What Women Want: A Tote That Can Hold a Packed Lunch

I’ve spent more time than I want to admit over the past few weeks looking at professional women’s tote bags online. I’m drawn in by the organization, the idea that my day-to-day life can be compartmentalized, neatly ordered, and easily carried. I’m a sucker for that aspirational feeling of looking like a “professional” woman—which, as we all know, includes wearing pencil skirts and heels and generally looking as flawless as Helen Hunt in What Women Want (not a great movie, but killer professional-woman fashion).

The actual buying of said bag has almost become irrelevant; looking is a hobby. I go over and over the pictures, comparing bag to bag and brand to brand, looking for the tote that’s going to check all the boxes and be absolutely perfect for my working life. But there’s one box that almost none of them ever checks.

Carrying your lunch to work.

Why is that? I want a tote bag that looks nice and professional, and I want to bring my lunch to work. I need these two options to co-exist, and I’m finding more and more that they don’t.

I try to bring my lunch to work as much as I can—salads, leftover pasta from the night before, something. Or, like right now, sometimes I’m in a play and I’m headed to rehearsals after work, so I’m sometimes bringing food for lunch and dinner. I put in a good bit of effort to avoid spending money on dining out during the day. I’m a fastidious budgeter, and I want to save my eating out for a select few, nice meals with my boyfriend, instead of watching my budget dwindle steadily by $7–15 a day.

I’ve recently converted from working as a contractor with an hourly rate to working as a full-time employee with a salary. If all my calculations are correct (I haven’t yet been paid for a full month so I’m still looking at my financial estimates based on the overall salary), I will be making a bit more per month. So I could spend more on eating out. But I don’t want to. I’ve got student loans to pay off and goals to save for (two-bedroom apartment, new car, new couch, VACATIONS). My new job doesn’t change the way I prioritize my spending.

This brings me back to the bags. Some of them just, plain and simple, don’t have space for lunch. That’s fine; different people want different things. And I’m gonna have to find a happy medium between the size of bag I see as ideal (basically, as small as possible while still holding a laptop and a journal) vs. the size of bag that will actually hold all the things I want to carry (probably not super small). I don’t expect every bag to have space for lunch.

But most of these brands’ websites, when you click through the beautiful photos or watch the gorgeously lit “See what fits” videos where thin women in blazers seem to be packing for some sort of fancy overseas business trip (there’s always a passport), they are never once pictured packing food. No brown paper bag for lunch, no plastic Tupperware containers, nothing. It’s never pictured as something you’d be carrying—even though a lot of the bags I’ve been looking at are specifically marketed for the modern woman’s all-day lifestyle, and have more than enough room.

These brands aren’t selling bags, they are selling an image—and packing a lunch doesn’t fit. Carrying your lunch to work says that you’re not dining out with clients or co-workers. Bringing your own salad suggests that you just might not have enough disposable income to eat out every day. Schlepping your own food containers around shows that your team isn’t expensing a lunch to be brought to you as you bravely and importantly work through back-to-back meetings all day.

They can create specific compartments for your gym clothes (only pictured in their brand new, brightly colored, not-at-all-sweaty forms, of course) because that says that you go straight to the gym before or after work like a do-it-all, have-it-all gal. But they can’t acknowledge that you might need to prepare and bring your own food in order to save a little money.

And that fantasy image is totally what I’m falling for every time I start clicking through product galleries. I start imagining a smoother, more gorgeous life. The realities of my day-to-day slip out of the picture. I can feel myself buying the idea that one of these bags will instantly make standing uncomfortably in a crowd of commuters, as I passive-aggressively fight for a spot near a pole because I’m too short for the flimsy drop-down handles to be helpful in staying balanced on a bus, glamorous and carefree.

Even if the right bag exists—the one that could carry my stuff while looking nice and not totally killing my back—I’ll still be walking to and from bus stops every day. I’ll still be dressing in jeans and comfortable shoes, and I’ll still be sweating by the time I get to the office. I won’t suddenly wear more skirts, or heels, or makeup. I won’t be taller or richer or travel more often. I will just have a bag.

And I will still need it to carry my lunch.

Genie Leslie is a writer and actor living in Seattle.

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