Lots of Americans are getting engaged today. A 2016 American Express report found that a whopping 8 percent of respondents were planning or expecting a proposal on Valentine’s Day. To meet those expectations, businesses offer myriad services, some of which border on the extravagant; one restaurant in Boston, for example, is running a special allowing patrons to get a burger with a side of “til death do us part” — a diamond ring. On few days of the year does our societal fixation on commercialized, commodified manifestations of love come into focus more clearly than it does on Valentine’s Day. Today, everyone is selling us the idea that what we buy for our significant others is indicative of our love for them.
Choreographed deliveries of elaborate gifts and scheduled performances of undying affection can be sweet, and they’re also evidence of how deeply the wedding industrial complex has insinuated itself into the fabric of American culture. It’s not enough to take your partner out for dinner on the so-called most romantic day of the year; we’re encouraged to up the ante by hiding a diamond ring in her food or covering her apartment in rose petals leading to her partner, down on one knee.
All this performative romance can be pricey: The Knot reports that the average engagement ring costs over $6,000 and the average wedding dress costs $1,564. It’s worth interrogating any cultural norm from which people are excluded on the basis of socioeconomic status. That’s especially true when that norm seems to appease vanity and the desire for a perfectly Instagrammable life. Some have argued that the wedding industrial complex appeals to a common desire to be the center of attention, if only for one day; others say the trend toward more elaborate nuptials is driven by a desire to mimic celebrities.
If that’s your understanding of all the hoopla around Valentine’s Day and wedding days, it can be tempting to look down on women who daydream about their ideal engagement ring or spend countless hours finding the perfect wedding dress. It might even feel like taking the moral high ground. But critiques of the wedding industrial complex are too often thinly veiled criticisms of individual women rather than of structural forces or cultural scripts in which we are all implicated. Young women, already popularly imagined as vain millennials, are a convenient target for such critiques; as the average age of a bride in 2016 was 29, young women are indeed the imagined target of this judgment masquerading as social commentary.
The wedding industrial complex centers on young middle-class white women — if you take a look at most wedding magazines, it’s not just the whiteness of the dresses that will stun you — and so too do most critiques of it. People railing against the hegemony and high prices of the wedding industry too often ignore what a wedding and all it entails can mean to women of color and/or poor women. It might sound outrageous that the average wedding in 2016 cost more than $35,000, but that’s not necessarily representative of the modal couple’s wedding budget. In an age of widening wealth gaps and ballooning income inequality, it might seem ridiculous that anyone would spend thousands of dollars on a single day and choose to go into debt to do so. But when we criticize people who regularly make a dollar out of 15 cents for wanting just one day on which money is no object, we’re missing an important part of the picture.
For some women of color and poor women who choose to have elaborate and expensive weddings, the wedding industrial complex doesn’t merely feed a desire to be the star of the show, it plays on something deeper. I didn’t grow up thinking about my own wedding — after my parents’ divorce, a lifelong commitment to another person felt like an unrealistic goal — so I was surprised to find how much my engagement and wedding meant to me. They also meant more to my loved ones than I could have foreseen.
Because I grew up in a low-income household and have spent most of my adult years in graduate school or in the nonprofit sphere, my engagement ring is the first and only nice piece of jewelry I’ve owned. Knowing how much I cherish my own ring, I’d never criticize another woman for wanting something that’s (almost) as beautiful as she is. My wedding was one of the most memorable days of my life — a day every bit as full of love and light as the relationship it was designed to celebrate. But perhaps even more important is what my decision to put on a ball gown and speak vows in public meant to members of my family — my sister, who was so proud to be by my side, and my mother-in-law, who was so thrilled to ceremoniously welcome me to her family.
Those are not small things, and they’re not things to begrudge someone. In a society that prizes women based on their proximity to a thin, cishetero, young, white, abled ideal, many women are denied regular affirmation that they are beautiful, lovable, valuable and worthy of celebration. Not all women have the means to buy themselves an extravagant piece of jewelry, throw a party that brings family and loved ones from near and far or send themselves on a getaway. In my family, weddings are one of the few events for which low-income members of my family will find the money for a trip across the country or from the Caribbean. Not having a wedding would have meant giving up the one day in my life on which the people I love most would move heaven and earth to be with me.
Getting married creates a permission structure to celebrate our love and our families, and to spend money on ourselves. While we can acknowledge that love and money shouldn’t be so intertwined as they are in our capitalist society, can we fault those who strive to claim what happiness they can? For some women, renouncing the wedding industrial complex would entail giving up little. For others, it means giving up things we want but can’t afford without the trappings of a wedding.
As a society, we should mark other events with the same level of exaltation as we do weddings; women shouldn’t be valued by the size of a ring on our fingers or bind ourselves to another for a lifetime in order to have nice things. And, of course, no one needs a couture dress that costs half a year’s rent. But we need to frame our critiques of the wedding industrial complex, and the choices women make when they engage with it, in a way that actually understands women’s choices. It’s intellectually dishonest, and individually damaging, to shame women for participating in a dominant cultural script that they did not create and for finding a way to realize their desires even in a society that does not center their needs. Women of color, so often discussed as undesirable or unmarriageable, deserve no scorn for wanting to be loved and choosing to celebrate that.
Some women are told all their lives what they’re not worth and what they can’t have. Buying into the wedding industrial complex is financially costly for a lot of them. It also offers them something money can’t buy: the promise of a day on which they can finally have it all.
Nadirah Farah Foley is a sociologist of education working toward her Ph.D. at Harvard. Her academic research examines issues of race, inequality and culture in education and society.