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Why Do We Care What’s in Your Bag?

Our never-ending curiosity about women’s purses and medicine cabinets, examined.

What's in your purse? Think on that one for a moment. Don't just focus on the Charlotte Tilbury lipstick and the items that display your discerning taste — think about the items that you wouldn't want anyone to see. Anxiety meds? Tampons? A Coach wristlet from 2008?

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The conceit behind this "what’s in your bag?" trope — a tried-and-true feature of celebrity and women’s media — is that the items women keep in our personal, feminine spaces reveal something unique or telling about us. If clothes make the man, what do the tiny myriad personal contents of one's purse say about a woman?

Freud admitted that sometimes a cigar is simply a cigar — however, a handbag is almost never just a handbag. They "serve as the portable manifestation of a woman's sense of self, a detailed and remarkably revealing map of her interior, an omnium-gatherum of myriad aspects of her life," wrote Daphne Merkin in the New York Times.

2016's hottest handbag confession is hot sauce.

Katy Perry carrying a pill-shaped Louboutin purse. Photo: Julien Hekimian/Getty Images

The most recent "hot sauce in my bag" revelation came from Hillary Clinton following the final debate in a Times Styles section story where her back-home friends dished about how down-to-earth she was. (Clinton claimed to tote hot sauce in her purse back in April, a declaration that was roundly mocked as naked pandering, partly because she made this admission in an interview on an urban radio station with a largely black audience. However, a 2012 Conde Nast Traveler article shows this is, at least, not a new assertion).

Beyoncé dropped the first "hot sauce in my bag" in "Formation," and while her fans went wild, something about the lyric felt less than genuine — especially since, like Clinton, Beyoncé is one of our most image-conscious, hyper-controlled public figures. And yet, her purse admission read differently than Clinton’s. While Clinton seemed eager to show how down-to-earth she was, Beyoncé’s hot sauce moment arrived in a song that was both commentary and celebration of the black experience. Whether or not Bey actually carries the hot sauce is beside the point.

The contents of women's personal spaces like handbags and medicine cabinets has become a kind of feminine performance, a shorthand to reveal something authentic, interesting, or at least aspirational. Interestingly, it’s a routine many women, famous or not, don’t mind performing — just try searching "what’s in your bag" on Youtube.

The contents of women's personal spaces like handbags and medicine cabinets has become a kind of feminine performance, a shorthand to reveal something authentic, interesting, or at least aspirational.

Journalists have asked the question of female celebrities for years, with the idea that dumping out and cataloguing the contents of one of women’s most private spaces — their handbag — will provide a shortcut to some revealing personal tidbit.

The question was a popular tool of women’s media in the ‘90s and early aughts, especially in profiles of young women. Before the form became an industry, it was a cute, fun exercise that often yielded interesting answers. A 1995 Seventeen interview with a teenage Claire Danes revealed that her backpack contained a tape of a song that her boyfriend, Ben Lee, wrote about her.

A 2002 Spin story with Fiona Apple was the perfect example of how this question could be successful, as long as the subject was willing and interesting. "A bag of jewels and ribbons... makeup... lighters... rolling papers... lots of empty card packets from when David [Blaine] was around... lots of hotel bills... the Jenny McCarthy book — I like her... a tin of makeup someone got me... a book of poetry about death... my psychiatric medication," she said nonchalantly, spilling the contents of her backpack onto her hotel room floor.

Eventually, the Bag Question became an industry standard — part performance, part image control, part PR opportunity.

While nearly every women’s magazine does "What’s In Your Bag?" stories, Us Weekly has institutionalized the form with its weekly front-of-book feature.

Consider the most recent celebrity featured. Demi Lovato — a singer who has endeared herself to legions of fans by speaking openly about her struggles with mental health, weight, and anxiety — carries "cut-up apples in a baggie" alongside a chocolate chip cookie.

In the Us Weekly column, it doesn’t take long to recognize a pattern: quirky personal item, healthy snack, beauty products (both high-end and low-end), and something relating to kids/husband/boyfriend. No one cops to seven lipsticks and an eye primer, unpaid bills, or phone numbers on cocktail napkins. There’s a bit of the observer effect at play here — objects that realize they’re being watched will change their behavior (and used tissues will be removed from the bag.)

Beyoncé's clutch at Manus x Machina: Fashion in an Age of Technology. Photo: Taylor Hill/Getty Images

The "What’s In Your Bag" exercise quickly became diluted as a form of personal revelation when stars discovered it could function as an effective vehicle to promote their products. When Katy Perry upended her bag for Marie Claire, she just happened to have one of her own perfumes, Purr by Katy Perry. Jessica Alba, founder of the Honest Company, showed Allure that she carried — surprise! — a newly-launched feminine care supply bag from the Honest Company.

Jennifer Garner let us know that she packs Neutrogena products (she’s its spokesperson).

But then there are the fabulous and weird bag moments that we all live for — that truly provide an intimate and often hilarious snapshot of the person. Nicki Minaj carries $5,000 cash, loose. Camilla Alves, wife to Matthew McConaughey, carries her husband’s chewing tobacco and wallet, presumably so he doesn’t have to.

Breaking Bad alum Betsy Brandt has the bronzed remains of a pet crawfish.

Where does the desire to reveal what’s in one’s purse come from? It's a specific type of performance that will, hopefully, reveal just what kind of woman you are, or want to be. For celebrities, this is particularly important as a way of broadcasting or updating their image. For the rest of us, well, we want to be as important as celebrities, even to the point where what’s in our purse (or medicine cabinet) could be a topic of conversation.

Where does the desire to reveal what’s in one’s purse come from? It's a specific type of performance that will, hopefully, reveal just what kind of woman you are, or want to be.

Sociologist Christena Nippert-Eng’s 2010 book Islands of Privacy has an entire chapter called "Wallets & Purses." There are several versions of what's in a purse, she writes, including the more public, the more private, and the most private items — things carried for the woman alone. Public items are also the ones we share with others: pens, breath mints, tissues, gum. "More private" items include money and debit and credit cards. Purely private items might include letters to or from loved ones, or medication, or cosmetics.

Following this reasoning, Camilla Alves is showing the kind of wife she is by telling us she keeps Matthew McConaughey’s chewing tobacco and wallet in her purse. (Both public items, it should be noted.) She holds onto it for him so he doesn't have to and provides it to him when needed, leaving him otherwise unencumbered. Was she telling Us Weekly — and therefore, us — that she’s a good wife? Probably yes, whether it was subconscious or not. (It should be noted that some of these messages — and by extension, the performance — is subconscious.)

Celebrity moms who details the toys and kiddie snacks that take up most of the space in their bags are telling us what good, attentive mothers they are — purses get heavy, and just look what they carry around! They also might be saying that their kids come before their career.

Demi Lovato, in recovery from an eating disorder, is telling us about her attitude towards food when she lists both "cut-up apples in a baggie" and a chocolate chip cookie in her purse. She's still working on the balance — or maybe she’s actually found it.

Women displaying the inner guts of their purses is one way of showing what kind of person they are. And that’s where the rest of the performance comes in: By curating the contents, of course, they’re showing themselves in the best light possible.

Nicki Minaj's Fendi purse. Photo: Alexander Tamargo/Getty Images

The focal point for feminine revelation and performance is evolving beyond the handbag. "What's in Your Purse?" has evolved into "What's In Your Medicine Cabinet?" — almost entirely due to the success of beauty blog Into the Gloss's Top Shelfie column.

Medicine cabinets are objectively more honest, more raw. They contain things that you can’t carry with you. They are where the real, unglamorous stuff can be hidden: prescription medication, allergy eyedrops, Retin-A, acne products, tweezers for the stray hairs that show up in the most embarrassing of places, Invisalign.

Yet that’s not what what we see on the shelves of Top Shelfie. This feature is different than the website’s Top Shelf feature, which shows professionally-photographed slideshows of the medicine cabinets of actual celebrities, makeup artists, or women who fall under the general category of cool girls/influencers.

Top Shelfie, on the other hand, is the crowdsourced, street-style version of Top Shelf, where regular girls post photos of themselves and their medicine cabinets — chock-full of skincare and beauty products — to Instagram under the #ITGtopshelfie hashtag. Into the Gloss Staff — often founder Emily Weiss herself — cull through the entries.

Being a Top Shelfie girl is acquisition as performance — an artfully-stocked medicine cabinet with impeccable, on-trend skincare is meant to reveal a host of mini-performances about the self.

To win a spot on Into the Gloss for your Top Shelfie is an intense competitive sport. Hundreds of girls compete on Instagram for a spot on the website.

Being a Top Shelfie girl is acquisition as performance — an artfully-stocked medicine cabinet with impeccable, on-trend skincare is meant to reveal a host of mini-performances about the self: allegiance to the right brands, as well as nuggets of their personal life. Travels to Europe might show up with French pharmacy finds, for example. Or a woman can display a product and explain that it’s old-fashioned, but it’s what her mother always used. Those are the moments when the story becomes about themselves and therefore appealing. It’s a monologue rather than a listicle, and everyone wants to feel special.

The game is rigged, of course. The ideal Top Shelfie girl should match the Into the Gloss ideal — a no-makeup makeup look, an interesting or creative job, and the "right" taste in makeup and skincare. In the salmon-run to internet beauty fame, the details and quirks that make someone unique become the performance as well. One doesn’t want to hew too far from the norm, however — it’s a bit like rushing a sorority.

Commenters are not shy about passing judgment on the contents of said cabinets, which hurts the most. Highly-developed taste — in décor, in skincare brands, in clothing — is the entire point.

"The obligatory Diptyque candle shot is a little cliche now, non?" is one example of a comment.

Medicine cabinet voyeurism as competitive sport has never been described better than in Margaret Atwood’s novel about a young lifestyle journalist, Bodily Harm, published in 1981. The protagonist, Rennie Wilson, is profiling a powerful female judge. When her editor feels that Rennie is losing control of the story — the judge is controlling the narrative, the editor says — she tells Rennie how she can turn it around.

Kate Middleton's bag during the 2016 Royal Tour of Canada. Photo: Andrew Chin/Getty Images

"Look in the medicine cabinet, go for the small details, it matters what they roll on under their arms, Arrid or Love, it makes a difference," the editor tells her. She explains that this is okay, simply another technique. "You're not after dirt, just the real story."

In this case, the voyeurism is meant to be potentially humiliating: character assassination by poor taste in brands of personal care products. The idea of your most embarrassing medicine cabinet inhabitants becoming public truly is terrifying — those faddish diet pills might reveal that not only are you anxious about your weight, but you made a terrible choice in relying on speed instead of yoga. A box of Jolene, the hair bleach, means you’re a hirsute woman who has to lighten her mustache… or arm hair. And it’s always weird to get a first glimpse of someone’s cheapness: off-brand toothpaste? Really?

This is one reason that the celebrity and women’s media medicine cabinet and handbag journalism creates a self-consciousness that ends up hiding the dirt.

Everyone wants to believe they are unique; everyone wants to be known for their good taste.

Yet, the idea of showing off one’s stuff — either from the medicine cabinet or the purse — remains alluring, to civilians as well as celebrities. Everyone wants to believe they are unique; everyone wants to be known for their good taste. Who hasn’t regarded with a certain self-satisfaction their bathroom counter filled with pretty glass Deciem serums, a minimalist yet sinfully expensive bottle of Rodin hair oil, a perfume that nobody else knows about, and an arsenal of lipsticks?

Outward appearance matters for women, and keeping it up — in whatever way you see fit — is a version of feminine performance. Keeping up appearances also extends inward — what we eat, for example, and how we take care of ourselves — which manifests in the purse, the medicine cabinet.

That’s not to say what’s in our handbags doesn’t matter — it's just more revealing when it's not being paid attention to as a stand-in for the woman and the self.

The things we carry are also purely for psychic and emotional protection — talismans that get us through the day-to-day. Sometimes, an unexpected stray item — a piece of ribbon, a prayer card, seven lipsticks — has a way of showing exactly who we are.

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