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.
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)?
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.