The purpose of the purse: personality or practicality?
If I had to describe my most traumatic experience from middle school, it had to be when I was outed as being the first in my grade to get her period. In the young adult novels I smuggled into world history class, teen girls feverishly prayed to get their periods. In these novels, getting your period equaled entry into the coveted and secret world of womanhood, where you would be Grown Up and have a boyfriend who drives a Trans Am and wear expensive perfume from department stores.
In my school, being the first to careen into puberty earned me a spot in science lab, where I ate my lunch alone every day to avoid being teased. There was no dramatic Judy Blume moment for me, no envious whispers from my classmates. No, it seemed I was supposed to stay a girl forever.
My unveiling as a woman happened in sixth grade. I was ensconced in the back of class, huddled with three popular girls. I was not a popular girl. For one thing, I played the flute in band. This was the kiss of death. I also wore Sassoon jeans instead of Guess, and sneakers from Sears instead of Reeboks, and had a mom who worked. The popular girls had moms in the PTA and ate tuna fish salad sandwiches made on fluffy white bread with the crusts cut off. I had the school hot lunch, frozen pizza delivered on a cardboard tray.
One of the girls lunged across my desk and snatched my purse. It was a nylon pastel striped number with a snap-front outside pocket. She called it cute.
This was my moment. Despite my shortcomings, I was certain I'd now be indoctrinated into the Popular Girls clique. I practically swooned.
"Eeeeww...what's this???" she screeched suddenly, pulling a tampon out from the front pocket. My stomach lurched. "You're, like, bleeding right now?" Then she declared, in a voice so cold it dripped icicles. "So...gross."
I felt violated.
I remember my first purse, which I received as a gift for my eighth birthday. It was pink and had silver sparkles woven through it. I carried that purse everywhere. It went with me when I got a haircut. It carried my Barbie dolls to playmates. It bulged with coins I had rescued from our couch cushions and bottle caps and movie tickets and Bonnie Bell lip gloss and notes from my best friend. I left it behind at a flea market once and nearly lost my mind with terror. My purse was an extension of me. It held all my secrets. At eight, my only brush with privacy came when I locked myself in the bathroom while my parents fought in our tiny apartment. My purse was the same.
The other day I came across an article describing an project by German artist Hans-Peter Feldmann. He has displayed the contents of six real women’s bags as part of his solo art show at London’s Serpentine Gallery. You see everything, from piles of loose spare change to dirty flats to business cards, all laid out perfectly.
Although he didn’t approach total strangers -- as the artist told The Guardian, “I didn’t go up to women randomly, they would have called the police” -- he only asked slight acquaintances, and they had to give up their bag that instant if they wanted to be included in the show. For their troubles, and for putting up with their bag and all the contents inside (except for passports and credit cards, which they got to keep) going missing for a few week, he paid them each about $650.
While some people might question whether or not this could really be considered art, what I found interesting was the concept itself. It’s hard not to feel protective of your handbag, as if it’s some sort of extension of yourself. It’s that sort of secrecy that inspired Feldmann in the first place: “I remember my mother and her handbag and it was a taboo to look at what was in it, a really strict taboo,” he said.
Be honest: How would you feel about people rummaging through your handbag? What sort of things would they find? Do you think of your purse as an extension of yourself, or merely as a functional object? And would you take $650 if it meant the public would see the contents of your handbag?