The Vagenda

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

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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


14 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.

  5. I totally agree with this article although I definitely can’t see myself doing the whole ‘walking up the aisle in a white dress’ thing. I’ve been with my partner since we were both in school and are in our mid twenties now. When people ask us how long we’ve been together I always feel I need to add something stupid about how we’re not one of ‘those’ couples and are very casual and independent of each other. I mean, how ridiculous! I’ve been lucky enough to spend all of my adult life with a person I love and care about and who feels the same for me yet I feel I have to justify myself so people won’t think I’m a bit sad or weird.

    I say whatever makes you happy, go for it!

  6. Hey!

    I LOVE this article — I was in the same place as you a couple years ago. Now I’m a (feminist) wedding photographer and I publish a (feminist) wedding magazine with my friend Liz! Would you mind if we share this article on our facebook? We’re trying to get as many feminist voices out there and keep these conversations going!

    Thanks much!

  7. Carly – Fine by me, but maybe check with the editors? I don’t know how it works!

    Thanks everyone for the positive comments


  8. Congrats!! I felt exactly the same when I got engaged. After the initial thrill and excitement I started thinking to myself, oh god Im going to end up in a 3 bed semi with 2 kids and a people carrier (which is absolutely fine by the way, just not for me!) And like you I realised we would make the marriage work for us and not be defined by the popular ideal of marriage. Two years on we havent set a date and dont intend to for a while, we are setting our own pace for our engagement and life together.

  9. I married last year at 26 and took my husband’s name. I didn’t anticipate how utterly, hopefully ambivalent about my surname I was until we came back from our honeymoon (Magaluf, long story) and realised that, actually, when I really reflected on the decision sensibly and objectively, there is absolutely NO reason for a lass to take her fellow’s name. I kind of get the sharing your kids name, but (sensibly, objectively) why does Mr’s lineage take precedence over Mrs’s? It really doesn’t, or shouldn’t. At this point you’re saying “but you took his name, love!”
    Yup. I was agonisingly on the fence. Objectively, there was no reason at all to take his name. Apart from it is tradition. And it took me a few months to admit to myself, yeah ok, I actually kind of get a kick out of being a Mrs because to me, it’s a badge of being loved. Obviously OBVIOUSLY not the only or the most important badge of being loved, but a badge I actually (cringing) wanted to wear. To me, being a feminist sometimes is saying “bloody hell, I guess I do buy into that after all, even with its’ dubious roots”.
    And hey, I’m just trading one bloke’s name for another anyway.

  10. I found my dress in a sample sale and it fit me perfectly – in a “just after holiday” body. Therefore my wedding diet was to not lose any weight and live like I was on holiday. Awesome.

    Wedding world is full of so much utter nonsense, made up traditions and expectations. As the bride you’re supposed to be insane. The groom is supposed to be a bumbling fool. But here’s the secret that no one tells you (from an 18 month-on wife). IT IS ONE DAY. And after – nothing changes. You just get to stop planning a bloody wedding.

    Enjoy it how you want. Don’t let it become anything other than a nice day.

  11. Yeah, I’m also a feminist getting married young (at 24) this summer, and I’ve got really sick of all the bullshittery. I went to get a dress made (cos all the ones in the shops are sparkly and I am not a sparkly person. I also said to the woman in the one my mother forced me to go into “I want to get a dress where I can wear a proper bra” and she was all YOU WON’T GET ONE OF THOSE LOL) and the first thing the – very kind – woman said to me was “How much weight are you going to lose?” and I was like “Er, none?” Also everyone has asked me if I’ll be taking my husband’s name, but no one has asked him if he’s taking mine (we’re taking each other’s). A lot of people have made snidey snidey comments about me and my “best woman” both doing speeches as well, along the lines of “that will be weird” or “OH GOD the speeches will go on FOREVER”. The worst, though, was when I asked mum if she would come with me down the aisle (is it still an aisle in the registry office?) and she said no I had to go with dad alone because otherwise it would be “weird”. Oh yeah and she also made my fiancé ask my dad for permission to marry me, after we had already been engaged like two weeks, and my dad was like … … “If she [me]‘s fine with it, then I’m fine with it”. The whole thing has been overshadowed by my mother’s concern that it won’t be heteronormative enough for her fancypants extended family. Who I am not even inviting. So much bulshiiittt and none of the men have to deal with it. ARGHH. Anyway, all of these words to essentially say, I sympathise.

  12. Wonderful article. I was married in January and grappled with the many issues you list here – except the age thing, I’m 30 so it was (without design) what society deems to be the “right time” for me to be married. Here was how I chose to deal with them:

    1) I spoke at length with the (very lovely and VERY patient) pastor who performed our ceremony and sent several revisions of his sermon to him, where I changed my Dad’s answer to “”Who gives this woman?” to a lovely phrase I read somewhere, which was “She gives herself freely, with our blessing” – I would have had Mum answer too, but she is sadly passed, so the “our” referred to my family in general and Dad was happier with this too, as he himself says he is/was in no position to “give” me to anybody. I also spoke with my in-laws and asked if they would be comfortable to answer the same question about my husband, they weren’t only because they neither of them like public speaking, and preferred to watch on in silence. So we left that out in the end..which was fine.

    2) After discussing with my then-fiancé the name situation, we both agreed to take each others name, so we’re now happily, double-barrelled. The logic behind our mutually agreeable decision was that we were both becoming part of a new family through marriage, as well as starting our own from scratch. Taking one another’s surname symbolised that we feel that we are part of the others’ family (plus my husband now likes his new and more exotic surname, since I am Croatian and have an “ich” name) and also symbolises the coming together of these two lovely families through us as a couple.

    3) Weight loss. Nope, none (except a few pounds which shed of their own accord since I was co-planning a wedding with only 11 weeks notice, and had recently had a promotion which meant I was on the go for roughly 16-18 hours everyday, and burning calories through stress and activity AND to top it off was taking an immuno-suppressant drug to combat the nasty eczema I get on my hands which had the side effect of suppressing my appetite). I took GREAT pleasure in answering the many times repeated and frankly bafflingly presumptuous “oooo you’ve lost weight, have you been on a wedding-diet?” with “errr, no, I’ve lost a few pounds because I am a busy lady and because I am on a medication which causes me to be less hungry.”, particularly when my aunt asked this question, somebody who’s own body confidence is depressingly low and who told me when I was 16 that I was getting fat and should go on a diet, because I went from a size 6 to a size 10 whilst holidaying in the south of France and eating lots of ice cream and crepes. Oh and because, age, and hormones, and growing boobs and stuff. If you want to lose weight go for it, but there should be no pressure on you to do so simply because you are getting married. Wedding dresses are designed to make you look your best, even the most hideously unsuitable for my shape that I tried on, made me feel like a million dollars.

    4) I simply did not buy any magazines. My sister-in-law bought one for me, and I got angrier and angrier through every page I read, finally standing up and throwing the thing in the bin, when I read the sentence “Don’t be afraid to involve your Groom in the planning, he may have some good suggestions for you to consider”. I won’t repeat the words that came out of my mouth on that occasion, as the site doesn’t come with a bleep button. Suffice to say I went into rage-rant mode and spent an hour shouting near (not at, because that would be unfair) the dog, who is a very good listener, and a feminist-dog since we discovered that all puppy-books refer to dogs as “he” and she and I were both very offended at the presumption that all dogs are boys.

    Enjoy your wedding, do it the way that you and your fiancé want to, and don’t listen to the nay-sayers. Choice is a beautiful thing, and when its there we should make the most of it to prove that giving women and men equal choice and equal say results in good things. Oh, and dance. Dance a lot at your wedding. You won’t regret it.

  13. There’s nothing wrong with the women speaking at the wedding. Me, my sister and my best man all made a speech, as well as my husband, my Dad and my husband’s three best men. I just asked everybody to keep it to just a few minutes long so it didn’t go on for too long, and I myself refrained from explaining WHY me and my sister were speaking, I didn’t feel that it had to be justified. My lovely sister did though, in a very proud way, she announced to our guests that she was making a speech because “as we all know, my little sister is a strident feminist, and believes that women should have equal status and equally loud voices, so leading by example she asked if I would make a speech today, and naturally I am proud to do so…”

    And actually, I am glad she did say it, I should have felt able to say it myself without waiting for the eye-rolls and smug smiles from the assembled guests! Hell, it’s my wedding too, and why shouldn’t I get up to say thank you to our parents, family and friends?