"it's my day" … the insane focus on the bride (and groom) is a by-product of our increasingly individualistic society. Photo: Snapper Media
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 the things all three sides of our family (two being mine, since my parents are divorced) wanted and valued. It was about honouring 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.
To most Western couples, the concept of merging two families sounds like a tribal ritual rather than a marriage blueprint.
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.
For many, 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, or three-day destination extravaganzas. Many 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 the Western world has exported our unique brand of the "me, me, me" consumer-driven wedding mania outside its borders. My counterparts in China, 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 couples more than their grandparents made in a lifetime - the average middle-class Chinese wedding costs about $12,000, roughly a year's disposable income for most families - are becoming increasingly popular. No wonder the wedding industry in China is growing by 20 per cent a year and is valued at about $60 billion annually. As 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 other rising economies, like Brazil, the spending is also running amok. Clarissa Rezende, founder of Ideas to Bloom, a high-end event-planning firm in São Paulo, says the average luxury wedding she works on now costs between $500,000 and $1 million. "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?
It's no accident that the culture of catering to the bride has fuelled 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 behaviour. That simple phrase alone drives the billion-dollar wedding industry. (The estimated cost of the average wedding in Australia varies, ranging from IBISWorld's figure of $36,200 to as high as $48,296, according to a Bride to Be magazine survey.)
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 on filling jars with hand-cut flowers 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.
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 3000-year tradition. Jews, of course, aren't the only ones. In other religious cultures, weddings are about marrying the family.
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 symbolises: how you will coexist and interact with your new family for the rest of your life.
The insane focus on the bride (and groom) is certainly a by-product of our increasingly individualistic society. Young people are becoming less tied to religious institutions - 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 organised, shared tradition, "The vows people write on their own have become a little odd to listen to," says author Naomi Schaefer Riley, who writes on religion and culture. "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."
But what's so wrong with adding your own individual flavour 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," she muses. "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."
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-centred - 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. 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 has 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."
My own realisation 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. I'd 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.
I might have had legitimate grievances, but I had 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 mum would walk me halfway down the aisle, and my stepfather and my mum the rest of the way.
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 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, 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 will be rambling and off-colour; dance with your mum; indulge your spouse, as my husband did for me when he agreed to be lifted in a chair and bounced up and down. Because, ultimately, it's not about you.