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It's Time We Admit That Tote Bags Are Trash

The niche media tote bag is the epitome of 'weird flex but ok.'

by Bettina Makalintal
May 31 2019, 7:27pm

My shoulder hurts, and I absolutely know why: my black leather Madewell Transport Tote, which looks pretty good but, if I'm honest, I hate, and not just in a lowkey way, but with a radiating, physical resentment.

By the time it's loaded with my reusable water bottle, charger brick, the ten lipsticks I always carry for no good reason, and at least a few ounces of CVS receipts, that bag is heavy. If I'm out and about, I know the entire day will be spent awkwardly shuffling it from one shoulder to another, with occasional shifts into the crook of my arm for sweet, sweet relief. I wear it, of course, because it works with most outfits and looks decidedly more "professional" than other bags... And also because I'm a dumb bitch who's desperate to fit in.

You can't drop a poppy seed from an everything bagel in Brooklyn without hitting a tote. Free totes from PR packages litter corners of my apartment; totes are hooked on the arms of half the subway car; the cabinet under my kitchen sink is so packed with them that I'm sometimes scared to open it; and every single indie artist I want to support makes, alas, a tote. This is the collective scam of the tote. We do it because everyone else is.

But what are we buying into when we opt for a tote? Aside from the inevitable aches and pains, the tote, in its cheapest and most common versions, is often completely open at the top, leaving you vulnerable to pickpockets. Attempt to bring home a heavy load of groceries in a tote, and if you're short like I am, you'll find—when you hold its straps in your hand and not on your shoulder—that most totes weren't designed for those of us with short legs because the bag's canvas bottom scrapes against the poo-covered streets. As for totes without a structured bottom, well, good luck ever finding your wallet in that mess.

The world of media admittedly loves its insular circle jerks, and that's perhaps best epitomized by its obnoxious reverence for the tote. I'm of the opinion that the promotion of the tote is the worst "fake news" any of us are peddling. Take, for example, GQ's recent "The Best Media Totes, Ranked," or Bon Appétit's horoscope-esque "What Does Your Restaurant Tote Say About You?"

In each piece, the tote is a stand-in for being in-the-know. "Yes, after Bon App called Portland the country's best food city, I did make a trip up to Maine," suggests a tote from Rose Foods, while a bag from NPR indicates how arts-friendly you are by supporting public broadcasting. Last year, New York Magazine quite literally ran a round-up titled "The Coveted Tote Bags That Scream 'Status.'" The tote is like rich people wearing Carhartt workwear: It's a way of signaling that you're like the proletariat when you actually have enough disposable income for a Mansur Gavriel bucket bag or whatever.

Of course, I get the practicality of the tote from a business standpoint. They're cheap, and seemingly easy to print on. But you know what else fits that description? A T-shirt. The tote is a scam of collective discomfort that we suffer through for the sake of status, and it must be stopped—we are bloating the pockets of chiropractors and massage therapists everywhere with this silly flex of printed fabric.

There is an alternative to the tote, of course, on whose behalf I will endlessly proselytize: the backpack, and specifically, the cycling backpack, on which I once attempted to bike home an entire Ikea coffee table. (It was the Lack table, and I made it about a mile.) For people who don't identify as male, however, you might have to grit your teeth through the truly cursed phrase "lady backpack." But it's fine, because you can at least feel the benefits of function and comfort.

The best tote is a free tote, and even then, it belongs in the trash.

Follow Bettina Makalintal on Twitter for more tote takes.