I can’t believe it. You make someone a bridesmaid and they shit all over you.
—Ginny Baker, Sixteen Candles
Call it a Bridesmaid Blindside.
It was late June, almost exactly one year since my friend had popped the question, asking me to be a member of her bridal party.
To be honest, I had never really considered myself bridesmaid material. I declined to play wedding dress-up as a child, and never hummed myself down an imaginary aisle with a pillowcase dangling from my head. I didn’t take it upon myself to learn how to bustle a dress or clasp my hands properly around the stems of a bouquet. During most weddings, I pass the time fidgeting and taking pictures of my chest with the disposable cameras given to each table. In lieu of any useful advice or skills to offer as a bridesmaid, I spent our year of bridal preparations contributing in the only way I knew how: following people around, doing what I was told, and making a sarcastic comment whenever the opportunity presented itself.
When it was time for the bride and groom to register for gifts, I suggested the liquor store—an idea I personally believed to be genius—imagining nights spent sampling from the bottomless bar provided courtesy of their many wedding guests. When the couple instead chose to register at a more traditional retailer, I asked them to sign up for an espresso maker, which I could then purchase from them at a discounted price—another brilliant scheme for all involved. They didn’t go for it.
Still, I found the whole process bizarrely entertaining, even though I was occasionally overwhelmed by the expense, excess, and drama of the bridal circus. I thought it was funny how much time, energy, and fifty-dollar-per-yard fabric could be employed in an event that would last a maximum of eight hours.
Little did I know, I was about to become the punch line in my own yearlong joke.
Twelve months of my life were filled with engagement celebrations, fittings, bachelorette parties, color consultations, band bookings, photographer selections, and premarital meltdowns. Like thousands of other women who are bridesmaids each year, I had bought gifts of racy lingerie and made an emotional speech. I had taken a cab to an undesirable part of town to have my hips measured at 8:00 a.m. by a Portuguese seamstress with little sympathy for my hangover or winter weight gain. I’d spent a hundred dollars on canapés to feed women who earn more than twice my salary, and spent a night lying on the cool tiles of my kitchen floor praying for death after drinking too much sangria at the shower.
All of these obligations were performed dutifully (if drunkenly) as I attempted to honor my close friend, who wanted her wedding tasteful and the lead-up textbook.
But a month before the wedding, I made a big mistake.
No, I did not sleep with the groom or let my ass spread beyond the contours accommodated by raw silk. I did not slap the soon-to-be mother-in-law or refuse to pony up for a hundred-dollar blow-dry. I simply asked why the bridesmaid’s participation in all this pomp and circumstance was necessary—and I did it publicly.
In an article for a national newspaper, I admitted to being a Bad Bridesmaid, a woman who—while thrilled that her friend was engaged—could not get excited about the fine print. I had suggested the piece as part of a special section on weddings, and thought of it as a funny insider’s look at being a bridal attendant. The job has evolved beyond ugly dresses and a solemn processional, I wrote, and into a commitment that borders on cultish.
I had been asked to be a bridesmaid by two friends that summer, and was surprised at just how much was really involved. When I started researching the bridesmaid institution, its origins and obligations, I was equally stunned by the advice given by wedding planners, etiquette experts, and seasoned attendants. Almost all of them acknowledged that being a bridesmaid is sometimes not a whole lot of fun, but the only response, they warned, is to shut up and take it.
“You might even be a hundred percent justified in wanting to have a scowl on your face for whatever it is you’ve been asked to do,” said Joanna Dreifus, a woman who has served in so many weddings she founded the Web site Bridesmaid Aid (www.bridesmaidaid.com) with her friend Ellen Horowitz. “But a good bridesmaid will take the high road, let the bride have her day, and just complain about it behind her back.”
Ridiculous, I thought. My friends are honest with one another, and that’s why we remain so close. We have always been able to laugh at each other’s bad habits, from our at times questionable taste in men to our unflagging commitment to overpriced clothes. My friends are not the kind of women who shy away from calling each other’s bluffs or pointing out when one member of our group is being silly or unreasonable. And we almost always see eye to eye, agreeing on everything from vodka over gin to Owen Wilson over Luke. And so, when the first of our group became engaged, I like to think she selected the rest of us as bridesmaids because of who we are: women of independent means and a mean sense of independence.
Why, then, should being a bridesmaid have changed how I behaved around my friends?
My article hit newsstands while all of us were in the country for the bachelorette weekend. The bridal party had spent three blissful days drinking, eating, swimming, and lounging in a hot tub. We visited an antiques sale and danced in our bikinis when night fell, blasting the same JLo song over and over, a collection of deranged pseudo-strippers drunk on wine spritzers and our own supreme level of comfort among best friends. We debated the death penalty with the same vigor that we debated the pages of Us Weekly and whether celebrities were, in fact, just like us—returning to the city exhausted, tanned, happy, and viciously hungover.
Little did I know that weekend would be the last one I would spend as an honored member of the bridal party.
The next morning, I got an e-mail from The Bride. One of her co-workers had read my article and forwarded it to her electronically along with the message “I hope this isn’t about you.” She wanted to talk.
A week later, we both found time in our schedules, and I answered the Bridal Summons on a patio filled with first dates and après-work cocktailers. The air was redolent with lilac and smoke, and our rendezvous began as a rational conversation between two friends.
I was expecting her to tell me why she was upset about the article, which had mentioned a few scenarios lifted from her wedding preparation, each meant to highlight the importance of having a sense of humor when dealing with such a stressful event. I was fully prepared to defend my words and assure her that the article was in no way a personal attack.
As we sipped cocktails amid amorous couples, I explained that outing myself as a Bad Bridesmaid was a means to offer insight into a cultural phenomenon: the pressure that wedding attendants face while helping turn another woman’s fantasy into reality. I told her that just because weddings were not my thing that didn’t mean I didn’t want to be a part of hers.
And then it happened.
“I just can’t have any negative energy around my wedding,” she said.
I was fired.
For a moment, it felt like a joke, as though I were being Punk’d or filmed for an episode of Candid Camera. There was no way someone would axe a bridesmaid for pointing out that her role was expensive and filled with stress. That would be like getting kicked out of Weight Watchers for admitting you were fat. I thought she was just trying to make a point—presenting the worst possible punishment so we could reach a compromise, where I would grovel and she would reclaim her Bridal Dominance. The worst-case scenario in my mind was having to shell out for an extra-nice wedding gift to make up for the perceived slight. Basically, I convinced myself that this could not possibly be happening.
“Don’t make any decisions now,” I begged her, promising that I would make amends, explain my position to her fiancé and family, and apologize to anyone else who’d thought I was poking fun at her rather than at the overhyped ordeal of modern marriage ceremonies.
“You can do that if you want,” she said, “but my cousin is wearing your dress.”
My mind reeled. The Bride was someone I had always respected for the force of her convictions. She was the kind of woman who did not back down from a position once she had taken it, and I could tell by the tone of her voice that my expulsion from her wedding had never been an empty threat.
I flashed back to a phone call I’d made days earlier to reschedule a final dress fitting. Instead of suggesting an alternate date, the seamstress had stammered and stalled and finally suggested that I speak with The Bride, hanging up without offering me another appointment.
I realized then, sitting across the table from my friend as she sipped her drink and stared at me evenly, that a surly Portuguese grandmother had known I was eliminated from the bridal party before I did. Adding insult to injury, she had already pinned my dress on to my replacement’s frame.
The Bride explained that her decision was not about our friendship, but about her wedding. She was calm and steely in her resolve. I spilled a drink and cried loudly. She said we could still be friends. I wondered if we ever really had been.
And with that, I was no longer a bridesmaid. I was a Former Bridesmaid. A Bad Bridesmaid. An ousted bridesmaid left pondering the remains of her friendship, her dignity, the last twelve months of her life, and approximately one thousand dollars of her recent earnings.
I walked the block back to my house in a state of shock. My boyfriend was on our patio with a group of male friends, enjoying nonconfrontational drinks.
“I’m out,” I told them. “I’m out of the wedding.”
They laughed hysterically and opened a bottle of wine. This was not a situation they would ever have to face. Men would never agree to wear matching lime green outfits in public—except possibly for hazing purposes.
Unlike them, however, I could not yet see the humor in my fall from grace. For weeks I would struggle with the implications of this incident on my friendship with The Bride and the other bridesmaids, and worry how it would affect the wedding and The Bride’s mother, whom I adored and dreaded causing any further headaches. I felt terrible that an article intended to be funny had backfired so completely, and stung from the irony that I had rejected all the expert advice about biting my tongue, thinking such measures would not apply to my seemingly strong friendship.
My emotions ricocheted back and forth between feeling guilty for upsetting The Bride, and being amazed that she would reject my defense completely out of hand. I didn’t know if she still wanted to be my friend, or if I still wanted to be hers. How could an eight-year friendship come to an end because I had made fun of bridesmaid dresses and the content of today’s wedding registries? I felt like getting kicked out of a wedding had made me a social outcast or pariah, a woman who had scorned the wedding complex and felt its wrath in return.
Soon, my thoughts turned to the wedding itself, knowing I would still have to attend in two weeks’ time, and I imagined walking into the ceremony marked with a scarlet B: for Bad, for Booted, for Bitch. It was too much to bear.
At first I told the other bridesmaids that I wasn’t going, but eventually I swallowed my pride and fought off the sneaking suspicion that my friend had kicked me out of the wedding because I do not photograph well. I wondered how her cousin would feel seeing me in the audience, knowing that she was just a ringer and that she would have to shell out $250 for a dress designed for me.
On the Big Day, I forced myself to get dolled up and wrap the couple’s wedding gift. I timed my day against theirs. As the bridal party was getting their hair done, I was eating bacon and reading the paper. As they left for the venue, I was sneaking an afternoon drink. While they helped The Bride get dressed, I was convincing myself to change out of sweatpants. I was scared, sad, and uncontrollably sweaty.
At last the time came to drive to the wedding, which was being held at a beautiful lakefront hunting club and golf course. My date and I pulled into the property, navigating slowly down the winding road surrounded by trees and immaculately manicured shrubbery. As we eased around a bend, an estate slowly came into view, as did—to my horror—the entire wedding party, who were standing on the driveway posing for photographs.
Clearly, we’d taken a wrong turn.
The only way back was to circle the roundabout in front of the club, a single lane now occupied by the bride, the groom, and their parents, plus three of my best friends and the pinch-hitting cousin, all dressed in identical green frocks and smiling happily—until we crashed the scene. Had I been behind the wheel, I would have slammed on the brakes, thrown the car into reverse, and accelerated backward across the eighteenth hole, through the surrounding forest, and all the way back to my apartment, where I would have lain in the bathtub with the shower on, drinking vodka out of the bottle and attempting to suppress the nightmare I had just experienced.
Unfortunately, I wasn’t driving. My boyfriend, a far less dramatic individual and one merely amused by my personal torment, simply waited for the bridal party to step back onto the lawn and eased slowly past them as they stared at our bright red car. Like a bridesmaid version of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, I imagined them storming the vehicle as we drove by, a group of crazed wedding zombies beating the hood with their bouquets and stomping on the roof with their gold high heels, pointing at me and emitting a single blood-curdling scream that communicated to their alien wedding planner overlords: “She is not one of us.”
In reality, the bridal party simply stood still and waited for us to go by. I resisted the urge to duck.
When we pulled into the parking lot at the other end of the proper driveway, I forced myself to get out of the passenger seat. Days before, I’d been convinced that attending would not be so bad, that I was a big enough person to walk into the wedding with my head held high. With just half an hour left until the ceremony, though, I wasn’t sure if I could go through with it. Being a Bad Bridesmaid had made me feel like a lesser person, and an uninvited guest.
During the ceremony, the cousin who’d replaced me in the bridesmaid lineup kept looking my way, and I was sure she was taunting me, shoving my sins in my face with each glance in my direction. I fantasized about screaming that she was only in the wedding because I screwed up, knocking my chair over, tackling her to the floor, and ripping the bouquet from her hands. Then I realized that her boyfriend was sitting directly in front of me. It turns out she was smiling at him.
In the end, no one really seemed to notice me at all. The vast majority of the guests obviously had no idea they were looking at a Pinch-Bridesmaid, brought in during the late innings to relieve a player gone bad. They danced the night away, blissfully unaware of my shame and enjoying just another beautiful exchange of vows.
And a few hours later, it was all over. . . . Or so I thought.
During the weeks and months that followed, a steady stream of mail arrived in my inbox and my hands.
“I loved your article, I lived your article,” wrote one woman.
“Thank you for finally coming clean about what being a bridesmaid means,” read another e-mail. “Bridesmaids of the world unite!”
Soon, dozens more women had shared with me their tales of bridesmaid woe.
They e-mailed me about the dresses they were forced to wear that made them look like rejects from an eighties prom. I heard about women corralled into expensive last-minute spray-on tan sessions and doused with entire bottles of hair spray, with no regard for fire hazards or ozone depletion. I met bridesmaids who were bedazzled with glue-on jewels or asked to drive out of state to pick up the bride’s dry cleaning while she relaxed on her honeymoon.
It became clear to me that bridesmaids had become collateral damage in the female quest for the perfect wedding.
My own wretched experience took on new life as an anecdote. I found myself encouraged to tell the story at parties, and listened to it being told for me at work. Every time I invoked my expulsion from the wedding party, someone else had an even better example of Bad Bridesmaid behavior. There was the girl who swore loudly during the ceremony, her blasphemy noticed by the priest and captured for posterity by the wedding videographer; and the two women who were kicked out of the same wedding after a last-minute makeup-related brawl, their hair already sculpted into place and with just hours remaining until the organ music accompanied the bridal party down the aisle.
There were women asked to stand up for virtual strangers or pissed off by flesh and blood. And in almost every closet there was still a three-hundred-dollar floor-length, puffy-sleeved dress with an empire waistline and panels of flame-retardant fabric that some poor girl had been forced to wear.
I was not alone.
Bad Bridesmaids are everywhere. We are getting our hair twisted in unflattering updos with wispy ringlets framing our faces, and pulling on control-top panties in eighty degree heat. We are trying to rent stretch Hummers in towns so small they don’t even have a Starbucks, and taking calligraphy classes so we can help the bride personally pen 250 invitations. Some of us are wondering why we haven’t been asked to stand up for our best friends, or are contemplating stepping down altogether. Others will soon hit the dance floor in strapless dresses, praying that their breasts will be restrained as they hop their way through another embarrassing rendition of the Chicken Dance. And somewhere, for the very first time, a woman is seeing the glint of a diamond reflected in her best friend’s eyes and wondering what exactly she has gotten herself into.
In the name of making another woman’s dream day come true, bridesmaids swallow a lot along with their free champagne. We risk losing our dignity, our credit ratings, our natural waistlines, and—sadly—even our friends.
And in return, we don’t get a ring, a honeymoon, or even a china pattern to call our own. But there is something every bridesmaid does have: a story.
It is the tales of bachelorette brawls and taffeta tantrums that unite us in our shared experience, and make the months of wedding work almost worthwhile. The bride may have months to orchestrate her wedding, but bridesmaids get the rest of their lives to dine out on stories of how it all went down.
So let her toss the bouquet. It’s time for us to dish the dirt.
Copyright ©2007 by Siri Agrell. All rights reserved.