When it comes to being prepared, the Boy Scouts have nothing on Ritter Hoy.
“I was at a bar in Las Vegas and this man asked if I wanted to play ‘Let’s Make a Deal,’” says the 30-year-old university media rep from Oxford, Ohio. “He said, ‘For everything I name that you have in your purse, I’ll buy you a drink.’”
A few minutes later, she’d won four drinks, thanks to the gum, Band-Aids, Q-tips and mouthwash she was able to easily whip from her bag.
“I call it Pandora’s box,” says Hoy, who also carries aspirin, vitamins, hand towels, soap, sunglasses, lipstick, hand sanitizer, an eyelash curler, dog pills, books, a daily planner, a passport, a camera and more. “It probably weighs over 20 pounds and I carry all of it every day.”
Our gigantic handbags swollen with all our can't-live-without necessities haven't only become fashion staples in the last few years, they're the grown woman's security blanket, a reassuring repository of everything we imagine we need, hanging like a toddler from our aching shoulders.
The big purse full of stuff is not only a woman's home away from home, it's a reflection of the woman's role as caretaker, says Linda Abrams of the Philadelphia-based Council for Relationships.
“Women in general see themselves as natural caretakers and nurturers,” she says. “They’re anticipating all the things that they might need or someone else might need. They want to be prepared, just in case.”
Hoy, whose purse won her those free drinks in Vegas, says she feels a certain satisfaction in being prepared for any emergency. “I got stuck in an airport in January, but I had a toothbrush and contact case and glasses and hand towels and even a spare pair of underwear,” she says.
Boon or backbreaker?
But big purses can take a toll. “It’s heavy, it’s uncomfortable and it definitely hurts my left shoulder,” says Renee Young, a 49-year-old PR agency president from New Rochelle, N.Y., whose Michael Kors bag contains everything from a sewing kit to a switchblade.
According to the American Chiropractic Association, women should avoid carrying purses that are more than 10 percent of their body weight but some bags — particularly the “mom bag” and even the gadget-heavy “man bag” — can easily top that.
A recent study by the British Chiropractic Association, in fact, showed that the average “murse” weighs nearly 14 pounds (those laptops, iPads and battery packs really add up), a lopsided load that can cause back and shoulder pain and impact posture.
Purses can be hazardous in other ways, too, not only harboring a host of bacteria, but the potential for all kinds of nasty accidents. Consumer products market researcher Kelley Styring, author of “In Your Purse: Archaeology of the American Handbag,” says the purse’s role as a “giant junk drawer” can definitely make it a dangerous place.
“The purse is dark and deep and the way we find things is to plunge one hand inside and rotate it around like a Mixmaster,” she says. “Sometimes, people get hurt that way.” (According to a study she conducted, about 14 percent of women carry some sort of knife in their purse.)
Excuse me, but is that a mouse?
Walking around with a junk drawer on your shoulder can also be painfully embarrassing.
“I was at a bridge game a few years ago and a woman was pulling everything out of her purse, trying to find her keys,” says Sherry Grindeland, a 55-year-old marketing professional from Bellevue, Wash. “And I looked down and saw a little plastic baggie with a dead white mouse in it.”
Some of the bridge players started screaming (even after the woman explained the mouse was food for her son’s snake). But Grindeland took it all in stride.
“I carry a big purse and have carried all kinds of strange things in it,” she says. “Pacifiers, diapers, a change of clothes. Once I pulled out a bra at a restaurant trying to find my wallet. I’d been shopping and forgotten it was in there.”
Although a confessed pursaholic, Los Angeles psychotherapist Nancy Irwin says carrying 20 pounds of “necessities” every day may indicate trust issues.
“If you don’t have a really good reason to carry around a lot of stuff — like you’re traveling or nursing a baby — then you’re burdening yourself unnecessarily,” she says. “You’re not trusting that what you need will be there in the environment.”
Cleaning up your act
Abrams suggests one way to keep clutter at bay is to “only taking what you’ll need for the day instead of what you need for the rest of your life or even for that week.”
Consolidating where possible (for instance, putting vitamins or aspirin in a plastic bag instead of carrying around multiple bottles) is another way to lighten the load. Regularly cleaning out loose change — as well accumulated coupons, receipts, mail or flyers — will also help. A good vacuum once a week is another good way to eliminate germs (not to mention those forgotten lunches).
And Young, who’s not happy with her bulky burden, says you sometimes just have to suck it up and cut the purse strings.
“I went out to dinner the other night and did not take a bag,” she says. “I took a little pouch with my makeup and some Tylenol and my driver’s license, and that was all I took. And it felt so liberating.”