Just over a year ago I found myself in a smart bar on Bermondsey High Street having a final drink at the end of my 29th birthday and I wasn’t all that happy. In the midst of the celebrations my boyfriend got a text from a close friend – he had just got engaged and this news hit a sore point.
I had been with my boy for nearly eight years and although we had talked about marriage, he was downright refusing to allow the conversation to go any further than that. No timescale. No assurances. And hence I found myself starting my thirtieth year on this earth navel gazing into a gin and tonic about my lack of sparkling diamond. Ridiculous of course, especially in light of the subsequent proposal just four weeks later. And shameful in light of the intelligent, independent and wait for it, feminist young woman I had always claimed to be.
Over the course of the following year, my desperation to get married was just one of the many home truths I would have to face as a self confessed feminist who was also planning a wedding.
So, why didn’t I just put myself out of my own misery and ask him? “Oh, that’s easy” I would tell myself, “I’m handing the control over to my boyfriend because proposing is important to him, it’s the sort of thing people in healthy relationships do." Who was I kidding? In truth, I really didn’t want to be the girl who had to propose to her man. Strike two.
So why does someone like me want to get married? I just had a gut instinct that marriage was right for me and right for us. Many friends and colleagues challenged this gut instinct; my arguments were weak and vague. I would mumble something about not always having to intellectualise human relationships and hope the conversation would naturally dwindle. Actually being engaged meant I had to face up to the criticisms.
It was clear that I was never going to promise to obey (who does nowadays?) but what about all the other symbols that equally have their roots very firmly planted in a patriarchal history? My father walking me up the aisle and handing me over to my husband? The veil? The very institution of marriage itself?
So much of being a bride to be I deplored. I had no dreams of being a princess but very few bridal shops seemed willing to accept this. They were convinced that I somehow didn’t have the confidence to embrace the princess vision. I did, however, cave into the pressure to strive for perfection. I dieted; I spent over £400 on make up; my hair took two trips to the stylist. I never felt entirely comfortable with this vanity project and yet never won the battle with my image issues. I still feel a bit uneasy about how I looked.
It wasn’t just the ‘wedding industry’ that raised my heckles. The very discourse around ‘the big day’ seemed odd to me. People no longer asked me about my job or what I was reading or my opinions on politics, current affairs, life in general. No, it was all about the wedding. As an engaged woman, all other aspects of my identity were sidelined.
Once asked, I found myself lured into playing the part of the self-obsessed bride to be. In my defence, it’s a pretty big project and it was on my mind a lot. Especially after our reception venue burnt to the ground!
Having been through the process and come out the other end a newly married woman, I now feel much more able to reply to my critics.
There is something incredibly powerful about bringing together your community and making vows to each other in front of the people who matter most in your lives. After 8 and a half years, getting married was the affirmation of our relationship and a chance to celebrate something good in life. In all sorts of ways that day was about making public the very private: not just the vows but the second reading I trawled my favourite books for; the party playlists of all our favourite music we’d spent months compiling; my husband’s funny, slightly bumbling but heartfelt speech.
These acts have succeeded in bringing us even closer together. But I’m glad I’ve kept my own name: it adds continuity to my identity before and after marriage. Changing felt too much like a statement of ‘ownership’ attached to my new status.
However, in the midst of all this I made some major feminist transgressions. My dad gave me away because he’s been waiting 30 years to walk me up the aisle. Making a political point didn’t seem worth disappointing my father for. I wore a veil (but not over my face) because it meant my low back dress felt more comfortable in church (and, well yeah, it looked cool.) I did these things knowingly, having thought about them carefully and intelligently, determined not to passively accept tradition, safe in the knowledge that whatever decision I made I would have the absolute support of my husband because he has no patriarchal axe to grind. I hope there might be at least some feminist triumph somewhere amongst all that.
Was my wedding day the happiest day of my life? I wouldn’t want to write off ever being that happy again at merely 30. But it was the most significant day of my life, so far. And I sure am glad it’s over.