My friend’s recent confession that her wedding would be bridesmaid-free came as a relief: there’s no need to force our friends into a tradition of sameness
Recently, a dear friend announced her engagement. We toasted and feted and made happy noises about her soon-to-be-husband’s fantastic choice in a mate. Later, though, she took me aside, hushed and confidential. “I don’t want you to feel hurt by this,” she said. “You’re my best friend, my person.” I watched her in fear; what was she about to tell me? “I’m not going to have any bridesmaids,” she finally concluded, forehead knit, prepared for me to break. Impending weddings can put a totally reasonable person on edge, sometimes.
I smiled and hugged her and took a big swig of whatever I happened to be drinking, then breathed my own sigh of relief. “You’re my person too,” I said. “And this is the best present you could give me.”
You might say I have a few problems with the bridesmaid tradition.
I’ve been to a lot of weddings – so many that I wrote a book about attending them. And I’ve been a bridesmaid a couple of times: once, in a pale blue J Crew strapless dress, clutching a bouquet of wildflowers, walking bravely down the aisle as my heels stuck into the soft earth; the next time, as the maid of honor, wearing a brown sateen gown with a rhinestone belt, witnessing the marriage of my very best friend from childhood. At both occasions, which took place in my twenties, this seemed a lovely thing to do. Clad in an outfit and shoes and perhaps even a hairdo that matched someone else’s, I would support my marrying friend; I would take on an array of organizational and secretarial and stylist and personal shopper and party-planning and therapist duties, whatever the books said I should do, because I was a woman and women are supposed to drop everything else to support each other in this primordial, primary thing, this getting married.
Yes, I would thrill to spend whatever it is I had to spend (of late: an average of $1,178–$1,466 per wedding), to travel across the country, to use my vacation days, to throw a shower, to buy the right clothes. Because I was a bridesmaid, and she was a bride, and this comes around only so often, and someday it would be my turn, right?
By my thirties, something had changed in my bridesmaid worldview. Perhaps it’s that I found out that in ancient times, bridesmaids dressed identically to the bride to ward off evil spirits hellbent on tearing the happy couple apart. (Kind of makes those matching David’s Bridal sheaths feel a little eerie, huh?) As an added bonus, that was a time of “marriage by capture”, and all those similar-looking ladies helped to confuse dimwitted former suitors who might try to steal the bride at her own wedding.
Or maybe it’s that I realized that as women get married later and later (which, happily, correlates with lower divorce rates), it seems increasingly odd to have a host of women dressed alike all standing next to you. Who has that many friends, anyway? It’s not a cheerleading competition, it’s a wedding. We are all precious snowflakes, not matching maids in waiting.
But most of all, I’ve come to see the bridesmaid tradition as just one more example of the way that women are packaged and primped and codified by society. We are expected to look a certain way (the same), and behave a certain way (like “ladies” or “maids”), and to put marriage above all else in terms of our ultimate, expected goals. So what if we are, in our actual lives, lawyers or professors of philosophy or emergency room doctors or writers? No matter. When a wedding comes around, whether it’s ours or our best friend’s, we are expected to force our actualized, individualized friendships and personas into a rut of sameness. Because it’s “tradition”. Because, somehow, we keep agreeing to it. Because someday it will be our turn, and we’ll want this, too – or will we?
I loved being part of my friends’ important days, and I hope to be a part of still more. I’ve also learned in a lifetime of wedding-going that just like you don’t have to get married to be happy, you don’t have to be a bridesmaid to be a good friend. There’s plenty you can do to celebrate someone who’s getting married, whether those things come under the traditional role of “bridesmaid” or not. Use your own skills, the reasons you’re friends in the first place: give savvy advice while dress shopping, write a heartwarming speech, tell wry jokes and make her laugh about her ridiculous in-laws, make sure there are plenty of singles for the strippers at the bachelorette party. On the reverse side, if you’re a bride, you can give your friends a gift, too: tell them to wear whatever they like, to come and be not a clan of bridesmaids but themselves. After all, it’s not the title that matters, it’s the friendship. And in 2016, who in the world wants to be called a maid?
This article was written by Jen Doll, for theguardian.com on Sunday 3rd April 2016 12.45 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010