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.
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.


120 thoughts on “The Gendered Nature of Being Unencumbered

  1. Reblogged this on carpeanimus and commented:
    Such a thoughtful and articulate post! Might I also add that there is a massive lack of respect and appreciation for the caretaking roles that are so often pushed onto women? This is a necessary and important role for any gender to be capable of, but it never gets the recognition it deserves. Also, not only do many men expect women to always be toting supplies around with them, but they don’t hesitate to make fun of us for carrying ‘oversized bags’ everywhere. Glad that I found this post. It’s nice to hear this thought expressed so effectively!

  2. I’m going to think about this a bit. I carry a purse and it is full of pockets. 🙂

    I had a couple of lesbian friends said one of the was the “purse lesbian.” They said that any time a group of their lesbian friends got together one always ended up carrying everybody’s keys because she was the one with the purse and no one else wanted them in their pockets. Or to carry a purse.

  3. I sew as a hobby and sometimes as home business and think about pockets all the time (and change patterns to add pockets!). I was hemming some skirts last night for a friend’s daughter and thinking about this issue. The skirts are part of this young woman’s school uniform…a kilt with no pockets. It’s a really “cute” skirt, but there’s so much unsaid in wearing it. Guys get full coverage in their khaki pants…ease of movement, no arguments about modesty and length of skirt, and fucking pockets just to name three.

  4. I always hated the tiny pockets and inconsistent sizing in women’s clothing. Since transitioning to male (though I’m also agender), I’m loving the large pockets in men’s pants, which enabled me to finally ditch the fanny pack I’d been wearing for twenty years. But it’s ridiculous that these clothing selections are so gendered in the first place.

    And great point about women being expected to carry things for others. I noticed in the course of my transition that I almost never see men carrying tote bags. I now carry a backpack when I need to carry more than what will fit in my pockets.

    1. It’s interesting that there are SO MANY types/styles of bags coded “female” (a million different purses, tote bags, clutches, etc. etc.) and only like three coded “male” (certain messenger bags, certain backpacks, briefcases.

      Thanks for your comment! I’ve read accounts from folks who have transitioned (in various directions) about how different the world can suddenly become, from clothing and grooming expectations to added or subtracted privilege that shows up in ways large and tiny (suddenly your expertise is taken seriously or not at all; the amount of space you’re granted on the train, etc.), and I have found it very illuminating about the ways that gender/ed socialization (and expectations/norms) work.

  5. I’m currently temporarily disabled, using crutches due to a broken leg. It’s a real education! I’m finding the lack of pockets in my clothes problematic, since carrying a purse is difficult and interferes with my balance. For many women who deal with mobility issues full-time, this is an additional burden that men in the same situation don’t face.

    1. Whereas on the other side of things I’m permanently potentially-disabled, so I have to have a large purse with me at all times in order to keep my folding cane with me at all times. Pockets have become much less important for me .

  6. Back in the day when I regularly carried a full-sized purse full o’ stuff rather than a pocket, a clip-on belt bag or a small, across-the-body pouch to hold phone and keys, I would occasionally be asked by a male companion to carry his stuff. I’d say, “Sure, so long as you carry the bag.”

  7. Great post and insights. Totally different story, though, when you’re a “plus-size” female or wearing those clothes. Plenty of pockets, because no one is concerned with the “male gaze,” or the “sight line” for any reason whatso ever. Hilarious, right? Gain enough weight and you can be unencumbered, same as guys. LOL

  8. Loved this – I hate purses simply because I love that unencumbered feeling. I even used to have a purse evasion strategy down pat – back when I was single, every date I went on I handed my date my wallet and asked him to “find someplace to carry it.” I never had a guy say no. So I got to go out without carrying a purse – awesome!!

    Unfortunately, now that I’m carrying a phone and a wallet and a few credit cards and some business cards and a nightlight (?) and a spare set of baby socks (??) and some coupons (not ALL of them are expired!), that trick doesn’t work anymore. Oh well. It was nice while it lasted.

  9. Of the 7 dresses I own 2 of them have deep pockets. Guess which ones I wear the most? The 2 with pockets! They’re perfect for holding my phone, chapstick, and ID.

    Great post! You’ve managed to generate thoughtful discussion. Thank you!

  10. I so agree with you. The absolute worst is to find an item of clothing that looks like it has pockets only to discover they are fake! I am really interested in your thoughts about walking unencumbered and trusting your body. Never really thought about it like that before. I must make a point of carrying less!

  11. thanks for these insights: “don’t perform feminity enough” is an enlightening way of putting it, I never quite know how to describe the feeling of wanting to walk and move around unemcumbered! I’ve been using a backpack for years now and get called Dora the Explorer! It’s so great not to even have the backpack, and yes, where do you put the keys and cellphone and money then? I also think a freer, more athletic (= less feminine) walking style would lead to better health for women once they hit their senior years..

  12. Halleluyah you write about this.
    I’ve long given up on wearing feminine blouses because they’re figure hugging and not as comfortable as wearing an M-sized male tee-shirt. Or dealing with buying a skirt only to realize the pocket either isn’t deep enough, or it’s simply a faux pocket.

    You make good argument for this gender bias in tailoring— women are expected to be ‘seen’ and our bodies feed the male eyes (heck how else will they be swayed by shoody perfume/cologne advertisement!)

    I’d love for more practicality in the way our clothes and accessories are made. It makes no sense that a woman’s expected to be the super being and yet deal with apparels that get in the way.

  13. Funny, I’ve thought this way too. For instance, when it comes to a vacation or a day trip, it seems to be an unspoken understanding that my husband packs “his” things, and I pack “my” AND “us” things. He couldn’t be bothered with things like sunscreen, towels, bottle openers, anti-bacterial, etc, yet we both use everything I bring.

    Women definitely have a greater responsibility for being prepared in life, and it’s often a burden. I certainly don’t enjoy the extra 2 hours it took me to pack to make us both prepared! At least he’s a gentleman and doesn’t make me carry it all. 😉

  14. I am male and never ever gave this any thought. This proves that clothes are sexist creations. Who is creating them? Males or females. I’m thinking males because even some women’s shoes look like torture chambers that only a male could create.

  15. Great post…that’s why I love jeans…they have pockets. I rarely carry a purse and I do feel like having it is cumbersome and then I have to think about what I should put in it. I have my phone in a wallet case, so I can carry everything I need in my pocket.

  16. womens clothing – a subject with no end. I have long since stopped to wonder, why the industry thinks, I fit in what they consider a cut fit for females. Same, as I have Long since stopped carrying a purse in private life. After all, my Sweetheart has got all those pockets in his wardrobe. Surely he’ll find a space to put my pack of cigarettes and lighter in somewhere, too.

  17. Really interesting post.. This weighing down that we women face on a daily basis in so many walks of life are sometimes found in the most simple and minute of things.
    It’s a choice we have to make, every little detail matters..
    Reblogged on

  18. Great concern you highlighted!……..I have to choose the smallest handkerchief which fits in that small pocket in my pants and doesn’t look like a tumour at the same time. It is so obviously sane to provide pockets to women’s clothes too.
    And about those uncomfortably spine breaking shoes I must say…..should be replaced.

  19. I never leave the house without my purse. It carries a lot of things which I usually just leave in my purse even when at home – phone, iPod, wallet, kindle, etc. I’ve gotten so used to having these things with me wherever I go. I marvel at men who can take just keys and wallet – but then, I get bored very easily to a Kindle is a must. However, I know all this is very gendered – women are supposed to carry all of the things, as you say.
    Another point I found very interesting about your post is that trusting your body. I hadn’t thought of it that way, but I think I have lost the ability to trust my body to do what I want. I used to climb things, jump on things, with no trouble, but now I don’t. I will have to rethink all of that, and try to work out more trust for myself.

    1. Yes, I think it is a very common experience for women especially but also other folks who are variously marginalized to stop trusting their body–it makes sense when you think about it. If you’re constantly having boundaries squashed and being made to override your own needs you’ll eventually stop trusting the signals your body sends you (creepy dude on the bus but you don’t want to be “rude”? Your silence sends the message to your body that you can’t trust its signals, etc).

      A big project of the last few years has been relearning how to trust my body in the way that a lot of men have never had challenged.

  20. I have been subjected to ridicule as it’s so uncool I guess to wear a fanny pack but I get the hands free experience plus I can carry the essentials. I’d rather be labelled a nerd than deal with a purse.

  21. Well written post. Why do we have to get old before we have that freedom?
    From one who dresses for function and comfort usually in travel clothes which have lots of pockets.

  22. Reblogged this on Librarian to be. . . and commented:
    This is a topic of discussion that continues to reoccur between my partner and I. He cannot understand why women’s clothes are designed in such an impractical way for bodies, for carrying items and for long-term use. I have to agree with his assessment because I ask the same questions.

  23. Love your post. My co-worker and I were talking about this the other day. I mentioned sarcastically “the reason men rule the world is because they wear pants with LOTS of pockets!” Then your blog made a compelling argument why this is plausible. Imagine that. As a female engineer, I find it more functional to wear a shirt and cargo pants. I feel free and less objectified. I tend to get more respect from my male co-wokers because it’s not distracting and allows them to focus more on my brains.

    1. I think it’s awesome that you’ve found something to wear that is both functional and makes you feel good. But I also think it’s really sad (and gross) that your male co-workers’ respect for you is based on (their reactions to) what you’re wearing. I would find that infuriating.

  24. Thank you for saying the things that we have too long been afraid to say out loud.
    I think the habit or culture of women being the “carrier” starts from our early nomadic ancestors. Men carried their spear or arrows and walked ahead with the hunting party while women gathered up the supplies, huts, food and children; we still do this today. Men get what they want and leave the rest for the female to gather, because he knows she’s a planner, caring and has the foresight to plan for the unexpected. But I admit, we [ women] over plan.
    I am the one that has the bag with everything and is lugging my stuff and everyone else’s stuff. Partially because I hate to be unprepared or to go without my “stuff” and I’ll be damn if I buy stuff I already have. However, your article gives me the confidence to know that it is OK to say NO to carrying other ppl stuff and I’ll be fine come the apocalypse. For I will have plenty of supplies on hand to last me 3 days.

  25. I think it all started with the design and marketing of the “Purse”, the must have fashion accessory, the convenient answer in how to fit women into more body contoured clothes. Good article.

  26. Where to start? Liked your post, but hated the victimization.

    Seriously, would you consider Katherine Hepburn lacked femininity? She often mixed male and female pieces of clothing to have the best of both worlds. Why can’t you?

    If you wear only “feminine” clothing, regardless of the occasion or situation, you are capitulating to society’s so-called pressure to stereotype you into one of ‘those’ women, vs. finding a voice of your own that blends practicality and function suitable to the occasion.

    The only one who is stopping you being feminine in all your gorgeous femaleness, regardless of stereotypical clothing, is you. If you don’t want to have the role of a “helpless” victim, I’d think about challenging your own stereotypical bias and set youself some challenges to test your boundaries.

    Clothing doesn’t come with a gender unless you’re trying to emphasize something that isn’t inherent in your physical body.

    1. What I’m saying is that I shouldn’t have to wear clothing made for men in order to have functional clothing. I support all people of all genders wearing what feels good to them. What makes me feel good tends to be pretty stereotypically feminine clothing in part because I identify as femme. I don’t consider that a weakness or a capitulation and in fact it’s something that has taken years for me to discover about myself. I should be able to express that without having to resort to stuffing things in my bra.

      I don’t appreciate your assumption that you know better than I do what I wear or why I wear it, nor do I appreciate the idea that calling out gendered bullshit is “playing the victim.” That is unhelpful and untrue.

      1. I call it playing the victim only because the solution is in your own hands. Learn to sew (if you don’t know how) and modify the clothing you prefer, or sew your own designs from the start.

        I am sorry I offended you with my opinion, but truly get tired of complaints that appear to be gender-biased. There are many women designers (Donna Karan, Diane Von Furstenberg, Georgina (whomever) of Marchesa, and on and on) so this issue isn’t a women against men type of situation.

        You have the solution in your own hands, or you can take your clothing to a seamstress for alterations if you don’t like what options are available ready-made, and don’t feel qualified to modify the clothes yourself.

      2. Meanwhile men don’t need to learn to sew or spend money on alterations in order to have functional clothing.

        I can imagine it must be really tiresome hearing complaints that are gender-based in a god-damned patriarchy. It’s almost as if there is a system at play that privileges and centers and defaults men and the male experience and marginalizes and others women and the female experience.

        And if you don’t think women can be complicit in patriarchal norms I don’t know what to tell you.

  27. Interesting viewpoints, but I have to take exception with you on this:

    “As a rule, men get sturdy, well-made clothing meant to last, with pockets and sizing charts that make sense.”

    That just is not the case. I listen to my girlfriend go on about how expensive her bras and panties are; while the initial purchase price is higher for her undergarments, she gets a lot more mileage for money out of hers than I do from mine. Buying undershorts is actually a huge pet peeve of mine because there doesn’t seem to be standard sizing. I can buy my usual size from one brand and it fits just fine, but the same marked size from another brand could be unbearably tight. It also doesn’t seem to matter what brand I buy, they are all made out of fabric that can’t stand up to much and I find myself replacing them at least twice a year.

    Part of that problem is that the materials they use to make that “…sturdy, well-made clothing meant to last…” men’s clothing is that those materials are also typically more abrasive and will eat undershorts for breakfast. They also aren’t that pleasant on the skin a lot of the time.

    On the matter of pockets, don’t envy guys too much. I swear they use the weakest fabric to make them and use the Friday afternoon shift to assemble and install them. They are by far the weakest part of any pair of pants and usually the first to become utterly useless from wear; and it doesn’t take a lot of wear to get them that way.

    The sizing of guys pants doesn’t make a lot of sense either, nor is it standardized. Sometimes I find pants sized by the waist and inseam measurements, other times I’ll find only one number to indicate size and I have no idea how they work that one out. Very rarely will I be able to find a pair of pants that works off the shelf with my 36 waist and 32 inseam, usually I need the inseam shortened. Now I have to work a trip to a tailor into my schedule.

    Additionally, I find that most men’s pants made today are made on the presumption that men have no rear ends to speak of. I wouldn’t mind a small bit of slack back there.

    Granted, shoes are more of a trial for women but men don’t get off scott free there either. Finding an off the shelf pair of dress shoes that don’t don’t leave my feet screaming in agony after an hour of wear is like winning the lottery for me. most shoe shops seem to have forgotten that width is an essential measurement for feet and typically don’t seem to stock wider sizes.

    Additionally with shoes, the quality just is not there these days even with more expensive brands. The glues and stiching they use just don’t hold things together worth diddly.

    Basically, men and women both live in the same consumer driven, disposable product society. Manufacturers and retailers neither expect nor want us to keep anything for very long and this is reflected in product quality.

    Men and women may not have identical issues in buying clothes, but there are certainly plenty of corollaries and balances.

    1. My underpants go through the same issues–non-standard sizing, flimsy material, have to be replaced frequently. But at least your options are generally “covers ass and bits” whereas mine are “doesn’t cover ass at all”, “half covers ass”, “why on earth does this go up to my rib cage?” Even though your underwear is flimsy and needs to be frequently replaces (yep, same) it doesn’t also have to be “sexy.”

      Obviously fast fashion has many issues, quality and consistency being one (of the least egregious human rights-wise), and men’s clothing is not immune to that. But the overarching principle of functional clothing version decorative clothing remains.

      1. I get your point on the functional versus decorative principle.

        As I mentioned the issue of men’s pants often not having much room in the backside. Do the designers presume that all men go to the gym daily and obsess over those ideal gluteals that will enable them to fit into those pants. I don’t do gyms and my schedule is such that I’m lucky if I can get to the swimming pool once a week.

        Do those same designers think we should care so much what anyone else thinks of our backsides? Those type of pants are very much a parallel to the skin tight types designed for women, designed just as much to take attention off the person and onto the body.

        Then there’s the practicality aspect of them; as long as you’re standing up or seated in a chair they are OK. If you need to squat, bend over or do any other sort of movement, all bets are off.

  28. I don’t know about this one. Ten years ago, I’d have probably agreed completely. I still think sizing needs to be more consistent. But I don’t have a problem at all finding womens clothes with decent pockets. I think a bigger issue than pockets is why so many women feel like they need to squeeze into the smallest size pants possible– that’s restricting!

    Basically I think most of us could dress comfortably AND fashionably, but we either don’t care (when we are young, before getting fed up with high heels and tight jeans), or we don’t know how (because it takes looking for the right clothes, reevaluating what “fits,” and even venturing into new stores we maybe never considered before). This has been my experience anyway.

    I get your idea though, and I do grant we have to seek out practical clothes whereas men can simply expect all of their clothes to be practical.

    1. “…we have to seek out practical clothes whereas men can simply expect all of their clothes to be practical.”

      Don’t bet on it. With today’s skinny hipster fad going, practical men’s clothes are at something of a premium if you don’t fit that body type.

      Slim fit and stretch jeans for men also seem to be taking priority on shop shelves these days by my observation. Getting a plain set of straight leg jeans with decent rear end space saw me visit three or four shops recently.

  29. And that pocket would have provided us with a pocket-paradise. Actually the total concept of feminity and masculinity is quite subjective and indubitably something more than how we dress, wear our hair and perfume. Thanks for being such a keen observer. Totally loved ur piece. 🙂

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