The Vagenda

My Feminist Engagement (And Why I Won’t Crash Diet to be a Bride)

Screen Shot 2015-02-11 at 16.19.12

I’m 24, I’m a feminist and (shock horror) I’m engaged.

Next summer I will be getting married to my kind, funny, smart best friend, and I could not be happier about that fact.  I’ve known since about a month into our four-year relationship that I want to spend the rest of my life with this lovely human being, and although I was not expecting him to propose (on my birthday, in Paris – I am 100% keeping this man), I can think of no good reason for us not to make this commitment.

Happy as I am, however, several things have been bugging me since we got engaged; none of which are to do with him or our relationship.

The first niggle came within about half an hour of him popping the question. We were sitting in a café with my younger sister (following an impressive jumping up and down session from her), drinking, calling relatives and chatting.  At one point, she declared emphatically “We are going to get SO thin for the wedding”.  The discussion moved swiftly on; but the comment stuck, mostly because the same thought had occurred to me, albeit fleetingly, as I was walking across the Seine with my new fiancé to tell my sister.

It seems to be a given that brides (and often bridesmaids) will lose weight (and desperately want to) for the wedding.  It is a message that is repeated to us so often in the media that it’s been accepted as part of the pre-wedding process.  A quick Google search for ‘pre-wedding diet’ brings up thousands of results for meal plans, exercise plans, quick diets, long diets, celebrities revealing their secret diets. It’s overwhelming and depressing.

I had just found out that the person I respect and love most in the world wanted to spend the rest of his life with me, and, despite being a pretty sensible person most of the time, one of the first things that occurred was me was the thought “I’d better lose some weight.”  Now, there are parts of my body that I don’t completely love, but one of the side effects of a loving relationship is that I am happier in my skin than ever before.  This, however, did not stop such poisonous thoughts sneaking into my brain.

Fortunately for me, I was saved from embarking on any pre-wedding diet by two of the wonderful women in my life: my step-mum and my soon-to-be mother-in-law, both of who banned me from trying to lose any weight (I think partly because everyone who knows me knows that hunger turns me into a demonic being).

I’m not saying that losing weight for your wedding,  if that’s what you want to do, is wrong. However, the fact that the wedding powers that be (aka bridal magazines) assume that looking and feeling beautiful can only be achieved by replacing carbs with cayenne pepper for 6 weeks is highly damaging and symptomatic of the ever-present pressure on women to morph their bodies into particular shapes.

The second, and more profound question to deal with was in relation to my own beliefs.  I am a feminist in that I believe people should be treated equally and have equal opportunities regardless of gender.  I also believe that we have a long, long way to go to reach that point, both in the West and in the rest of the world, and I am conscious of the fact that marriage is often used as a means of controlling and oppressing women.

On the other hand, I think that marriage can be an amazing thing.  It’s not for everyone, its roots aren’t brilliant (women being treated as property, being expected to ‘obey’, wearing white as a sign of virginity…the list goes on) and it often doesn’t work, but when it is a choice made by two people to make a commitment to each other, with all the work that entails, I personally think it’s rather lovely.  So for me there has never been any doubt that I would want to get married, when it was the right time, with the right person.

Once engaged, however, I started to question whether getting married was undermining my feminist beliefs.  Several women I love and admire do not wish to marry, as they believe it’s a patriarchal  leftover.  Were they right? Was I dealing a blow to the battle against the patriarchy?

After a couple of days reading and thinking, I came to the conclusion that marriage is what you choose to make of it. For us, it’s a partnership between equals, and I know that my fiancé, himself a feminist, will continue to respect me, my choices and opinions just as much as he does now.

I have also come to the sad realisation that despite my certainty that I am entering into an equal partnership, getting married will render me ‘less’ of a feminist in some people’s eyes, particularly as I have made decisions such as taking my fiancé’s surname (as a linguist I like the fact that we will be united by a signifier, and coming from a big family I like the idea of us and our kids all having the same name.)

Along with subjects as minor as hair removal (although this is symbolic of bigger issues) and as big as actively protesting outside government buildings for women’s rights, marriage feeds into the increasingly loud debate surrounding ‘how’ feminist you are and whether or not you’re “doing it right”.  This saddens me, as I believe that we are fundamentally all working for the same thing, in whatever way we can, and because women have always been forced into competing by societal pressures.

To start our lives as equal partners, my future husband and I are planning the wedding together, with guidance from our wedding-savvy parents.  The strange thing about modern heterosexual engagements is that brides are still expected to do most of the planning.  A fair few people have been surprised by the fact that we’re dividing the organisation between us, even prompting my fiancé to ask me if I actually wanted him to be involved (one of his many talents is spreadsheet mastery, so only a lunatic would exclude him from any planning-related activity).

Of course, it’ll be different for every couple, but leaving the groom out of the entire process seems a strange way to embark on a life together. I can’t decide if I’m amused or upset by the fact that you can buy books with such spectacularly patronising titles as “A Groom’s Guide: How Not to Ruin your Bride’s Special Day”, and “The Clueless Groom’s Guide: More Than Any Man Should Ever Know About Getting Married”.

The final thing that has been bugging me is the currently popular idea that marrying young is a massive mistake.  Since I changed my Facebook status to ‘Engaged’ (after telling everyone important in person or over the phone, don’t worry), my newsfeed has been cluttered with articles along the lines of “25 reasons not to get married before you’re 25” and “Why being single makes you happier”.

Without going into Facebook’s dodgy targeting, these articles have really been irritating me (I read them just to do a mental checklist of how they don’t apply to me and then shout “You’re wrong” at the screen; maybe Facebook actually knows me far too well).  Again, marriage and monogamy aren’t for everyone, and for many young people getting married probably would be quite a bad plan, but the lack of nuance in the media on the subject is risible.

If an alien species were to judge straight women’s relationships based purely on the media, they’d conclude that they spend their twenties merrily sleeping with as many people as humanly possible, before finding someone worthy of an extreme diet at a suitable point in their early thirties, because after that it just gets desperate.

It would be nice if everyone were left to decide on their own whether or not they want one or one hundred relationships, none at all, to marry young, to marry old, without the media bombarding them with messages about why they’re wrong.

The lesson I have learnt from my month and a bit of engagement is to listen to the people who know and care about you: they act as the perfect antidote to the toxicity of the media.  Or they’ll tell you you’re making a huge mistake, in which case you may want to listen. Or not.  As with marriage, the choice is, and always should be, yours.

- Katy Phillips


4 thoughts on “My Feminist Engagement (And Why I Won’t Crash Diet to be a Bride)

  1. Firstly, congratulations to you and your fiancé!

    The weight loss thing really perplexes me – why would you want to look like a different person on your wedding day? Your step-mum and future MIL sound incredible – how lovely to have such sensible, grounded family members in your life. For what it’s worth, eating mostly fresh food and drinking plenty of water in the run up to your wedding will make you look great in the photos as your skin will be lovely and clear, but to be perfectly honest, if you are happy on your wedding day (and I sense you will be), you will look absolutely stunning anyway.

    With regard to the criticism about marrying young, all I can say is surely you are being A Good Feminist by doing exactly what you want to do, with no external pressure from the patriarchy. yes, marriage does have a problematic history, but as someone who NEVER wanted to get married, but has been married for over 10 years to my best friend, you and your future husband can (and will) make it exactly what you want it to be.

    All the best to you both

  2. Nice article. Your boyfriend could take your name to achieve the same effect of your family all having the same name though… Go on! X

  3. I had this thought recently while watching Don’t Tell the Bride with my housemate. We were genuinely discussing how even when the bride hates the dress her groom has picked out for her on the hanger, she always looks beautiful with it on, and I casually said, ‘ah, it’s because she’s been dieting, though. She’ll look good in anything.’

    After I said that I felt rather thoughtful. I am like you, a proud feminist, but I realised then how ingrained it’s been into me that you have to diet before a big event (and how thin = better). What’s wrong with your own skin? In a small way I despised myself after making that observation.

    I hope you don’t think being married or taking your husband’s name makes you less of a feminist, because I believe no intelligent, grounded feminist who actually knows what the word means would believe that. Feminism is about equality and about choice, and if you choose to have your husband’s name, that’s just part of a tradition that unites a family (even if, like you say, the roots are a little more difficult to mull over). But that’s not what it means today. I had a great debate over whether or not my dad should walk me down the aisle, seeing as he will in no way be handing me over, like property, to my husband – but then I thought of it as merely a tradition that doesn’t have that original meaning any more, and therefore something to be respected if I wish, or ignored if I wish. Choice! It’s great. And when all parties are happy and no one is being treated lesser to anyone else, it’s all gravy.

    Anyway, happy nuptials! You sound like you have some great people in your life and I hope you have a wonderful day and a long and happy life with your best friend.

  4. Like you, I’m engaged and a feminist so can relate to several aspects of this.

    Firstly, the assumption on the part of all wedding suppliers that you, the bride, will make all decisions while your future husband stands haplessly by has annoyed me for ages. God forbid he should want to participate.

    Secondly, there is a slightly uppity perception in some people that your ‘feminist status’ diminishes when you become a wife, which is bullshit. I will still campaign for women’s issues, volunteer – that doesn’t change because I will be legally joined to a man.

    The name-changing point is particularly interesting – a recent article featured here on the Vagenda talked about the writer’s disappointment when women “shuffle off into marriage” and change their name. Lately I got into an argument with a fem friend who said women who change their names are “complicit in years of misogyny”. This judging and policing of women, by women really wearies me. Another friend couldn’t wait to get change her name as it was her father’s, who had abused her mother and played no part of her life and upbringing. Surely that is her choice and no-one else’s business? As you say here, “choice! It’s great”.

    I can understand and respect women who say ”I wouldn’t change my name” (their name, their choice), but not those who censure and belabour other women who choose to do so. It’s an incredibly arrogant standpoint: to condemn every woman who changes her name, when there is no possibility of knowing their individual circumstances and motivations. For the record, I’m keeping mine when I marry, I just think we’d all be better off with less judging.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>