If you had asked me what I wanted for any birthday or Christmas between the ages of 14 and 24, I would have definitely requested a handbag. My collection started just as I began to gain weight very quickly — a byproduct of being in treatment and recovery for a restrictive eating disorder. My body was expanding because I was getting better. In retrospect, I know I was returning to the figure I was supposed to have. At the time, however, I couldn’t bear the thought of being plus-size. I couldn’t cope with the fact that every additional pound I gained pushed me further and further away from aligning with the beauty and style standards which were already acutely familiar to me.
The reality was that the more weight I gained, the more difficult clothes shopping became. In the suburbs of New Jersey where I grew up (circa the early 2000s), most of my female peers were shopping at Delia's and Forever 21. These were the clothes you wore if you wanted to fit in, or be noticed by prospective dates, or be invited to whatever sneaky house party was being thrown. Unfortunately, I was limited to the 'husky' sections of the department stores, which most teens associated with their grandparents (or worse, their teachers).
Because going to the mall was the pinnacle of adolescent adventure in my town, however, that was where I had to spend quite a bit of my free time in order to maintain my friendships. Nearly every Saturday, my closest pals (all of whom were thin girls) and I would put together the cash we’d saved from allowances and after-school jobs and head over to the concrete epicentre of youth culture. Each and every time, I would watch as they slipped their bodies into all the wares at the coolest stores. They would grab item after item with a certainty and confidence I’d never known.
I realised fairly quickly that if I wanted to participate in any kind of socialisation, I was going to have to find a way to enjoy the mall. I was also going to have to find a way to do something interesting or cute with my aesthetic. One could blame capitalism, the patriarchy, diet culture or all of the above for our insistence on judging people based on the things they wear, of course, but that’s a conversation for another time.
Anyway, clothes were clearly not going to be 'my thing'. Maybe handbags could be, though.
My collection began before I even knew it was happening. From thrifted designer bags to knitted totes, fake Prada to a few legitimate Coach purses from a well-off relative, and anything covered in rainbows, woodland creatures or glitter, I embraced a new identity as 'the chick with the cool bag'. Sure, sometimes it was 'the fat chick with the cool bag' but at least people were throwing a 'cool' in there.
For Vicki Jones, a plus-size woman living in Mountain Ash, her love of handbags has been going strong since the '80s. "I started liking handbags in my late teens," she says. "I used to buy cheap and cheerful ones in all different colours. It was the '80s, after all. Later on when I could afford it, I did treat myself to a few designer bags, and now I stick to a classic Coach bag I lent my mum, but since she died I use it all the time."
Jones shops for clothing almost exclusively online. However, if she ends up in a situation where she’s shopping IRL with straight-size people, she knows that bags and accessories will be a way she can feel included.
"I remember being with friends, shopping in Cardiff, falling for a Cath Kidston bag and just feeling happy I had actually shopped for something when they all had armfuls of bags from clothes shopping," Jones explains. "I definitely think plus-size women love their bags and accessories for that reason: they always fit!"
Caris Parr, a plus-size woman in West Yorkshire, agrees. Her love of handbags began right around college, after her aesthetic was no longer limited by the rules of a secondary school uniform. "I was creating a 'new me' and meeting new people/making new friends," she remembers. "I realised very quickly that I couldn’t dress like my skinny friends. Even if I wanted to, the clothes weren’t available in my size, but the one thing I had in common with them and that I could share with them were accessories."
Even though many plus-size babes are drawn to handbags because, as Parr explains, "They are the one thing I can pick up in a shop and know will fit me," that doesn’t mean they are free from the scrutiny of fashion and beauty rules. Plus-size women are bombarded with so-called advice for what 'flatters' our 'unruly' figures, and accessories are no exception. Celebrity stylist Susan Moses has said that we must always carry bags which are 'proportioned' to our bodies — adding that small handbags are no good. It’s a sentiment that was echoed by '00s British fashion 'advisors' Trinny and Susannah, who believe bigger bags are better for bigger women. Bag Bible even has a visual explanation of bags that do and do not 'flatter' us fatties. "As you can see, bag type and size can influence your overall look and can make you look slimmer," they muse.
Still, it’s arguably a tamer kind of shaming than that which governs clothes shopping. The retail climate has improved for plus-size people in recent years (particularly in the size 18-26 range) but it’s still nowhere near as diverse as its straight-size counterpart. Parr says: "I personally feel it’s improving, but nowhere near enough." Jones is a little more optimistic, noting that she loves seeing "confident teenagers now wearing and being able to buy what they like, which is also fashionable. When I was young, anything over an 18 was basically a tent dress."
There’s no doubt that the exclusion we continue to see from the fashion industry at large where plus-size clothing is concerned is harmful, though. "Just imagine how difficult it is to train yourself to love yourself when you feel like the whole world is against you," Parr asks of straight-size folks. "The feeling of not feeling like you fit in or belong with your friends, the feeling of not being able to walk into a shop and try something on. Think about it. Think about how hard that would be."
As we wait for things to improve further (slowly, as is so often the case), handbags will undoubtedly continue to be a way for us to express ourselves. Whether we’re talking designer bags, handmade ones, XXL totes or tiny things shaped like telephone boxes, they are a way for us to get creative and fill in the gaps created by the industry at large. With a cool bag, we can draw attention to ourselves in ways that we find fulfilling and affirming — and reclaim some of the loudness we’re told isn’t for us.