When I got married last October, all I heard were variants of “This is your day. It’s all about you.” These messages made me uncomfortable, both because they promoted entering a weird bridal vortex of solipsism and because, as the wedding drew near, it became clear that this was pretty much entirely untrue. In the best possible way, our wedding wasn’t about us—it was stitched together from what all three sides of our family (two being mine, since my parents are divorced) wanted and valued. It was about honoring thousands of years of Jewish tradition and providing some nachas, the Yiddish term for parental joy, to our parents, grandparents, and other assorted relatives and guests. The most basic parental dictum we heeded was no shellfish and no meat to meet my parents’ dietary restrictions, even though neither my husband nor I keep kosher or are vegetarians. If I had my druthers, might I have wanted a raw bar and beef short ribs as the entrée? Probably. But I decided to cut my losses on that one, and never regretted it.
In many pockets of 21st-century America, the idea of the wedding as something communal is anathema—a relic from a bygone era or the realm of the devoutly religious. Nuptials today are defined by your Pinterest board, of which there are a multiplying number of wedding-related ones, three-day destination extravaganzas, and $200 spoons from Michael C. Fina. So, many American weddings have evolved into a fixation with material details, trials of abject devotion by members of the wedding party, and resigned acceptance of bridal crusades for perfection that threaten to crush all in their path. Because, well, you deserve it—it’s your day.
Now we have exported our unique brand of the “me, me, me” consumer-driven wedding-mania outside our borders. My counterparts in China, those born in the 1980s, are spending extravagantly on their weddings, of which there are 10 million every year. Lavish wedding celebrations in China, which can easily cost more than their grandparents made in a lifetime—the average middle-class Chinese wedding costs $12,000, the amount of disposable income a family in Beijing, Shanghai, and Shenzhen has to spend in a year—are becoming increasingly popular. No wonder the wedding industry in China is growing by 20 percent a year and was valued at $57 billion, according to Ad Age, surpassing the $40 billion U.S. market. Hu Lu, a wedding planner in China, told The Guardian in 2011, “Every bride wants to be princess Snow White when they get married.”
In South Korea, China’s neighbor to the east, the average cost for a wedding in 2011 rose about 270 percent from 1999, according to Reuters, with total costs outstripping the average annual household income of $42,400. In other rising superpowers, like Brazil, the spending is also running amuck. Clarissa Rezende, founder of Clarissa Rezende: Ideas to Bloom, a high-end event-planning firm in São Paulo, says the average luxury wedding she works on in Brazil now costs between $500,000 and $1 million. “Many of my clients come to the U.S. to buy their dress. All brides have the dream of being a princess,” says Rezende. I wonder where the Chinese and Brazilians got that idea from?
Now, as we export the bridezilla phenomenon abroad, what messages—beyond just buying more and more expensive things—are we really sending? (Hint: it’s more insidious than shopping.) Is there any pulling back from the edge of this insanity?
Peggy Olson or Don Draper couldn’t have conceived a better marketing slogan than ‘This is your day.’
It’s important to remember that it hasn’t always been this way. “Not so long ago, marriage was the way that we recognized young people as fully adult participants in a larger religious, civic, and familial community,” says Kay Hymowitz, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and author of Manning Up: How the Rise of Women Has Turned Men Into Boys. “Today, marriage is a status capstone; it celebrates the glamorous bride’s bobo achievements, which includes a loving relationship. (Oh yes, and the groom’s too.)” To be sure, Americans aren’t the first to focus on materialism or status when it comes to weddings: in India, there has long been the tradition of dowries, but now they just come in the form of an Aston Martin or a new racing pony instead of a flock of goats. But in the U.S. we have taken the wedding materialism and layered on it a sheet of narcissism and self-centeredness, messages that certainly resonate in a country already prone to rugged individualism.
It’s no accident that the culture of catering to the bride has fueled the burgeoning wedding industry, and vice versa. Peggy Olson or Don Draper couldn’t have conceived a better marketing slogan than “This is your day”—the kind of tagline that so deeply, and reliably, influences consumer behavior. That simple phrase alone drives the billion-dollar wedding industry, pushing the cost of the average wedding in the U.S. in 2012 to $28,427, according to TheKnot.com.
Marketers, both here and overseas, have tapped into the deep, yet somewhat obvious, psychology: if you make it about the bride—and most of the messaging, as retro as it is, does target the woman—and her wildest cinematic dreams of being the perfect princess to her white knight, there is no telling how many thousands of dollars she will spend on a dress and filling mason jars with hand-cut flowers that were grown by their florist in their own special plot of land. Tell her, however, “A wedding is about the merging of two families and cementing closer ties with your community,” and you can practically hear everyone’s wallets closing. This is perhaps how we are different from other countries who have historically thrown huge paloozas to celebrate a wedding; the communal and shared values are emphasized in countries like India, and to a lesser degree, China and Korea. It’s the reason to have a big, blowout wedding—not for you, but for your family—whereas in the U.S. the family and community can often be afterthoughts.
To most Western couples, merging two families sounds like a tribal ritual rather than a marriage blueprint.
But the slick marketing by the wedding industry explains only part of it. The rise of the “me wedding” has as much to do with waning religious affiliation. After all, it’s religious elements that have tempered individualism for centuries. In Judaism, the wedding ceremony talks about “being consecrated to me according to the laws of Moses and Israel”; in other words, joining a 3,000-year tradition. Jews, of course, aren’t the only ones. “The core of the Indian wedding is that you are marrying the family, not just the person. It’s not just about us; it’s about giving every relation something to do,” explains Sunny Uppal, 28, who was married in a traditional Indian wedding ceremony in Toronto last month.
Today, to most Western couples the concept of merging two families sounds like a tribal ritual rather than a marriage blueprint. “In-laws, ugh,” this generation might say. By focusing on our personal preferences we get more wrapped up in what our future mother-in-law is going to wear or say at the wedding than in the bigger picture of what a wedding symbolizes: how you will coexist and interact with your new family for the rest of your life.
The bride- (and groom-) focused insanity is certainly a byproduct of our increasingly individualistic society. Young people are becoming less tied to religious institutions—Pew Research found that today one in four millennials claims no religious affiliation, a record high—introducing a whole new set of values and social mores when it comes to marriage. Nothing signals this more than the wedding officiated by a friend who was ordained as a Universal Life Minister on the Internet a week before, or by couples writing their own vows, another hallmark of the “I need to express myself” wedding. But in deviating from an organized, shared tradition, “the vows people write on their own have become a little odd to listen to,” says Naomi Schaefer Riley, author of Till Faith Do Us Part: How Interfaith Marriage Is Transforming America. “They’ll list all the things they’ll promise they’ll do, like you’ll promise to listen without judging. These people aren’t being realistic about marriage.”
What’s so wrong with adding your own individual flavor and script? It’s your wedding, after all. And who wants to recite words that were written thousands of years ago and seemingly have little or no relevance today? All fair points, but there can be a communal spirit that gets lost with homegrown vows, says Riley.
“I think religious ceremonies have a sense of context and why people did this in the past, Riley mused to me. “It forces you to think about the people who came before you and the people who are no longer with us. It puts the wedding into a context and gives you a sense of perspective that this is not Cinderella’s ball.”
Is the feeling of ‘It’s my day’ really an excuse to insist on having it your way, a sort of childhood last hurrah?
To be sure, not everyone is going to have a religious ceremony, nor should they, but I wondered if there’s something young people could learn from more traditional, dare I even say, religious ceremonies? Brooklyn-based writer Ester Bloom wrote about going to the mikvah, a traditional ritual bath taken by brides, before her wedding even though she was by no means Orthodox. But she found that “the idea of a ritual to help me calm down and focus on what I was about to do seemed appealing.”
Perhaps the patina of selfishness that is seemingly justified in the moment by the feeling of “It’s my day” is really an excuse to insist on having it your way, a sort of childhood last hurrah. And who wouldn’t want a last go-around with unrepentant, puerile me-centrism? But if we believe that marriage is a step toward full adulthood—and that adulthood is a developmental stage defined by becoming less self-centered—shouldn’t the messaging surrounding the wedding reflect that? Why are our values about marriage, chief among which is compromise, and the “my way or the highway” values of the wedding so in tension? No wonder so many brides talk about post-wedding depression. It’s the cold, hard shock of the “post-me” marriage setting in.
THE GOOD news is that there is an alternative. For us post-religious Americans (and those in China and Brazil who are just getting their first whiff of Western wedding mania), awareness may come slowly, but it does seem graspable. Thinking of the wedding from the parents’ perspective is one way to snap out of our collective me-wedding groupthink. Just ask John Dickerson, an editor at Slate.com, who recently wrote about how he didn’t let his parents invite their friends to his wedding. “This isn’t about you, we thought, it’s about us,” he wrote. Seventeen years later, he regrets it and penned a mea culpa—a call to arms for future brides and grooms to “grow up and deal with it” and let their parents have their way with the guest list. Dickerson’s flip on the issue came while thinking about his own son’s wedding, even though the boy is 10 years old. Dickerson hopes his son will do as he says and not as he did. As Dickerson thought about future generations and what a wedding is really about, a public affirmation of love, he came around to the vision of the wedding that wasn’t just about him and his bride. “What we didn’t understand was that allowing our parents to invite their friends was a celebration of continuity and the communal purpose of matrimony we were trying to create ourselves. It’s also the generous thing to do.”
Thinking from the parents’ perspective is one way to snap out of our collective me-wedding groupthink.
My own realization that my wedding wasn’t about me came later, but not as late as Dickerson’s; sadly, it was due in part to personal tragedy. For me, I hemmed and hawed about having my dad walk me down the aisle. I wasn’t sure if he deserved to do it because of old wounds and scars and feeling torn between my dad and my stepfather, with whom I am very close. There were some ugly and heated conversations. While I might have had legitimate grievances, I lost sight of what I would be denying my dad, with whom I had a good relationship as an adult: the opportunity to walk his daughter down the aisle. A compromise was eventually reached. He and my mom would walk me halfway down the aisle, and my stepfather and my mom the rest of the way to the chuppah. When I looked at him beaming at the wedding, I couldn’t imagine not having him at my side. The idea of being so punishing, even if I might have felt justified in my reasoning, suddenly, in the moment of the wedding, seemed unfathomable. What was I thinking? Certainly not about the future and what that slight might have done to our relationship, about how it would have made my dad’s side of the family feel, and the general bad taste it would have left about what was supposed to be such a joyous event and moment in all of our lives. All my dad would have remembered about the wedding was that he was denied the urge that is practically primal among parents: walking your child down the aisle.
A little over a year later, this past January, my dad was killed in a motorcycle accident, just 21 days shy of his 60th birthday. While the potential for future loss shouldn’t necessarily dictate how to live one’s life, there are circumstances when taking the big-picture approach can give clarity to what really counts.
So I say this: let your dad give a toast, even if you know it’s going to be rambling and off-color; dance with your mom; indulge your spouse, as my husband did for me and agreed to be lifted up in a chair and bounced up and down, even though he found it to be a spectacle. Because, ultimately, it’s not about you.