I Do but I Don't: Walking Down the Aisle without Losing Your Mind
By Kamy Wicoff
WEDDINGS are, and always have been, the primary method of communication between a society and its individuals about what adult women and men are supposed to do and be. The first reason all brides are "like that," i.e., like hormonal twelve-year-olds? Being a bride is like being sent back to the seventh grade, and not just because you are supposed to keep a scrapbook and try on eighteen shades of lipstick. Seventh grade is the first time girls run headfirst into a set of cultural expectations for them as girls that often clash directly with who they've begun to be as people. Seventh grade is how-to-be-a-girl (or else) boot camp.
And as Mary Pipher pointed out in her book Reviving Ophelia, which I read years before my wedding but which later became an eerily accurate primer for my experience as a twenty-seven-year-old bride, feminism can actually make this collision even more confusing. At twelve, girls find that while society pays lip service to female equality, becoming an acceptable, desirable girl means downplaying your intelligence (even if you still get good grades), getting a boyfriend, and being hot and thin. At twenty-five - the average marrying age for an American woman - women find that although society pays lip service to female equality, becoming an acceptable, marriageable woman means putting your career second to your man's (even if you still work, as you almost surely do), getting married . . . and being hot and thin.
I remember feeling betrayed the first time I collided with this reality as a girl in San Antonio, Texas, in 1985. I was especially angry with my mother, because she'd fought harder than anyone to convince me that the world was completely different than it had been in 1960, when she was twelve. But when she insisted I didn't have to shave my legs or that I could ask boys out I wanted to yell: Don't pretend what's happening isn't happening! Just tell me how to use Nair!
Thankfully, back then the world really was different.
"Lip service" to female equality was a great deal more than that. Feminism had made real gains for women, and if I found the messages maddeningly contradictory, at least they were contradictory, and not of the uniform, "girls can be wives, secretaries, or spinsters" variety. With my parents' help, and the help of the feminist movement, I mostly recovered from the seventh grade. In college and afterward, not a girl but not yet a wife, I learned how to be a woman and myself in a way that worked for me. It wasn't perfect, but it felt authentic, and falling in love with Andrew was part of it. We helped each other let go of our most stereotypical male/female training, and by the time we were ready to marry, I felt I'd achieved some long-sought, hard-earned balance.
Which is what made the second collision - the second betrayal - such a shock. From the moment I knew I wanted to marry Andrew, which was the moment I realized I wasn't allowed to marry him until he asked me (a rule far more sacrosanct than boys-ask-girls-out, as evidenced by the fact that my liberated mother made it clear she'd be "concerned" if I "had" to ask him), I was blitzed with a set of tasks, assumptions, expectations, and rituals that were seventh-grade redux. In case I'd forgotten - what with my job, my premarital sex life, my foul mouth, and my freedom - my real job was to be a passive, professionally pretty, self-absorbed party planner, eager to play house and be judged for my success with boys above all else. What was really scary was that this was not the seventh grade. It was preparation for life as an American wife. Weddings, for example, are the double shift's first shift, as the vast majority of brides assume primary responsibility for wedding planning and work full-time, too. Andrew and I fell into this lopsided labor "sharing" even though neither of us, in theory, would have called it fair. But it was much easier to praise Andrew for being involved than to admit that I was doing most of the work because I was The Bride. The power of the bride-and-groom script overpowered us - or perhaps exposed how much we'd internalized the roles after all, and just how precarious the balance we'd prided ourselves on striking really was.
It was not lost on me that exemplary groom status was conferred upon men who did little more than show up at more than one wedding-related meeting and speak when spoken to, while being even an above-average bride meant treating wedding planning like a second full-time job. I simply chose to accept it. Why? Why didn't I speak up or fight back? There were a lot of reasons, but chief among them was that, as a bride, I wanted the guidance and approbation of my culture more than I ever had in my life. I didn't want to pick a fight! I wanted to feel connected, embraced, to participate in something shared. And my desire to do this was so strong that even when being a bride made me feel cut off, not connected, isolated, not supported, pushed around, and not guided, I chose to adjust and accept rather than to resist or to question, which meant my culture had picked the perfect time to have a fight with me. The time I was least likely to fight back, the time I was most likely to accept any terms (or spend any amount of money) in order to prove my womanhood and, of course, to make everybody love me.
In Reviving Ophelia, however, Mary Pipher urges the adolescent girls she counsels to fight back, even though she knows that fighting back at such a sensitive, difficult time is daunting at best. It is so hard, she suggests, because it is so crucial - the stakes are high, both for individuals and the societies trying to indoctrinate them. In her therapy, Pipher exhorts girls to defend their authentic selves by scrutinizing their cultures' messages with the eyes of an anthropologist, to fearlessly, skeptically question the rituals, customs, and sex roles they encounter. What are the rules? Pipher enjoins girls to ask. "It's only after they understand the rules," she writes, "that they can intelligently resist them."
I wrote this book because although I failed to question, analyze, or fight back during my engagement - afraid that doing so would "ruin" what was supposed to be the happiest time of my life, unable to see that repressing these questions threatened to ruin it anyway - it is not too late for all the intelligent resistance I can muster. I'm sick of being sent to the self-help section as though I am the problem, as though feminism is history and all such talk anachronistic, as though the femininity rules, as Pipher calls them, no longer exist. Certainly the rules for girls are less uniform, less rigid than they were when my mother was growing up. Certainly they are different for women now than they were then, thank god. But what are they now, for women my age? Where do they come from? How do weddings enforce them? And what difference do they make?
Wedding dress shopping, of course, was only one of many wedding-related things I did as a bride. The website weddingchannel.com lists no fewer than 124 items on its "things-to-do" list, and Andrew and I did most of them. In this we were very like our peers, who over the last decade have helped turn the wedding industry into a one-hundred-billion-dollar-a-year beast. An entire generation pumped full of the mixed motives I felt in that dress - a powerful need to play conformist sex roles to assuage feminist backlash fears, coupled with a powerful sense of entitlement to be an individual - has been brilliantly manipulated by marketers offering this pricey panacea: you can have a wedding just like everyone else's without sacrificing your individuality! Just pay two thousand dollars to buy a wedding dress both traditional and uniquely you!
The enormously sophisticated, well-funded members of The Wedding Industrial Complex, in other words, know more about brides' and grooms' anxieties than brides and grooms do. And they have made a special science of profiling the cash cow that is the modern bride. It has been well documented that brides spend more money during their engagement than at any other time in their lives, and since women in general shop and buy far more than men do (women are responsible for more than 80 percent of consumer buying decisions in this country), brides make marketers' mouths water. And so they should. Lately, products ranging from specially packaged "Eye Dew" eye cream to little white monogrammed bags of M&M's fly off the shelves with alarming speed, as brides continue to astonish with their willingness to buy just about anything. I was no exception, most notably when I eventually purchased a Vera Wang dress. Wedding profiteers shrewdly took advantage of my vulnerability, insecurity, and my impossible pursuit of bridal "perfection" to pick my pockets . . . and my parents' pockets, and Andrew's pockets, and his parents' pockets, and our guests' pockets, and so on.
Again, a parallel exists between the bride and the adolescent girl. Teenage girls are the only group that marketers salivate over with equal avarice, because teenage girls are also caught in a state of intense insecurity and crisis. Inculcated with the faux-empowerment mantra that doing (and buying!) what they "want" - no matter what it is and without bothering to wonder how they came to want it - is an exercision of their rights, and rejecting all judgment or reproach of their choices as attacks on their freedom, teen girls buy almost as much stuff as brides do. The purveyors of every kind of product relish this stance of acquisitive defiance, particularly when it masquerades as female liberation and power. They invented it. And they are not shy about hammering it into the heads of modern brides, many of whom, like me, find it hard to resist.
One of the most enlightening moments in the course of writing this book came when a very old friend of mine, who happens to be a lesbian, told me she'd always wanted to get married in a white wedding dress, and that she didn't see the harm in it.
"But why white?" I asked her.
"I just always saw myself doing that," she said. "It's my idea, it's not like I want to do it because of the culture or something. It's just something I've imagined since I was a little girl. Nobody put the idea in my head," she continued to insist off my incredulous, skeptical stare. "And if I wear white at my wedding, it will be because I want to!"
It took me nearly twenty minutes to make her see that it was not only inaccurate but preposterous to believe that if she chooses to wear a white wedding dress someday, it will be a choice made completely independent of social pressures or expectations. She should be given credit, however, for seeing this in just twenty minutes, considering it took me nearly four years to write this book, and I was one of those brides who made a big deal about her dress being ivory. At the time, however, that was about as deep as I could go. It isn't easy to be analytical when you're supposed to be romantic, thoughtful when you're supposed to be dreamy, an anthropologist when you're supposed to be a princess. As bell hooks wrote in her foreword to the collection Young Wives' Tales, "It is easier to stand before a public world and demand justice (equal pay for equal work, reproductive freedom and more) than it is to stand in the space of our private longings for love and connection and call for a change in how we make love, how we create partnerships." But it is in our private relationships that change begins, and thinking about the way we wed - and changing it - may not only impact our marriages but our world.
"The identity crisis in men and women cannot be solved by one generation for the next," wrote Betty Friedan in 1963; "in our rapidly changing society, it must be faced continually, solved only to be faced again in the span of a single lifetime." When I began writing about my wedding, I had an inkling that examining the way we marry would provide a window onto this ongoing identity crisis, but I had no idea it would shed light on so many aspects of a woman's life, from body image to housekeeping to work to sex, and I really had no idea it would shed so much light on the roles and rules for men, too.
I may have felt shoved into the role of pretty, professional party planner, but as the groom, Andrew was shoved into the role of hard-working, hard-earning career man, expected to react with sarcastic indifference to anything having to do with wedding planning - too busy for florists and too manly for china. Andrew resisted and rewrote this role as he went along, as many men do. He loved choosing the flowers. But writing this book made it clear to me that the world told Andrew just what it valued in him when it told him how to be a groom, too. There's a reason, for example, that men are expected to put up thousands of dollars to buy a ring when they want to get married. Brides must have beauty, but grooms must have bucks. Taking a closer look at the stereotypical role of Groom helped me to see the definition of manhood Andrew grapples with every day. We've both become amateur anthropologists as I've reexamined our wedding, and the process has made our marriage - the whole point of the wedding, right? - better.
I'm often asked if I'm writing a book about marriage. The easy answer is no: it's a book about weddings! The real answer, however, is yes. If there is one thing I learned from going back through my wedding experience and from interviewing other women about theirs, it is that the way we marry matters. The way we wed establishes and solidifies patterns in our private relationships that affect our marriages forever - though perhaps it would be more accurate to say "for as long as they last." As we all know, modern marriage has become an almost quixotic endeavor, with a fifth of first marriages ending after five years, and a third after ten. Doing the hard work of challenging stereotypes before and during an engagement, setting a premium on authenticity and communication rather than on conformity and chic gift bags, could help strengthen marriages-to-be. It might also give couples a chance to see more clearly when marriage isn't right for them.
I probably would have rebuffed anyone who asked me to second-guess my big, fat American wedding by saying a wedding is the last place, or time, to wonder why women wear Wonderbras. But since I married I've come to believe that my wedding was the moment when examining my situation was most important. It was not enough to thank my mother's generation for doing all the work, and pull my veil over my eyes. It was not enough to say Andrew and I know what we mean by this, and write my twelve-year-old bridal-self off to all brides are like that. It may be a little late to make up for it now, but with this book, I'm hoping to cheat - to tell my wedding story and, in the process, try to figure out why it happened the way it did, and how it could have happened differently.