points. I also have men in my life who are lovely. Many of them are even feminists. Imagine that.

      And I would argue it is facile to just dismiss history as a thing that happened with no critical analysis. There is an important and gendered history behind who carries purses and who doesn’t, as well as the expectations that go along with that.

      Arguably men have as much variety as women do, they just face harsher social penalties for wearing clothes coded “female” than women do for clothes coded “male” because we have a society that denigrates the feminine. Men could (and some do) wear skirts and dresses and carry purses, but there are social sanctions that prevent most from doing it. Just as women face social sanctions for dressing too “manly” or “butch.”

      1. This is your blog. I appreciate it that, whether you agreed with me, you allowed my comment and responded to it. I heard my daughter in law describe my son as a feminist. Her female friend had made a sexist, stereotypical remark about men in his presence. He called her out on it and she didn’t like it. He was polite, a lot more so than he could have expected had the roles had been reversed. He’s a terrific father, and a loving and caring husband, but he isn’t comfortable with the term feminist being applied to him. He believes in gender equality, which is why he doesn’t think that being a thoughtful and caring human being should be the monopoly of men. He and his partner are partners in every sense of the term.
        Unarguably, there’s not as much variety for men as for women. Consider the accessories alone. If there was any money to be made out of retailing to men, believe me, there would be as many men’s clothing retail shops out there as there are for women.
        Whether or not men would face harsher penalties for wearing dresses and skirts isn’t the issue. Why on earth would they? Pants are much more comfortable, which is why women took to wearing them like ducks to water. What about you?
        Last but not least, we’re surely meant to learn from history. Whatever happened or didn’t happen in the dim past, I would have thought the point was that no woman today would be forced to wear handbags if they didn’t want to. Very few women do without. What about you?
        You needn’t respond. I’m sure you’re already sick of the to and fro correspondence. And it is your blog, as I said. But thanks for the chance.

    1. Probably for complex reasons that are various parts desire, social norms, social pressure, pleasure, aesthetics, gender expression and other things. I choose not to wear them but can understand why some women do.

      1. I chose not to wear heels once I realised it wasn’t going to be one inch taller wearing them. I was also pregnant at the time. Whatever the complex reasons you attribute to it check out what any podiatrist will tell you about the damage wearing heel does.

  3. Such an interesting way of putting it- the importance of something that is looked at as menial or petite when really it is in fact a huge part of the differences in genders. A bite sized way I mid getting a better understanding if gender equality. Great read. Lucy.

  4. I love this! As a Mom to an almost Toddler, I find myself lugging around this ridiculously large diaper bag, in which I am expected to carry not only my “stuff” but also that of my daughter. This somehow has also turned into Hubby’s bag as he is forever handing me MORE things to jam into the already large, stuffed bag, while he strolls beside me freely with nothing but a wallet in his back pocket….hmmm. Now this has made think….

  5. Oh My God! I cannot express in enough words how perfectly you captured the feelings of women all over the world! I myself cannot imagine leaving home without a purse : phone, comb, keys, water, books, wallet, cards, currency and what not lies on the bottom of my pit-less bag 😉 I just loved your post. Maybe, tomorrow, I will try to leave home without a bag, as an experiment. I already have a feeling I would be less encumbered, free to swing my arms all of the 180 degrees they are capable of 🙂

  6. I recently suggested to a friend that we start a bra business, and one feature of the bra would be POCKETS! I was only half-kidding.
    I like pockets – I want to to have my hands free because you never know when you may need to catch someone who is falling or flip someone off. Life is uncertain, you need pockets.

  7. I wholeheartedly agree. I have switched to a wrist wallet and when out and about with my husband I give him the excess, like keys and sunglasses, to put in his “man pockets”. I hate heels and I hate purses for the very fact that I do feel encumbered. My step is definitely lighter and my feet and back don’t have to suffer. It seems society is moving toward blurring the line between the genders though, with Disney and Target offering non-gender specific lines. I have hopes that our future will be less hindered. Great post!

  8. Do you think the asymmetric nature of physical attraction might underlie the gender-fashion difference of the lack of pockets? Men can wear pockets without obscuring their height to women, but hip to waist ratio may be obscured with pockets.

    1. Is your implication that women are attracted to men’s height while men are attracted to hip-waist ratio? I think that is incredibly reductive and simplistic (and heteronormative).

      In short: no.

      But let’s do a thought experiment where that is the case. So what? Women should still have access to functional clothes even if it prevents men from ogling their hip-waist ratio. Indeed, I would say this thinking is the precise issue: that women should contort themselves and their lives in service of men’s desire.

      1. Unless you think clothing makers are not in a heteronormative paradigm, it makes sense to discuss things in those terms. It is reductive, but it is not my point of view. I neither wear nor choose women’s clothes.

      2. “that women should contort themselves and their lives in service of men’s desire.”

        Agreed, though pocketless doesn’t qualify as contorting oneself.

  9. Haha reminds me of the time my boyfriend had to borrow my jeans. He was amazed that they fit him perfectly right until they time he tried to slip his hands into the tiny 1 inch depth front pockets. He kept trying to shove his fingers in, saying “where are the pockets?”

  10. I never thought about the gender implications of the lack of pockets, only about said lack, thanks for alerting me! I work in a doctor’s office and men can just stick their prescription in their breast pocket, while women scramble to find a suitable place in their purses – but of course you can’t have things in pockets hiding the shape of a woman’s breast.
    Also, schlepping the purses around for everyone has medical implications: A lot of shoulder and back problems are due to carrying purses. Backpacks are better, but nothing is obviously healthiest of all, orthopedically speaking.

  11. Thank you for such a thoughtful and eye-opening post! I’ve been mildly annoyed in the past at having to carry a bag everywhere I went and the issues this posed – from carrying an unwanted weight to the bag being an actual barrier to participation in certain activities. But I had never thought of this as a feminist issue before. While reading your post, I found myself agreeing with everything and wondering how this has gone unnoticed for so long! The patriarchy really is entrenched in every aspects of our lives. Thanks again for making me more aware.

  12. As someone who sews a lot of her own clothes, I can that most woman’s fashions are made now so that you can’t just add in side seam pockets or really any sort of pockets other then near useless patch pockets without making major structural changes to the garment. Trust me, I’ve tried on so many different types and styles of clothing and adding pockets ruins the integrity and form of so many of them.

    Now I have noticed that some older patterns, namely the retro 40’s and 50’s dress patterns when skirts were super full and luxurious, often had a pocket tucked into the folds which was actually useful. But so far none of the 90’s, and beyond patterns save for pajamas, jeans, or scrubs have had pockets or the ability to easily add one or two.

    It really is a ridiculous conspiracy to keep us encumbered with things in our arms! 😉

    Very interesting post!

  13. Great post. I’ve heard people make comments about the size of a purse etc. If I want to be comfortable and wear clothes actually intended for women, there’s no way I have pockets. And as a “doer”, I need to carry various items with me – simply impossible with the kind of clothing available to women that is deemed socially acceptable. So many of us have to carry a bag of some kind – and be weighed down, and limited. Even if you want to rebel and not carry a purse – women’s clothing does not allow us to store or carry our essentials. So you either sacrifice comfort and practicality, compromise a preferred gender expression through clothing, leave for the day unprepared without your necessities, or drag a bag around all day. Just some of my personal thoughts about some of the points you made. Thanks for a new, honest perspective.

  14. Lool never really thought about this until now. This is so true. Sometimes I just want to swing my arms and glide gracefully, alas, my purse always hinders that, so I have to play LADY and carry my burden of a bag.

    Nice and poetic! Well done

  15. Interesting post. From my (male) viewpoint, you should always have the choice of what to wear based on how appropriate it is for what you’ll be doing that day. I have some jeans with fairly poor pockets and if I need to carry things about I resort to jackets with pockets or take a bag (yes, we do have them – they are useful and we generally like useful things, but only when we need them; we don’t cart them around if we don’t have to – maybe that’s something women have to learn – provided the pocket thing is sorted out!)
    And don’t feel too hard done by on the clothing front – yes you should have more functional pockets, but the variety of styles, materials and colours you have is way more than men get. Our clothes are, frankly, boring as f**k. “Sturdy, well-made clothing”? Sometimes, if you want to dress like a builder every day. And have you seen our shoes? Yes, very sensible. Very brain-numbingly tediously sensible. I’m carefully looking after 3 pairs of winkle-pickers that I’ve bought over the last dozen years or so because I never know when I’ll be able to buy another pair in a shoe shop again. You have no idea how jealous some guys are of your choice. But yes, you need the ‘practical’ option added in to your stuff to improve the real application of that choice.

    1. I guess gender-biased clothes do work both ways! I’ll trade you all my peplum tops for some cargo shorts 😉 … do people still wear those?

  16. I work in an outdoor profession that is generally dominated by men, but increasingly is filling with women of a certain sort. We dress in jeans and t-shirts that are not skin tight. They are sized appropriately so that we can move in them. Our pants have pockets where we can keep cell phones, specimen collection containers, multi-tools and things most people would assume were weapons. I wear sensible shoes and I trust my body to carry me across uneven and sometimes dangerous terrain. My handbag, when I carry it, is a study but colorful washable fabric and filled with pockets for the exact sorting of contents so I can find items very quickly.

    When I spend time with my female friends that work in indoor and office jobs and wear business attire, or when I dress up and go out… I feel entirely out of my element. Society expects that when I dress up it will be in a dress or in tailored pants that are useless except as a body covering. I am forever reaching for my pockets and when I find them gone, I feel a little huff of anger. Suits have pockets. I want pockets! So, I use those events as times where I carry almost nothing and feel naked and un-useful, or I load down my male friends by asking them to carry my things in their pockets. When I am asked why I didn’t bring a bigger purse, I just shrug and say that it didn’t go with my shoes. I let them take a turn at carrying all the bits and bobs of an evening out while I carry only a clutch with a phone, id, card, cash and lipstick.

  17. I had a friend who was an aide de camp of a female general. At a formal event he referred to himself as “The General’s purse” because she didn’t want to carry a bag so he put her lipstick, ID, money, tissues, and whatever else she wanted to have accessible in his pockets. Now the US Army is not exactly a bastion of progressive thinking when it comes to gender roles, but I find it odd. Our combat uniforms, male and female, come with an over abundance of pockets, to include huge ones on our thighs called “cargo pockets”. It must be particularly galling to go from that to an outfit with none.

    But I must also note that the only truely functional pockets In a male dress uniform are the four pants pockets. You can’t put anything larger than a card in the tunic (read jacket) pockets because it will mess up the line and present a less “neat military appearance”. And even in the pants pockets, nothing can be carried that will visibly alter the lines. So we tend to limit what we carry when wearing a dress uniform.

    I am part of a medieval reenactment organization and none of our medieval or Renaissance garb has pockets. Everyone either wears a belt pouch’ tucks items onto hoods or folds in the clothing, or carries a basket. During these eras there was no gender differentiation when it came to pockets (though significant differentiation when it came to the functionality of clothing).

    Finally, a friend of mine regularly uses the cups of her brassiere as pockets, primarily for her cell phone. It is amusing when I have to bring her attention to the fact that her boob is ringing.

    I’m not sure where the bias against pockets stems from, as most men I know don’t even realize that women’s clothing is bereft of usable pockets. I wonder why this persists if the majority of women want pockets in their clothing. I certainly don’t think that most men would notice, or care if women’s clothing had more pockets. Maybe that’s how I’ll make my millions, by starting a women’s clothing line with pockets… Yeah, that the ticket.

  18. My friend and I were talking about this only last week and you have summed it up perfectly here. I always end up carrying my own things plus bottles of water or hoodies for male friends. It seems ridiculous when men can cope more easily carrying heavier loads. It reminds me of when I was a child and I’d dump my toys/sweets in my mother’s pockets – only I’m not their mother!

  19. I had honestly never considered the lack of pockets in my clothing as closely as this and wow, is it an eye opener! I’m definitely a feminist myself and this was such an interesting piece to read that I’ve stored it in my “future rebuttal to sexist comments compartment”. Thank you!

  20. This is a great post thanks! I hate not having pockets, I think the worst thing is when clothing has fake pockets, I even have a jacket which has a functional zip to a non existent pocket! I don’t want pockets for the look I want them for their functionality.

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