Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Why write about weddings?

I was quite surprised that nobody asked me how writing about wedding planning fit into the broader mission of this blog. Why write about wedding planning on a blog called “Sex Ed Transforms,” created to promote transformative sexuality education for adolescents and young adults? The more I think about this question and reflect on the process, the more reasons there are. I’ll explain three of those reasons here.

1. For the teenagers.
Marriage is one of the organizing principles of sex education in our public schools. Abstinence Only until Marriage programs teach that sex and sexuality are only legitimate in the context of marriage. On its own, this concept means that sex is framed in the context of these traditional gender roles and capitalist pressures that accompany weddings and marriages. Even teenagers lucky enough to receive comprehensive sexuality education that focuses on how to form healthy relationships at any age are still exposed to the media. In magazines, TV shows, and movies, marriage is the ultimate point of reference for romance. And weddings are the climax of romance, the height of the love and drama. Not only does this perpetuate the idealization of weddings as perfect and beautiful, but it also fails to teach anything about healthy and happy marriages. If weddings are the height of romance, then what comes next? Rather than learning the skills they need to have healthy, pleasurable, and fulfilling relationships at any age and with any shape or size of religious, legal, or private commitment, teenagers are instead learning that they must get married and enter into this specific kind of relationship or else they will never have legitimate sex and they will never get to live out their dreams of true love. Which everyone should want. And if they don’t, they’re missing out on something that they should want even if they don’t want it.

2. For us, the young adults in our 20s and 30s.
Young adulthood, in our society, is stereotypically framed by the achievement of certain milestones that mark the transition from being a kid to having kids, including launching a career, getting married, and, well, having kids. In reality, however, so many young adults enjoy such varied paths, which can result in much success and happiness. It’s said that today’s young adults are more likely to explore multiple careers in their lifetime, to live with a partner without plans of marriage, and perhaps to choose not to have children. Unusual paths are becoming more, well, usual. Why, then, is marriage still this ultimate point of reference? Even for young adults who don’t get married, the weddings of their friends and siblings mark the calendar year with showers, bachelor/ette parties, and the big days themselves. The culture of weddings thus becomes an intricate part of the culture of young adulthood. The involvement of friends and family in the wedding process is also seeped in both patriarchy and materialism, perpetuating unhealthy gender roles for men and women. Although I didn’t write a lot about these particular influences on friends and family, I just need to say that it’s not only about the bride, it’s about how weddings are embedded in the broader culture and thus create problematic and, at times, quite detrimental gendered and classed power dynamics.

3. For the children. Do it for the children.
I’ll keep this simple. My thought is just that if wedding and marriage are drowning in patriarchy and capitalism, and people who marry later go on to have children, the messages sent to the couple about what marriage should be like and what they should care about are going to trickle into the foundation of their relationship. That, in turn, will affect the environment in which the children are raised and the implicit and explicit messages the children receive, thus perpetuating the patriarchy and burying us deeper and deeper in sexism.

All I’m saying is, all of this wedding stuff I wrote about does not just affect me as a bride. It affects our whole society and everybody in it. Another thing to consider is that most young brides are doing it for their first time. And after they do it once, they often don’t get a second chance any time soon, so the industry gets to remain very stagnant, constantly getting new clients without having to woo old clients back again. And that’s part of the reason I decided to speak up and say something. I don’t plan on having another wedding, but I do plan on sticking around and engaging in this society for a while more, and I think all of this stuff is still going to matter even now that my wedding is over. So, nobody asked, but these are my reasons. Now I’m asking you, what should we do about it?

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

The Detriment of Internalized Femininity

Planning that wedding woke me up. In addition to the wonderful sense of joy and community (and there was so much of that), I also experienced moments of deep despair, helplessness, and fear, in ways I never had before. But at none of these times was I unable to understand from where these emotions were coming. I knew.

Planning a wedding revealed to me places within myself still very much under the influence of patriarchal sexism. While working on my master’s thesis during this period, I came across Emily Impett and colleagues’ breakdown of femininity ideology (2006), in which they looked at how girls internalize the dominant messages in our society about how girls and women should behave. They breaks down femininity ideology into two pieces: body objectification and inauthenticity in relationships. Planning a wedding revealed to me in such a magnified and concise way how I am still affected by both of these elements.

Body objectification is perhaps the more obvious element, based on what I have written here so far. The entire wedding culture is premised on the idea that a bride will be utterly focused on losing weight and/or keeping her “figure.” As much as one year before the wedding someone commented that I must have turned down her offer of food because, she said, “you have a dress to fit into.” But body objectification isn’t about what other people say, rather, it’s about the internalization of these messages. It’s about how these ideas can creep into my own thoughts and twist and turn the way I feel about myself. Suddenly there was this whole element of the wedding that I had not anticipated, and that element was me, a specter of myself, sitting in the corner, looking at myself as a bride and judging whether or not I looked skinny enough, beautiful enough, bridal enough. I think this element has been re-triggered this week because we got the professional photos back, and I was so nervous to look at them. I was nervous not because I thought they would be bad or I thought I wouldn’t enjoy looking at them, but rather because ever since the wedding I had been able to dismiss those cries of self-objectification. Looking at pictures of oneself, it is hard not to ask oneself, “Am I beautiful?” However, one thing I can say happily and proudly is that on the day of the wedding, all my prep paid off, and I felt present and engaged, very much not the self-conscious wreck about which I had been so concerned. And that paid off when I then looked at the pictures – I look so ecstatic, both mouth and eyes wide open in almost every picture, and nothing else matters. Nothing besides that ecstasy, those looks of joy. Right?

Inauthenticity in relationships. Now this one is a little harder to explain, and I don’t think I wrote about it as much at the time. This concept is based on the idea that females are taught to be the ones to smooth things over, to make things better, to make things work. That girls and women are supposed to avoiding standing up for themselves, not speak up for what they want and need, and not cause problems. Being socialized in such a way strongly affects one’s relationships with others, in which assertive communication and clear expression of one’s thoughts and feelings help strengthen relationships and help individuals get their needs met. I had been working already on developing these skills and, in various capacities, teaching others these skills. But maybe this whole wedding planning challenge was just too much too soon. Planning a wedding involves so many different aspects, and so many details, and so many decisions that I did actually have feelings about (in addition to many I didn’t). I didn’t realize early enough how important it was going to be for me to speak up, express what I felt and what I didn’t feel, articulate my wants and needs, and assertively negotiate with my partner, our parents, and our friends. Most of all, I was not very practiced in this process and so, I am afraid, often I did not do it so nicely. Often panic, frustration, and inarticulate tears would seize me. Sometimes I would just say too little, too late. Sometimes I said nothing at all because I was too afraid of the consequences. And sometimes I definitely said too much, and I was too mean. However, sometimes it worked just right, and I owe much to my partner, our parents, and our friends for bearing with me (and each other) and for working through the process together. I learned a lot, and I believe that I experienced a lot of growth not only in my own communication repertoire, but more specifically in opening channels of communication in a few key relationships that I hope will stay strong the rest of my life.

These are just two examples of the ways in which I had to face the effects of sexism and patriarchy on myself, personally, through this process. In addition, as I have written about in other posts, the culture of wedding planning has in itself more elements of patriarchy than I had ever before directly encountered in my lovely, liberal, northeastern American world. The relevance of this process to my work of transforming sex education will be the subject of my next post.