Weddings, Marriages, and Musings

Debbie says:

I’ve been to two commitment ceremonies this summer. The first was in a public park in San Francisco, between a transman not taking T and a bioboy. The second was a legal heterosexual marriage in a wedding chapel in Tahoe, where I’m reasonably sure that fewer than ten of the 70 or so people there would have been able to understand the previous sentence. (If I reformat to “a cisgendered man and a nonsurgical FTM,” I don’t think that would raise the numbers very much.)

The first one was just plain fun for me. The second was more confusing. For the first, I put on a fancy shirt with my jeans and sandals, and made some crustless cucumber sandwiches for the potluck tea. For the second, I was a bridesmaid, with a custom-made dress from India, my very first ever manicure and pedicure, and a surprising array of expectations.

The bottom line: in both cases, the couples love each other, are good together, understand what they’re promising, and wanted to do what they were doing. So in the ways that really matter to me, it’s all good.

I hated the “custom-made dress” experience from start to finish. The dress wasn’t any more expensive than a comparable one bought off the rack, which I know means (in both cases) sweatshops. The big issue was that I decided at a very early age not to learn anything about being a “girl,” and I’ve stuck to it stubbornly, and yet part of me believes that the skills were supposed to be issued with my chromosomes and I’m somehow a failure for not knowing what I’m doing. The people in India didn’t really believe my self-taken measurements, and kept calling to recheck them. I had no faith in my ability to measure, even though the numbers kept coming out the same, so their repeated questions made me defensive. They couldn’t or wouldn’t explain their concerns to me, and I couldn’t get my fears across to them.

The dress, when it came, “fit” in the sense that I could put it on (a testament to my measuring skills, I guess), but it was form-fitting to my measurements, and a very bad cut for a form-fit, so it did not look good. In fact, it only looked good on the mid-size bridesmaid–the two of us who are fatter both looked like we had been squeezed into it. If I had more girl skills (or the sense to ask someone who does), I could have picked a different cut that would have looked much better. At the same time, if the dressmakers had more skill, they could have built a couple of extra inches of fabric into this cut, and it would have looked fine. What I take from that (I knew this, but not deeply enough) is that girl skills are, in fact, skills, and I should respect the fact that I don’t have them, and get lots of advice when I need them. A useful learning, at a cost of some frustration and dissatisfaction.

Then the bride very generously bought us all manicures and pedicures. These were socially lots of fun (everyone else sitting around chatting and playing cards while one of us was getting nails done) and sensually pleasant, though I wish I had known that a leg and ankle massage is part of the deal–I was wearing jeans that don’t pull up very far on my leg. And I loved the results–I really enjoyed having sparkly purple fingernails, and I’m still enjoying my sparkly purple toenails.

Every time I looked at my fingers and toes, I would think about the amount of social information those colored nails carry: on me, they say, “Look at me; I’m out of my element.” On many women, they say something along the lines of, “I enjoy being a girl.” On a straight man, they’re transgressive. On a gay man, they’re campy. On a genderqueer person, they’re a very complex statement. There’s a naive piece of me that just looks at them and thinks, “Oooh, shiny! Everybody should get to be shiny!”

Then there’s the wedding: my friend Matthew talks about the “marital-industrial complex,” and I have to say these were about the nicest people you could find in any marital industry: genuinely friendly, cooperative, responsive. And the chapel is right on the lake; we could hear ducks quacking during the ceremony. But they’re still about pushing 500 weddings a year through 365 days, and what they are clearly not about is the quality of anyone’s experience, except perhaps the bride’s. They managed to seat 70 people on this long narrow terrace, so that everyone was looking directly into the not-quite-setting sun. The wedding party was exempt from the painful squint, after each of us walked up the aisle into the blinding glare.

Not only was it impossible to see; it was also impossible to hear. Again, the wedding party, and the people in the first two rows, could hear the thoughtful ceremony and the deeply personal vows. They were worth hearing. I’m glad I was where I could actually see and hear the wedding, but I kept thinking of all the people who were excluded by the planners’ inattention and unconcern.

Bridesmaids are expected to be in the formal wedding pictures after the ceremony. I didn’t mind, except for the “now gape at her ring” pose. You see, I know what a wedding ring is, and what it really means. The long list of reasons why I’ve never gotten married finally come down to understanding that marriage–which can be heartfelt and mutually delightful in an individual case, such as this one–is socially and historically about ownership, particularly of children. Most of the time I can put that aside, but gasping theatrically at the delight of being able to wear a wedding ring was over my limits. Yes, I did it, and with good grace.

Now they’re married, in their own eyes and the eyes of the state. And sort of in the eyes of their family and friends, if the friends and family aren’t still blinking away the sun’s glare. Meanwhile, the transman and the bioboy who had a ceremony in the park have shared their commitment with their family and friends, but not with the state. By my actions, I’ve supported all four of them in their choices–and I’m glad to have done so. At the same time, there’s absolutely no doubt which kind of road I would go in the unlikely event that I would ever choose such a ceremony of my own.

weddings, marriage, gender, fashion, body image, femininity, commitment ceremony, Body Impolitic

19 thoughts on “Weddings, Marriages, and Musings

  1. The thing is, the person who arranged the wedding and decided what you should wear should also have deployed more of those girl/fashion skills.

    I’ve never been to a wedding in that sort of “wedding chapel.” Churches and synagogues, yes. A very nice hotel that was happy to have a wedding party for the weeknd, but wasn’t primarily in the wedding business, and that also had competent catering and an excellent garden (and lots of bookstores nearby). The groom’s parents’ apartment. One public and one private park (the latter rented from the Sons of Norway for the afternoon). The Municipal Building. But no wedding chapels, nor has anyone expected me to have my hair done for the occasion (I’ve been in friends’ wedding parties three times; I think one of those three had her own hair done right before the wedding).

    I’m not sure what this signifies, except that we tend to socialize with people who have similar approaches to ourselves. (As far as I can recall, all those weddings were recognized by the state, and all the participants were cisgendered.)

  2. My husband and I got married just over a month ago. Our wedding was originally scheduled for next year, but we decided to forego any semblance of tradition and get hitched on Mackinac Island, Mich. The moms were there, along with my sister and his sister-in-law. We wrote our own vows, and had a non-religious ceremony. It was exactly what we wanted.

    Both my mom and I have found though that since we didn’t have the whole shebang in a church with eight bridesmaids and groomsmen followed by a drunken reception with a bad DJ that many people don’t take our marriage as seriously.

  3. (While I write this – talking about ceremonies and girly girls – the BBC informs me that the first female Beeefeater has just began her service at the Tower. Unofortunately they didn’t show her in the red and gold uniform).

    One thing that Italian weddings don’t have, thank God, is the coordinated bridesmaids. Plenty of people in Italy end up in the pocket of loan sharks because they won’t forgo a marriage with all the bells and whistles, but this means in more or less the order of costliness: a) feeding a huge number of guests; b) the dress; c) the flowers d) the photography and the car for it.

    I suspect the reason we don’t have coordinated bridesmaid is that there is no way in Heaven or Hell an Italian woman would put on a dress on a formal occasion that is a) not of her own choosing and b) that she can’t try on beforehand.

    Being a single woman means that I haven’t been invited to lots of marriages – basically, I’ve seen family ones. Some of them have been stiff and formal (and one was celebrated on a freezing April in a mountain church) and some of them have been warm and fun. The best ones, apart from the one orgaized as a convention (with name badges!!!), were the ones where the bride and grooms were actually having fun instead of agonizing about the ceremony. I think the fact that the bride was high on codeine after breaking her ankle tripping on the church step during the rehearsal helped one of them enourmously.

    As an intermittently girly girl, I go a lot for the oh shiny approach to girlishness. I know, for example, that good elegant makeup is the minimalist foundation-and-invisible eyeshadow one, but what is the point if I can’t have shiny frosty colorful glitz on my face?

  4. part of me believes that the skills were supposed to be issued with my chromosomes and I’m somehow a failure for not knowing what I’m doing

    Yes, that. My response has been to strenuously avoid any responsibilities that come with the girl skill requirement, since the point where I had the freedom to choose.

  5. Watch out also, if/when you reach out for help with girl skills, for the disdain of those who sneer and refuse to help because they also think the skills come crossed with the chromosomes and how dare you not have them.

    (This class of people actually includes some professional etiquette coaches, irony be d***ed.)

  6. I have to admit that I don’t know what “bioboy” means. I do understand “transman not taking T” and “nonsurgical FTM,” and can deduce some possible meanings for “cisgendered.”

    I have no girl skills either, for slightly different reasons: I didn’t consciously decide not to cultivate them, I just couldn’t make myself care enough to do the work, even at the time that it mattered most to me. Partly this was because I didn’t realize that work was involved; like you, I had gotten the idea that I was just supposed to know all this stuff, and I was mystified by how other girls knew what was in fashion and how to put on make-up. And by the time I did figure it out, I was completely clear that I would never want to spend the time it took to get good at something I cared so little about.

  7. I know you know this, but since you didn’t explicitly state it (and my primary told me to read your post), I’ll do it for you: the two roads you mention aren’t the only two roads.
    For example, I’ve been to … I think five weddings since I became adult: three of those were outdoor weddings, and the other two (including mine) were held neither in religious institutions nor in locations provided by the wedding industry.
    Nevertheless, all five were formal weddings with catered reception and all but mine were legal weddings; all were couple-based heterosexual marriages with cisgendered participants; all borrowed extensively from traditional marriage practices. At least two of them had bridesmaids, but none of them required bridesmaids to wear pre-selected styles; I think only one had color-coordinated bridesmaids.
    Only two of them used a templated set of vows, and even those were not mainstream in American society because they were traditional Jewish weddings.

  8. Vicki, part of my point is that I don’t always socialize with people “with similar approaches.” I’m simultaneously proud and confused that I am close to such a range of people.

    Rachel, I think that’s both sad and ridiculous.

    Anna, the shiny is the part of girl skills that I really do like.

    Littlem, I know I can find people who are kinder than that–but I also do know that that phenomenon exists.

    Janet, you make me realize that I was (more than) a little superior-sounding. “bioboy” is more or less equivalent to “born XY,” and “cisgendered” is “not transgendered” or “identifying in ways that match your genes and your body configuration.”

    Aahz, yes, I did know that, and did fail to make it clear.

    Everybody, thanks!

  9. Yes, you did it all with good grace.

    I acquired a few girl skills somewhere along the line, but I very rarely use them. I do wind up in the nail salon every couple of weeks, but that’s because I like having acrylic fingernails so that I can paint them funky nonmatching colors. I generally refer to my trips to the nail salon as, “my concession to being a girl.”

    Somewhere along the line I also picked up at least minimal competence with makeup, though I’d lay pretty good odds that nobody who spent the weekend in the house with us had ever seen me wear any. I generally find the everyday face-painting thing a little bit ludicrous.

    As for the measurements, I’m going to lay that at the feet of the dressmakers. They should well have known how much to add to the measurements in order to get a good fit, and they should know that they need to scale it in proportion to the measurements.

    Oh, and I agree with you about the sun, but I’m not going to blame that one on the chapel. When I was puttering around right after I got there, they were moving the bow-laden candlesticks outside. “We weren’t sure whether she’d want to have it in or out, so we didn’t put them out earlier.” I briefly lobbied the groom to move it inside, but didn’t succeed. I think it was mostly just poor communication.

  10. Deb,

    I admit that I couldn’t quite parse that one sentence in either form. But what I really wanted to write about was:

    There’s a naive piece of me that just looks at them and thinks, “Oooh, shiny! Everybody should get to be shiny!”

    Yes, everybody should, and I wish that were the main reaction we could have to things like nail polish. I’d like to wear glittery purple polish sometime, but it does send out all kinds of complex messages that I am just not into trying to disentangle, at least at this point in my life.

    Wearing nail polish with aplomb (or anappul, for that matter) is so not a “boy skill.”

    But shiny is keen. I like shiny. I would enjoy wearing one of those ’50s-future space suits made of highly polished tinfoil. But, since I’m not a costumer, I probably never will. >shrugs

  11. The set of girl skills I resolutely refused to acquire were housekeeping.

    Unfortunately, when you live alone you sort of have to learn them – cooking, washing up, keeping the house sort of clean. In the brief period I had a partner, he eventually had to do some of that himself if his starndards of cleanliness were higher than mine (which they were). It’s actually one of the good points of living alone: you don’t have to clear up the mess if you don’t want to.

    It’s a running joke between me and one of my gay male friends, that whenever he comes round for dinner he ends up minding the cooking food, because I have a regrettable tendency to be distracted by the guests and burn things.

    On the other hand, I take an inordinate amount of pride in being able to do laddies’ stuff like drilling things, fixing stuff, assembling furniture, and of course, minding technology.

    In general, my approach to girly chores is: I’ll do it if it’s fun. My mom’s approach is: you drop every fun thing in your life because YOU HAVE TO MIND THE HOUSE. Not surprisingly, my mom doesn’t wear makeup.

  12. I had a pedicure once, a birthday gift from friends. I had a similar reaction to yours – the shiny was very cool, but I felt like I was playacting for as long as the nail polish showed.

    This is a fabulous post, btw. Have I mentioned recently that I consider you one of the most brilliant people I know?

  13. What a lovely meditation. I understand very much what you mean about being part of a wedding, knowing the history of the institution, and trying to be a good sport while trying not to misrepresent one’s convictions either. I have sung at lots of weddings, and sometimes the music has been really hard to get through. The [interminable] Wedding Song is bad enough, but my brother’s fiancee had me sing a song at their wedding called “God, A Woman And A Man” that is… urgh. But it was their wedding, they wanted it, and so I sang “If there never was a singer, then there’d never be a song. If there never was a mother where would the child belong?” (those are the only lyrics I remember; it got worse from there though) with everything I had.

    As far as my own wedding story, in case you care to hear it, it’s in two parts. Part 1: Mark and I had a commitment ceremony in 1993– wrote our own vows, had a small set of people attend at Eloise Butler Wildflower Garden in Minneapolis, and had a bigger party later. It was pretty committed to not being married, for lots of reasons including political ones (we were even interviewed for a study about hetero domestic partners). Alas, health circumstances changed and got much more important, and at the same time I stopped working and needed to be on Mark’s insurance, so politics had to take a back seat to capitalism, and we were lucky enough to have that option. Part 2: we actually got married in 2004. The guy who filed our papers at the county office also performed marriages, so he, and Mark and I, and my (small) immediate family, all went to a little park in St. Paul and said the same vows again. We were pretty happy to have them all still feel important and right, considering how callow we were when writing them originally. Then we went to dinner across the street.

    The thing is, for as much as it was purely pro forma, it does feel different to be married. Lots of stuff is just plain easier, and people treat us differently. Especially doctors, who used to be just vile about spelling out and demeaning the relationship when I was hospitalized. Mark still hasn’t told his family that we’re married, though, and I am not sure he ever will– it took them so long to treat me well as his partner that he decided it would be too painful to have that all possibly get weird again after state validation.

    For whatever reason, of late in my circles there’s been very little of the marrying and a whole lot of divorce.

    How lovely to have so many opportunities to share in people’s lives and celebrations like that. And how lucky for them to have you there.

  14. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this, they’re fascinating. I agree that the person who arranged what the bridesmaids would wear should have used more girl skills.

    The girly skills I refuse to acquire are cooking and housework.

  15. Debbie, if you want to wear a sari to WisCon (or elsewhere) some year, we should go up to University Ave. together while I’m in the Bay Area, and I can get you set up with a blouse-piece (they measure you, sew it, and then tailor it for comfortable fit once you’re wearing it). Once you have that, you can find multiple fabulous saris to wear with it, and have a sparkly bindi on your forehead, and sparkly bangles on your arms, and sparkly shoes (if you want them). A sparkly necklace is also nice. :-)

    One of the nicest things about saris is that the expensive part is one-size fits all, and blouses can be adjusted and re-made cheaply to fit changing figures. I think you’d look splendidly fabulous in one! :-) And if you wear it to WisCon, I will dress you in it at the hotel. (I can dress myself in a sari now, but it took a lot of practice — it’s much easier to have someone else dress you.)

    Let me know if interested, and we can set up a girly sari shopping date.

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