Having a wedding as a critical feminist psychology researcher is no easy feat. Getting married to a heterosexual, cis-gender man, as a cis-gender woman who generally identifies as heterosexual sometimes makes me feel a bit like I am making an active concession to the patriarchy and wrapping it up in a very large, Cinderella-esque ballgown. In an “all your faves are problematic” kind of way, getting engaged with the process of planning a wedding has brought me moments of joy and moments of wondering “why would I care about THAT?”
I want to make a few things clear from the outset:
I love my fiancé deeply and I am excited to spend our lives together (this hardly needs to be said if you take so much as a passing glance at my Instagram, but there you have it).
There are things that I don’t personally care about related to my wedding that many other people likely do care about. I am a big fan of the Bridechilla podcast, and one of the main ethos embodied in the Bridechilla community is that what works for one person might be a “fuck it bucket” item for another. So no shade if you care a lot about procuring customized “koozies” or are having a specialized scent made for your big day.
Feminism means different things to different people. While we can, of course, trace the lineage of feminism and explore its “waves” or currents, feminism in its enacted sense is often a deeply personal—and of course situationally and contextually mediated—experience. What I experience as empowering may not be for others; this is also tied to my other spaces of privilege. As a white woman, as a woman with socioeconomic and educational privilege, as a woman who generally benefits from able-bodied privilege, I’m sure there are shades of the experience of getting married that are different for me and “choices” that I can claim as feminist that others might not see that way. Equally, just because people do things in a more normative way than I’ve done does not necessarily mean they are not being feminist or “doing feminism right.” It is not my right to judge you for making choices that are different from those I have made. I can’t ever fully understand the full set of social, cultural, and embodied circumstances that make up your lived experience—and that is a part of my feminism.
I proposed to my fiancé, Alex, in October 2018. We had been together for 3 years at the time and had often discussed marriage and what it meant to us. I’d defended my PhD in June of the same year; Alex had known me during some of the most challenging years in my professional life to date, and a part of my decision to propose was to gesture at my emerging sense of work-life balance and readiness to take a step toward envisioning a life that was more than just work.
In fact, our relationship has been instrumental in my developing ability to recognize that I can be passionate about my work and simultaneously interested in other things—like trips that have nothing to do with conferencing, like reading fiction books side by side in bed before falling asleep, like family gatherings that I’d previously have skipped out on, like deep chats about something *other* than eating disorders, weight stigma, and anti-diet perspectives—like life beyond the Ivory tower. This isn’t to say that I don’t sometimes work past 9, wake up in the middle of the night with anxiety about a tiny error in a paper under review, or spend time obsessing about finding just the right theories to scaffold my work. But over the past nearly 4 years now, I’ve been re-orienting to the factors in my life that make it meaningful in personal, as well as professional, ways.
So, getting engaged was one part of this open and ongoing journey toward seeing my life as being more than my worth as a productive citizen. Oh, and expressing my love and gratitude for a man who has been there for me every step of the way and who I’ve worked through challenges and joys with.
Alex and I had always said we would like to propose to each other—to give each of us the opportunity to be on the proposing and the receiving side. I imagined that Alex, a meticulous and organized man who likes to plan things out, would take a few months before proposing back, so I settled into our quiet half engagement. To my surprise, a week later, he got down on one knee while we were on a hiking trip to the Adirondacks in upstate New York. We have been wearing our silicone engagement bands since.
And then, the wedding beast was released.
Broekhuizen & Evans (2016) describe the advent of the particular brand of wedding culture we are seeing in contemporary Western culture “as a globally marketed spectacle that puts the bridal bodily performance under high surveillance and scrutiny” (p. 335). They use the lens of postfeminism (Gill, 2007; McRobbie, 2009) to explore weddings and the collision between consumerism, body focus, and essentialization of gender differences that gets enacted in the wedding vortex. This article fascinated me as I read through, taking in the content from my lens as “bride-to-be” (I term I find at once irritating and compelling in turns and even at once). I’ve struggled to reconcile my collusion with the wedding industrial complex with my feminism and my commitment to a conceptualization of love that sees it as always in process and in becoming, rather than fixed or achieved (I’ve loved reading bell hooks on the topic of love—seriously, amazing).
The minute we announced our engagement, people were: a) a little confused about why Alex was already wearing a ring; b) asking us when, where, how, and who; c) deferring all decisions to me. I found this last piece fascinating. The assumption that I would care more about the details was particularly interesting as I have never expressed a particular aptitude for event planning, leading me to believe that the direction of questioning must be linked to something other than my proclivity toward putting together a smashing gathering. Can I say with absolute certainty that the direction of questions was due to me being a woman? No, I can’t—I do have a reputation for being a bit … thorough… in everything that I do. However, it was interesting to me how little people assumed Alex would care about certain things, such as flowers, colours, and venue, when these were pieces that he *did* care about!
As I browsed wedding sites and listened to wedding podcasts, I was surprised to find how even in 2019 in Canada, some vendors still do not support non-heterosexual weddings. I was shocked by the gender essentialism at every turn. I know that this shock represents my naiveté and my privilege; these aspects would likely not be shocking to those who encounter hetero and cissexism every day. The wedding industry is home to both incredibly open and very narrow-minded folks; it appears, from my very loose and un-systematic review, to be one of those areas in which we can see broader social discourses crystallizing around… well… crystals and frippery.
In addition to the gendered strangeness, I was struck by the body focus—which I’ve since learned has been a focus of several academic studies. For a brief moment, the researcher in me was struck with the desire to take on a research project on this subject; I then remembered that I was finishing up a post doc, planning a wedding and moving around the world three weeks after the wedding and decided to hit pause on that. Nonetheless, my un-confirmed read of the space and emotional connection to the subject leads me to the conclusion that weddings and body shame are intricately tied together. This seems like an obvious statement; a quick browse of wedding forums or the hashtag #SweatingForTheWedding will reveal a veritable cornucopia of folks ashamed of their bodies and wanting to change them to be what is termed the “ideal” wedding body. Writers like Lindy West, Kaye Toal, Kelsey Miller and others have compellingly written and spoken about getting married in bodies that don’t fit the extremely narrow ideas that we hold in this messed up world about bodies. Rebecca Anger also recently wrote about the need for more disability representation in the wedding industry. And still, the amount of guilt and shame that oozes off bridal forums is enough to make a body image researcher throw up their hands in despair—not in any anger at those who are experiencing body shame, but at the cultural dumbfuckery that presumes that any body that doesn’t resemble Scarlett O’Hara’s is somehow wrong.
At times, it was hard to not get caught up in the body shame. For me, my internalized fatphobia has often swirled around the future, likely as I grew up in a body that is of a “socially acceptable” size and observed the weight stigma all around me, leading me to worry that “I would get fat” if I “let myself go.” It is important to note that I hold this anti-fat bias within me, because a lot of my research and activism revolves around a central principle of wanting people to be made welcome in a world that is presently harmful for so many. I could pretend that I “don’t have” internalized fatphobia or that I am always at peace with my body, but that just is not true—I fight these tendencies more or less actively all the time. Just because I do this work does not make me immune. My fundamental belief is that all bodies are good bodies and deserve basic human rights—and a glorious wedding, for that matter, if that is something they want!—AND, it is sometimes hard for me to feel that way about my own body, in spite of its privileges.
Thus, navigating the toxic soup of wedding body discourse has not always been a walk in the park. Despite having the privilege to purchase a sample dress right from the shop, despite the surprising lack of body talk at the dress shop (again, possibly related to my body privilege), despite my fiancé’s unabashed love for my body and—more importantly—my worth beyond my body, and despite the fact that my body has rarely wavered from its set point range over the past 15 years, I fought desires to revert to behaviours I know don’t serve me well. And that is bullshit. More than ever, I’m coming through this experience with a knowledge of how diet culture is alive and well, and that there is a strong need to change the conversation around weddings and bodies to move beyond an illusory vision of what “perfection” might be.
Given all of the challenges of planning a wedding, from reconciling the frippery with the feminism to staying true to my body’s needs and fighting the pressures more broadly, you might be wondering why I’m doing this at all. I also wondered this throughout the process. The why resides primarily in two things: 1. The fact that never once throughout this process have I questioned the decision to get married to this man and 2. The opportunity to celebrate our love with people who we love.
Ultimately, the number one reason we are getting married is because we love each other, and we want to celebrate that with people. That sounds so basic when I write it down, but it is the truth. Particularly as we are moving around the world—though we didn’t know that when we started planning—the wedding provides us with a moment to get together with people in our lives who’ve been there for us over the years and, as Alex put it in a note to his groomspeople, “dance our faces off.”
So here I am, nine days before my wedding. My body is in a bit of a revolt and I’ve got more crafts strewn around my living room than I thought was humanly possible. And despite all of the challenges and the weirdness of weddings, I’m really excited to proclaim my love for this amazing human being in front of 100 people next week.
Broekhuizen, F. & Evans, A. (2016) Pain, pleasure and bridal beauty: mapping postfeminist bridal perfection. Journal of Gender Studies, 26(3), 336-348.
Gill, R. (2007). Postfeminist media culture: Elements of a sensibility. European Journal of Cultural Studies, 10(2), 147–166.
McRobbie, A. (2009). The aftermath of feminism: Gender, culture and social change. Thousand Oaks, CA, : Sage Publications Ltd.