The Belly Bag: A Fashion Faux Pas?

Photo Credit: Anne Worner via Compfight cc

During the summer of 1985, I swore I’d never wear my possessions in a pouch on my stomach.

I was a goofy college kid preparing for a year abroad in Europe, and my sweet, safety-conscious dad came home from work one day, announcing he’d gotten me something special and important for my trip. I’m not sure what I expected, but the money belt sure wasn’t it. It was hideous by anyone’s fashion standards. Tan in color, and made of nylon, it was—as my dad emphasized—made to be worn under clothing: a secure way to carry money, a passport, maybe a visa. I wonder now where he got it, in that pre-Internet age. Were such things sold in stores like Sears, or had he sent away for it in the mail?

I didn’t ask because I didn’t care. Regardless of the trouble my father may have gone through to acquire the money belt, I wasn’t wearing it. An Army vet who’d spent a couple of years in Germany during the Cold War, Dad told me stories of friends who’d been pickpocketed on trains and emphasized the dangers of losing one’s passport in a foreign country. But one of the first things I did upon arrival in Europe was buy a “jute bag,” a burlap-y, open-topped, over-the-shoulder thing like the ones I’d seen many cool-looking Europeans carrying around.

In retrospect, the jute bag was pretty much the polar opposite of the money belt. It exuded a carefree, hippiesque attitude, and I tossed everything into it, including money, my passport, visa, and Eurail pass. It wasn’t that I wanted to lose any of those things—lord knows, I went to Europe to shed certain parts of myself, but not cash or valuable documents—but I also wasn’t about to bomb around my new playground with something as bulky, uncomfortable, and practical as a money belt strapped to my body. True, I did lose my student visa once, and spent the better part of a day at an American embassy dealing with that, but still, the money belt remained in a drawer.

Thankfully, I never lost my passport and returned to the US at the end of that exciting year. I also became more aware of the role bags played in my life. I’ve never been into expensive “status” bags but do think the vessels we choose to carry our stuff in can reflect a lot about who we are at that particular moment. For example, there were several years when I preferred a duffle bag from the Army/Navy surplus; at another period, the only bag for me was a leather backpack gifted by my boyfriend (now husband). Different life stages call for different bag styles, right?

But that last sentence took on a whole new meaning when I got pregnant, and some dear friends gave me a funky, red messenger bag to use as a diaper bag. A diaper bag? Couldn’t I just toss a few extra diapers in my purse? Well, if you’ve ever taken care of a baby or toddler, you know what a foolish question that is. I soon learned that I needed to tote around much more than just diapers. Diaper rash cream, blankets, wipes, snacks, toys, sunscreen, water, burp cloths, extra onesies, plastic bags for soiled items, binkies, and so much more. For a day or two, I tried using the courier bag for baby stuff and a purse for my things, but soon surrendered completely to the courier as a general carryall

Our two kids were born two years apart, so the courier was the only bag I used for about five years. I felt good about it too, because even though it was often stained and overflowing with baby gear, I liked its clean lines and sporty style. But as the kids became toilet trained and more independent, I realized I could probably get something smaller. I began checking out purses on the internet.

Then, one day at the park, I saw something that truly gave me pause: a woman pushing a child on a swing, chatting and smiling. There was no bag at her feet, nor anything over her shoulder. She wasn’t even wearing a backpack. Instead, she had a large, black pouch around her waist. A belly bag!

I found it quite unattractive, but I was fascinated too. I watched the woman open the pouch and take out a bag of crackers for her kid, and a cereal bar for herself. A few minutes later, she retrieved a small tube and applied sunscreen to both of their faces. Then, they walked away, their arms swinging in the breeze. It looked idyllic.

But no! I couldn’t give up on style like that. What would people think? That very afternoon, I went shopping and headed straight to the handbag department. And what did I buy? A large, electric blue, vinyl tote with silver accents. It wasn’t like any purse I’d owned before, but it was lightweight, and I felt a primal need to scream that I still cared about fashion. I guess I was rebelling against some inner urge to screw it all and just “go belly.”

Well, the years kept coming, and the bags did too. Some were bright and playful; others more staid and classic. Then we got a dog. A dog who likes jogging with me, which is good for both of us, most of the time. But when I take him out running, I need certain supplies. Most important are plastic bags for poop, but dog treats are good too, as is a cell phone, some tissues (for my chronically allergic nose), a leash (which I end up carrying if I get a chance to let the dog run free a bit), and perhaps a few dollars. And during winter, I sometimes take off my hat and gloves if I get too warm. Which adds up to a lot of gear when you’re trying to run. Hence, I’ve gotten into the habit of wearing clothes with multiple pockets. But even then, I’ve lost plenty of things along the way and have dropped and smashed at least one phone.

So one day in February, while waiting in line at TJ Maxx, I spotted a display of belly bags. Tentatively, I picked one up and strapped it on over my shirt. It was small and relatively sleek; certainly appropriate for carrying a phone, poop bags, and a few dog treats. But would I actually wear it? “Next!” called the woman at the register. I made my decision.

And one day last week, I tried it out. The weather was warm, and it felt great, running with just a leash in my hand. I thought about that woman at the park, pushing her toddler on the swing so many years earlier, and also my dad, telling me to keep my important items secured around my waist. And I wondered: have I given up on fashion completely, or is this the ultimate form of liberation?

I don’t know the answer to that question, but I do think I might be in the market for a slightly larger pack, so I can fit a few more things in it. Because, hey, if you’re gonna go belly, you may as well go all the way, right?

Mary Rowen

Mary Rowen is a writer and blogger who often writes about women of various ages growing up or figuring out what they want from this world. She grew up in the Massachusetts Merrimack Valley, graduated from Providence College, and has worked as a teacher, marketing writer, and political canvasser. She lives in the Boston area with her husband, two teenage children, dog and cat.

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