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I was once demoted from maid of honor to bridesmaid after taking too long to plan the bride’s bachelorette party.
Jessica and I were coworkers at a publishing company where we shared a cubicle wall. We made our long hours bearable by scribbling handwritten notes to each other, which we filled with code names for annoying coworkers and unflattering cartoons of our boss. Lunch breaks were spent divulging our romantic relationships: Mine repeatedly failed, while Jessica was swept up in a whirlwind affair with the IT guy.
When Jessica asked me to be her maid of honor at their wedding, I had recently quit my job. I was a broke 20-something who had barely even been to a wedding, much less stood up in one. Jessica assumed the maid of honor role was a coveted position, but I hardly had time to eat, let alone securing a bachelorette party venue and matching shirts for 15 women I didn’t know.
News of my downgrade came in an email three weeks before her big day. Instead of relieving Jessica of her bouquet at the altar, I clenched mine, along with a tight smile, from the back of the bridesmaid line. Hurt and embarrassed, I didn’t reach out to her after her honeymoon, and ultimately, she stopped talking to me. That was 2010, and I haven’t seen her since.
Even though I live for heartfelt speeches, dancing, and tearing up as my cherished friends walk down the aisle, I believe the patriarchal, heteronormative rituals that are bridesmaid culture set friendships up to fail. As we emerge from a pandemic as changed people, there has never been a better time to leave these traditions behind.
In movies bridesmaids are often one dimensional. They live vicariously through the bride, gleefully centering their entire lives around her upcoming nuptials. They don’t seem to mind spending a year’s worth of student loan payments on elaborate parties and dresses they’ll never wear again, or countless hours of their lives curating showers and parties and crafting bespoke wedding decorations. (As if women don’t already take on enough unpaid labor!)
The average bridesmaid can expect to pay $1,200 per wedding. And although women only earn 82.3 cents on the dollar, compared to men, we spend disproportionately more money and time on our friends’ nuptials than they do.
In the past 15 months, our relationships have undergone emotional reckonings. A study conducted in the UK reveals that friendships deteriorated among 22 percent of people, mostly young adults, during lockdown. Think-pieces have proliferated about our widespread loss of casual relationships and our deepening of tighter circles. As we emerge from the pandemic with new senses of self and fresh approaches to our friendships, we shouldn’t—we can’t—return to the way things were.
I believe we have a choice: Carry on with weddings as we’ve known them, possibly sewing resentment among the precious friends we have left, or throw traditional bridesmaid culture out the window.
Let’s be real about why many of us buy into traditional wedding excesses in the first place. It’s not just to celebrate love; it’s about publicly proclaiming who we are—the money we’re able to pony up, how hard we’ve worked to look good in our dress, the beautiful friends we have. From the photos we can’t wait to splash across the internet to the care we take to impress guests, we tend to treat weddings as opportunities to openly telegraph our values, our personas, and our tribes.
Weddings, which originated from the dowry system (and still retain certain holdovers from it), have morphed into a kind of consumerist utopia, where financial sacrifices are now conflated with friendship. The multi-billion-dollar wedding industry puts pressure on the bride and her friends to cultivate the event planning skills and design sensibilities of professionals and makes us feel like we should be more concerned about pulling together an aesthetic we can showcase to the world than tending to our relationships.
I’m not here to tell you not to have an indulgent, over the top celebration—those can be the best kind!—but to dare to think critically about what you’re asking of those near and dear to you when you do in the process.
Here’s one small way you can make things easier on your bridesmaids: If you choose to stick with a predetermined aesthetic, why not encourage bridesmaids to save money and lease their gowns the way groomsmen do with tuxedos? The average cost of a bridal party dress is $200—a ridiculous sum for a one-time use. So instead of asking friends to fork over two weeks’ worth of groceries so they can match like Crayolas, utilize services like Rent the Runway, Bloomingdales, or other platforms and retailers that have wardrobes you can wear and return.
To see how we’ve got it wrong, look no further than the other side of the aisle. Groomsmen throw bachelor parties and usher in guests, but there are typically no showers for them to host and no handcrafted decorations for them to labor over. We don’t require them to wake up at 6 a.m. the morning of the wedding so they can be airbrushed with foundation and locate missing centerpieces. All I had to do during my one-time stint as a grooms-woman was stuff my face with barbecue at the bachelor party and show up for the big day in a modestly priced department store dress. No one weighed my worthiness as a friend against my willingness to serve as the groom’s personal assistant for weeks on end.
Bridal magazines love to remind us that “you can always say no!” before launching into the laundry list of a bridesmaid’s potential expenses and obligations, and that’s a great point. But how about not putting your friends in that awkward position in the first place? Set your expectations with your friends’ financial limitations and schedules in mind.
Together we can squash bridesmaid culture as we know it, and honor those who support us while we revel in our own, glorious love.
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