I’ve had an intense fear of weddings, especially my own, since I was a little kid. One of the recurring nightmares I would have, in addition to getting stuck in elevators, driving off bridges, and hiding from a prowling gunman in my house, was that of my wedding. Around age 10, I dreamed that my kung-fu teacher wanted to marry me. At the time, my mom had enrolled me in kung-fu class because she thought I was a skinny weakling (which I was). I hated it - I was the only girl in the class, and it seemed the only thing I beat everyone else at was touching my toes during stretches. Anyway, in the dream, it was my wedding and I was to be married to this kung-fu teacher, who only smirked and never smiled and beckoned me down the aisle, Bruce Lee style, as if inviting me to a lifetime of mortal combat. It was terrifying.
I’ve often wondered where this fear came from. I suspected it was related to the large number of weddings I attended growing up in my home church. Many times I was there because my mother, for a time, baked the wedding cakes, partly as artistic outlet, partly as a service to the young couples in the congregation who couldn’t afford fancy cakes. I would help in the two-day process, from baking the sheets to frosting them to carefully transporting them to the church and assembling the tiers and accoutrements. It was somewhat stressful. As a kid, all you want to do is help, and I remember dropping an egg once during baking and thinking I was an utter failure. The stakes were high! You can’t drop someone’s wedding cake!!!
Whether that was the reason or not, I always knew I couldn’t face that kind of wedding. I was perfectly happy attending friends’ weddings of all kinds, but I could never see it for myself. I always figured I wouldn’t have a wedding, which was just fine by me. So a year ago, when the love of my life asked me to marry him, the question became real. Wedding, or no wedding? He thought it might be nice to have a small public commemoration of our commitment. I agreed, with one firm rule: no aisles.
It wasn’t just the dreams. Something about walking down an aisle gave me the willies. It wasn’t until I started looking for a dress that I started out to figure out why. I recently participated in a focus group for a wedding website, during which two perky young women asked me to describe my process of finding a dress. I started to recount the travails - the pushy bridal salons! The expense! The befuddling style terms (do YOU know what a basque waist is??)! The black box that was tailoring and alterations. At the end of the interview, one of the girls asked tentatively, “so… was there anything you liked about the process?”
Truth be told, kind gentlewoman, I did not enjoy buying a dress. The expectations were too high. Every time I tried something on, I imagined myself at the center of attention, hundreds of cool, emotionally detached eyes staring me down, judging whether I was a pretty or a plain bride, whether I had a winsome figure or pleasing body type, whether I adequately fulfilled society’s concept of the wedding day as the most beautiful day in a girl’s life. No matter what I wore, it just didn’t seem good enough. Well, I didn’t seem good enough. I didn’t look like those 20-year old, 6-foot tall models in every wedding dress ad. I looked like me - a woman in her mid-30s with a slowing metabolism and frizzed out hair who seriously needed some undereye concealer.
Aha. There it is. Turns out, I have a self-image problem, and a wedding just magnifies it. I’m more accepting and forgiving of myself than ever, but put the pressure of THE dress in the picture, and I revert to every insecure moment I’ve ever felt. And as a scrawny child turned overweight teen turned late bloomer adult, I’ve had a lot of those moments. Like when my high school boyfriend told me I had forgotten to take off my smock after ceramics class, but it was really just a plaid shirt I actually liked. Or when I gained so much weight freshman year of college that people audibly gasped when I came home that summer. Or when I first started wearing makeup in my late 20’s and probably put on way too much (literally everything I know about hair and makeup I learned from teens on YouTube).
I know, it’s ridiculous. I’m a grown woman. I KNOW that each one of us is born beautiful in our unique ways, and that beauty has much more to do with the depth of kindness and humor and personality in a person’s eyes than in their body proportions. Despite this knowledge, I remember all too well what it was like to be in middle school or high school, constantly comparing yourself to others. Those feelings are still there, and they’re intense, and they’re the same for so many people. I recently came across this powerful viral video of a seventh grade girl presenting her slam poetry (slamming her poem?) on this very topic.
As she spoke, with a force of conviction a fraction of which I’d like to have some days, it was like she was talking to me. Her poem describes a life spent constantly trying to be something you’re not in order to fit in, whether by dressing or acting a certain way, or denying your strengths (nerds, anyone?). She returns throughout the poem, with rage and hurt, to the same question, “Why am I not good enough?” Luckily, I’m decades past middle school and should know by now that I AM good enough. But, boy, is that a hard feeling to own after decades of conditioning otherwise.
Planning a wedding, the marker of your wholehearted commitment to life with another person, is an occasion to reflect on and reaffirm your individual and joint life values. The dress-shopping experience, surprisingly, was a good reminder that one large requirement for a happy marriage is acceptance. We usually talk about accepting the person you’re marrying and not changing them (which is definitely a must), but I clearly still need to work on accepting myself. After all, those judgmental eyes in my dreams don’t belong to anyone but me.
Buying a dress was a tangible lesson in what acceptance looks and feels like. It’s not just a thought experiment or a catechism for blind recitation. Acceptance is an action - mustering the strength to look something in the eye and be at peace. In this case, acceptance of myself is looking in a mirror and being willing to see whatever is there. Acceptance of another person is looking them in the eye and seeing their reaction rather than a target for your emotions. Of course, not all things should be accepted - that is a separate inquiry. But I think many of us at times could use a little more acceptance of our stand-alone intrinsic worth.
I ended up buying a dress that was comfortable and has, I think, a quiet beauty. When I wear it, our gathering will hopefully reflect who we are: no shows or displays, no processions, just quality time with family and a few friends in a time and place to reflect on love and life together. Nobody will be watching me, but I will be seen by those who love me. There is no fear in that.