catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 4, Num 15 :: 2005.07.29 — 2005.09.08


The anti-princess diaries

Of all the unattainable aspirations with which the media tempts women, the one I despise most vehemently (and the one with which I have recent, all-too-personal experience) is the pressure to be the Perfect Bride.

The reason this particular expectation is so insane is that it seems to combine the rest of society?s demands into one big nervous breakdown waiting to happen. To hear most magazines, television shows, and movies tell it, a bride needs to have the Perfect Body, Perfect Hair, Perfect Teeth, Perfect Dress, Perfect Event Planning and Hostessing Skills, and the Perfect Bank Account to Fund the Most Perfect Day of Your Life?even if she?s never possessed these traits before.

I only wish I were exaggerating. The other night, while idly channel surfing, I happened to catch two separate news programs featuring frantic brides-to-be. The first followed five women as they desperately dieted away several dress sizes mere months before their weddings?all in attempt to achieve the perfection looming large in the program?s ominous clich?d voiceovers about ?the most important day of their lives? on which ?every woman should feel like a princess.? This is infuriating on so many levels, not the least of which is that evidently you can only be a princess if you?re skinny. (Which, for me, is shortly followed by the bewildering realization that there are grown women out there who still consider pretending to be a fairy princess the pinnacle of life experience.)

The second segment milked the now months-old ?runaway bride? story, proposing a more responsible approach to calling off a wedding. It profiled a young woman who got cold feet six weeks in advance, just before the invitations went out. When the reporter asked her why she decided to end her engagement, she replied something to the effect that things had become difficult between her and the groom. ?And since this is supposed to be the happiest time in your life, full of roses and romance,? she replied, ?I figured it wasn?t meant to be.?

Now, perhaps this woman was genuinely unsatisfied in her relationship, and it?s all for the best that she called it off when she did. But honestly, I wanted to reach into the television, take her by the shoulders, and shake some sense into her. You called it off because it wasn?t the happiest time in your life?! I wanted to scream (and, in fact, did scream, although she seemed not to hear me). Where the hell did you get that idea? Romance and roses?! Are you serious?!

Perhaps the reason I reacted so strongly to this woman?s story is that I related to it. I knew exactly where the hell she?d gotten the idea that planning a wedding is supposed to be magical. Few brides-to-be manage to escape it, taught since early girlhood that a knight in shining armor will show up someday to sweep you off your feet, preferably with a gigantic diamond ring. For many of us, he does materialize (sans armor and, in my case, sans DeBeers)?but the problem is that no one ever tells you what happens post-sweeping. And what happens is that you have to develop an actual, messy, wonderful, tragic, rewarding, challenging, ongoing relationship?one that, at times, may seem to promise anything but romance and roses. For some reason, the wedding magazines never seem to mention this part (perhaps because they don?t stand to make a profit off it).

The result is that a lot of women find themselves anxious and even lonely during engagement?although very few mention it, because they think they need to maintain the illusion that everything?s Perfect, since that?s how engagement is ?supposed? to be. If you?re like me, these feelings probably took you by surprise. The bridal industry?s multi-million dollar lies about what makes a wedding Perfect are tremendously alluring, and it?s shocking to find them empty. It?s disorienting to realize that, like any other major transition in life, preparing for marriage is a rocky road, marked by both joy and sorrow.

Thankfully, there is a counter-revolution underway. I was grateful to find some of these resources early in my engagement; they helped me get my bearings in the midst of an experience that startled me by being confusing and sometimes scary. An online community called Indiebride, for instance, is making efforts to dismantle the myth of the Perfect Wedding and provide support for women who want to do things differently, from keeping their last names to creating meaningful non-traditional ceremonies to making their own dresses.

Another website maintained by Dr. Sheryl Paul, the author of a book called The Conscious Bride, focuses on the emotional transitions inherent to becoming married. I nearly wept for sheer joy the first time I read this paragraph from her book about ?delving into the emotional underbelly of a wedding?:

What do I mean by emotional underbelly? I mean that in a culture that touts the wedding as the pinnacle of joy in a couple’s? life, the grief, fear, confusion, and sense of aloneness that often accompany this event are pushed underground. So it has become something of a taboo in our culture to utter the words “grief” and “wedding” in the same breath. Yet how could grief and fear not be a part of this transition! We have the bride and groom letting go of their singlehood and stepping into one of the biggest commitments of their lives; we have the mothers of the bride and groom letting go of their “little ones” and possibly facing their own disappointments about their wedding or marriage; and we have girlfriends freaking out about panty hose color when really they’re scared about losing, at least temporarily, their lifelong friend. In short, a wedding, as the rite of passage that it is, involves a loss and a gain, a death and a birth, an ending and a beginning. And in order to celebrate the joy and embrace the birth that a wedding and new marriage brings, we need to be willing to face our fears, honor our losses, and talk about more than napkin colors and flower arrangements as the big day nears.

As you can see, perhaps the biggest contribution of these resources is that they always keep in mind that a wedding is, in the end, not about hair accessories and placecards. Of course, on the other side of my own wedding, I see this clearly and regret the degree to which I bought into the wedding industry?s lies (in my case, emotionally more than financially). But I?m thankful that my now-husband and I found writing like Paul?s to illuminate the deep rituals and confront the difficult transitions we were facing.

Even more vitally, we were surrounded, supported and challenged by family and friends who, on our wedding day, promised to continue that support and challenge for the rest of our life together. This kind of community is a radical departure from most ?bridal porn? (a term for wedding publications decried by Indiebrides), which considers a woman?s potentially Perfect Dress the sum total of a wedding?s meaning. I am so thankful for those who, by their very presence at our ceremony and celebration, reminded us that weddings are not ends unto themselves?that weddings commemorate not the Most Important Day of Your Life, but the very first day of a marriage.

Kate Bowman Johnston is Student Activities Coordinator at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Mich.

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