Perfection is a moving target. This week, the Cut explores the allure of trying to achieve the impossible.
I don’t know when exactly the tote bag appeared for my friend Nora, but I think it was around the time she had been dating Evan for a month or so. You probably don’t know Nora, but you know what the tote looks like because you’ve probably carried it yourself. It might be under your desk right now, filled with the previous day’s literal dirty laundry, makeup-remover wipes, and a couple tiny tubes of various cosmetics that you got for redeeming some of your Sephora points. In Nora’s case, I think the bag itself is from Madewell. Or maybe it’s one of those Longchamp bags every girl in Manhattan has stuffed in her closet somewhere, or a free tote from a publishing event. Mine is an ancient nylon thing I used to carry my books in college, and digging through the strata of my previous night inside it to unearth my MetroCard in the morning, bleary-eyed and fresh out of an unfamiliar shower, is an activity I resent almost as much as my annual gynecological exam.
For me, the bag usually comes out around the third month of dating someone, when we enter the realm of the weeknight sleepover. Once I can no longer relegate a budding relationship to weekends — when it doesn’t matter if I leave in the previous night’s clothes, or wait to shower in my own apartment — my work life and my dating life clash. And at this point, I become a pack mule, hauling into the office with a change of clothes, a carefully selected array of skin-care products, and my own color-safe shampoo. It’s either that, or use some guy’s shitty Head & Shoulders and knock all the dye out of my hair, and frankly, I’d rather be shot into the sun.
The overflowing tote bag stuffed under a desk is a pretense along the same lines as no-makeup makeup and no-highlight highlights: “effortlessness,” via processes that actually require sustained, skilled, focused labor. It’s as if we’re all hoping to one day become Glossier ad campaigns made manifest, and that means we lug around a giant bag of supplies with us several days a week so that the men we date and people we work for can both see us in ways that encourage them to keep us around.
When I asked Nora, 28, about the nine months she spent with her life in a tote bag before she ended her most recent relationship, she knew exactly what I was talking about. “There’s a certain, almost shameful feeling about rolling in the door at 9:45 with your overflowing tote while trying to smooth down your post-shower-quickie hair before your 10 a.m. meeting. I’ll never forget the time I reached for my work ID in my overstuffed leather bag and a dirty thong came flying out. Or the time a senior member of my team made a quip about how often I changed outfits at the end of the day and asked if I had a hot date. It’s not a good look.”
Schlepping all that shit around is a reminder to you and everyone around you that you’ve got a brand-new priority in life that needs care and tending, on top of all the existing priorities, none of which want to cede any ground to an interloper. That’s why most of us stuff our bags in a drawer at work or pitch them into an inconvenient nook somewhere in a new partner’s bedroom: The tote looks like effort, like a physical manifestation of trying hard and trying to juggle things. We’re supposed to be trying, of course, but we’re also supposed to be hiding all the evidence.
It’d be easier if men didn’t always seem to have a reason we should stay at their places instead of coming to ours, but in my experience, most of them do. Maybe they have a dog that needs to go out, or maybe they live by themselves and you won’t have to spend the evening avoiding roommates. Or, for many of them, maybe they’ve just spent a lot of time dating women who were afraid to inconvenience them, so they don’t think too hard about the detail work that goes into accommodating their preferences. After my first weeknight sleepover with the last guy I dated, when we were both leaving his apartment as the sun came up, he asked why I wasn’t going home to shower before work. Apparently it didn’t occur to him that my office job, not altogether different from his, wouldn’t be super pleased if I showed up at noon, or that I couldn’t do a Zack Morris time-freeze to gain two hours before snapping my fingers and restarting my day. Sometimes you don’t have a choice, though. Laura, 27, told me, “I was once an hour late to work because the guy I was seeing had one bathroom and four roommates, and I needed to wash his cum out of my hair. I told my boss the L train had delays.”
I suspect that the mechanics of transitioning from casual dating to a new relationship have always been a challenge. But the process’s failings are more glaring when they butt up against the pressure of trying to build some semblance of a career in 2016. If you’re spending time with someone brand new, it’s rude to sit next to them and answer work emails until you go to bed, and you can’t spend two hours on your laptop finishing a project after you leave the office. Your boss still expects all of that, though, and “Sorry, I had a date” isn’t an excuse that will buy you an extended deadline. In her last relationship, Nora worried about that from the beginning. “Am I staying late enough? Coming in early enough? Let’s start calculating how much time I’m devoting to someone I barely know, versus how prepared I was for a presentation.” Alana, 27, tries her best to draw that line clearly. “My job comes first, because it pays me. If I like you, I will fit you into my life, but if you’re looking for a 5 p.m. rooftop happy hour buddy, I am not your girl.”
This, of course, is a relatively new concern for young women — previous generations were expected to prioritize the construction of a long-lasting relationship over basically every other facet of adult life. But now that all the unseen labor women do to build personal partnerships is in conflict with the professional labor we have to do in order to live our lives on our own, it sometimes feels like the two can’t coexist as they are for much longer. From this perspective, dating apps are in large part a symptom of our schedules — Tinder and Bumble let us dip in and out of our romantic lives when we have the time, with the least amount of labor possible in order to meet someone new.
There’s no tech fix for the new problems that sprout in the spaces opened by all the ways personal and professional expectations have changed for young women, though. To find any relief, the men we date will have to pitch in on some of the work, even if that just means buying better shampoo for their showers or not being so nervous when new women leave toiletries at their apartments. Maybe we can start with men who can be relied upon to cut the line in front of their roommates so that we can wash their cum out of our hair in the mornings. It seems like the least they can do for getting to put it there in the first place.