love is a (feminist) battlefield
Nowhere does the personal become more political (and public) than when a feminist becomes engaged and begins wedding planning. So much of the institution of marriage represents what feminism seeks to challenge. Emily Maguire writes in Princesses & Pornstars that, despite being happily married, if she had her time again she wouldn’t become a wife – ‘sexist, heterosexist and socially conservative, marriage doesn’t have a lot going for it’. I smiled in recognition when I read this, but it didn’t reflect the partnership my future husband and I were entering into.
But I was definitely hesitant about navigating the billion dollar wedding industry. Wedding planning is a black hole with no reference to the real world as you know it; a place where dropping $36,000 on a party (the average wedding spend in Australia) is normal, and petulant behaviour from a “bridezilla” is expected, even encouraged. It’s convenient to blame bridal suppliers and the media, but these expectations are all too frequently reinforced by our friends and family, and even ourselves. So even with the best of intentions and the most progressive fiancé alive, I frequently found it challenging to stay true to my feminist values.
With a mantra of “celebration, not obligation”, our choices made me proud in many ways. I had a sibling, rather than my father, walk me down the aisle; the venue looked amazing thanks to my husband’s love of craft; and we wrote our own vows to avoid all that ‘love, honour and obey’ malarky. Changing my last name was not on the cards, so instead we took each other’s surnames as our new middle names. This raised many eyebrows (and the occasional judgmental line of questioning), but for us it reflected that we were retaining our individual identities, while taking on each other’s cultural heritage and becoming a family.
I was particularly conscious of not turning my wedding into a festival of singles shaming. As a society, we are still deeply uncomfortable with the idea of an attractive woman over the age of 25 not being partnered up. I didn’t want to morph into a “smug married” that made my dearest friends feel inadequate by suggesting that women are only complete once they’ve found their “better half”. There was no naff bouquet toss, and no random singles table at the reception. I also avoided using hackneyed phrases like ‘my big day’ and ‘my special day’ in invitations and the like – well-worn sayings which reflect a fairytale mentality that a wedding day is the pinnacle of achievement in a woman’s life.
Forgoing tradition also had the advantage of saving us some serious coin. When you’re questioning everything about the whole shebang, it becomes obvious how much about a wedding day is unnecessary. Old-fashioned fruit cake for those posed photos? But guests will be full from the delicious desserts. Wedding cars so I can feel like a princess and my husband can indulge in grease monkey fantasies? I can walk a few hundred metres, thanks. As in so many areas, feminism just made good economic sense.
But I sold out spectacularly in other ways. I chose an expensive, traditional wedding dress I only wore once and I went on a pre-wedding diet because ‘those photos are forever’. But what really brought the ridiculousness of it all home to me was when my pre-wedding beauty regime landed me in the emergency department three weeks out from the wedding.
A few weeks beforehand, my skin had started breaking out in angry red patches that wouldn’t go away. Despite reassurances from my fiancé that my skin was fine and I’d look gorgeous no matter what, I spent the GDP of a small country on consultations with a celebrity dermatologist, exorbitant anti-redness creams and finally, a course of antibiotics. A dramatic collapse and an ambulance trip ensued.
Emergency department staff suggested that I’d had a bad reaction to the antibiotics, adding that stress was probably a contributing factor. As we were leaving the hospital, the supervising doctor smiled at me and said, ‘I remember that planning my wedding was more stressful than med school. But I promise, marriage is a lot easier.’ Her sympathy made me want to burst into tears. But I was also embarrassed. In some ways, I was no better than the crazed girls on bridal forums existing on starvation rations and getting breast implants. In losing all sense of perspective and trying to live up to the bridal beauty ideal of radiant, glowing and flawless, I had needlessly put my family through a very scary experience.
Watching my fiancé toss the antibiotics into the hospital bin, I knew it was time to get back to what I had said to everyone at the start of the crazy ride: that the wedding was about celebrating our relationship, and everything else was just the (overpriced) icing on the cake.
In an area with so much cultural baggage, having a feminist wedding will always be difficult to categorise and even more difficult to implement. But by my standard, we succeeded because our wedding absolutely reflected our taste (rather than just mine) and made it obvious that our feminist values hadn’t disappeared the moment he put a ring on it.
Loved your article Helen. Thanks for exploring feminism in a very real context which many people can relate to. I’m guilty of not fully understanding the word myself but once I unpacked it I also realised that feminist values just make sense! I also faced adversary with regard to wedding planning around my newly forming feminist ideals. “You’re keeping your name?!? Oooooooo that’s not very traditional” – well neither is living “in-sin” with your husband to be for 8 years! Ha – the absurd things people say. At least they make for entertaining memories and good blogs!
Such a great read – everything you have said in this article reflects how I felt about my wedding day. Thank-you for expressing your thoughts so articulately.