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Dating My Backpack Helped Me Thrive as a Single Woman

The woman behind the viral #JanSportDate on embracing aloneness
Images via Instagram

Images via Instagram

One ordinary Wednesday evening, about three months ago, I left work and found myself with some time to kill. I needed to eat something before a show I was attending, so I headed toward a quaint Italian spot in the West Village. I walked into the candlelit dining room, and waves of romance crashed over me. Couples surrounded me. Dapper-looking men still in their work suits lovingly gazed at beautiful women in expertly tailored dresses and perfectly placed midi rings.

Then there was me—wearing a cat T-shirt and mom jeans while carrying a bright pink JanSport backpack. Never one for shame and, admittedly, very hungry at this point, I threw my head back, strode up to the hostess, and confidently requested a table for one. “Treat yo’ self,” she said with a smile and led me to my seat. Shortly thereafter, glass of wine in hand, I scanned the room once more. Mine was definitely the only backpack in the place, and my sneakers were outnumbered by beautiful stilettos a hundred to one.

The couples smiled and flirted. They touched each other on their arms and thighs. They batted their eyes. It looked fun. I love going on dates—the laughing, the banter, the playfulness. Moreover, I am a master at that thing where you wear a bunch of mascara, look down smiling, and then slowly look up to meet your date’s eyes. You know the move I’m talking about, right? Right.

But I digress. Here I was in this fantastic restaurant, dying to pull out my bag of first-date tricks with no one there to appreciate them. Enter: JanSport and, perhaps more importantly, the Internet. I was not about to let being by myself stop me from having all the fun of being on a romantic date. I began taking Instagram pictures and tagging them #JanSportDate.

My JanSport and I shared an entrée that night. We cuddled on the same side of the booth. We toasted to ten years of friendship finally becoming a romance. With each picture I posted, more of my Facebook and Instagram friends began to respond. I felt giddy each time I posted a new picture.

I’ve always gotten a kick out of watching couples overshare about their relationships on social media. I think it is silly and self-aggrandizing. Even though I was poking fun at those couples, as the likes began to pour in, I suddenly got it. I posted ten pictures that night. I got hooked on the feedback. That first #JanSportDate led to the next. I couldn’t stop. I was on the lookout for good backpack selfie shots everywhere. Suddenly, instead of a post getting one or two likes, I was averaging fifteen. Then sixty! Then a couple hundred! The attention was intoxicating. Sub a backpack for a boyfriend? Who wouldn’t want the public at large to give them a thumbs-up on their relationship status?

I wish I could tell you that #JanSportDate was just something to keep me entertained while I ate alone that night, but that wouldn’t be the whole truth. In addition to my date envy, I was compensating for a sheepish feeling of being in public solo, a feeling that I know is impossible to avoid entirely. Without even fully realizing it at the time, I wanted my social network to tell me that it was OK for me to be single, it was OK to be on my own.

This love affair with my backpack inspired a new kind of joy that had nothing to do with having someone who completes me. The truth is, all those #JanSportDates introduced me to the peace that is found in being able to spend an hour in my own company without feeling embarrassed, itchy, or like I’m about to die. I discovered the wonder in adventures undertaken without the security of a plus one. I view the tinge of embarrassment at being seen alone in a restaurant as a compulsion, not dissimilar from the compulsion I have to look at my phone every four seconds to see if I have any more likes. But compulsion is not a choice. It’s not even a feeling. It’s more like a wind gust, and I have learned that if I can endure it for a moment, it passes. Then I get to decide what I am going to do and whether I am going to have fun doing it.

About a month after I started taking the pictures, a handful of articles came out on sites including the Daily Dot, Cosmopolitan, and HuffPost.

My Instagram went viral. A lot of people told me they liked it. Some people told me they didn’t get it or thought I was genuinely a crazy person in love with a book bag. A handful of people called me stupid or sad or pathetic. But at that point, I truly didn’t care (and that wasn’t just because the JanSport corporation had given me a free trip to Barcelona). It was because I made the decision back at that restaurant in the Village to be my cat-shirt-wearing, backpack-toting self. I had discovered a playful, fun point of view that was purely my own. I sought to show that I could have a great time and that being single couldn’t preclude me from doing anything I wanted to. The Internet could say what it wanted to; I would be laughing all the way to Spain.

Feeling out of place may have set the wheels in motion for #JanSportDate, but I didn’t leave it there. I used that feeling as a jumping-off point to spend time dating myself (I’m a great date, might I add). Sure, I felt a little embarrassed at first. But I was able to set that aside, and something great happened. I fell in love with my hot-pink backpack and myself—spontaneous solo adventures and all!