This weekend, all eyes may be on Kate Middleton as she floats down the aisle on a gust of bridal euphoria, but my peepers will be fixed elsewhere, on whatever shadowy figure is tossing the rose petals that the princess won't slip on. Back in 1980, watching that other Royal Wedding, many other highly impressionable girls were entranced by the bridesmaids who accompanied Diana down the aisle. Riveted, I wondered what karmic awesomeness had permitted girls my age to participate in the world's most extravagant game of "princess wedding"?
One of the most fascinating bridesmaids was 13 year-old India Hicks, wrangling the endless train of Diana's gown, her short hair (like mine!) ringed with flowers. Now Hicks is a fashion model and designer who will report on the wedding for ABC News. Initially, though, she didn't relish the job of bridesmaid, writing in The Tattler of her tomboy past: "I was horrified. I was going to have to wear a dress." The feeling, it seems, is universal. In the intervening three decades, bridesmaid has become a pejorative. But is this hate-on fair?
The poster for the upcoming film Bridesmaids features a row of women wearing electric pink prom dresses barfed from the belly of a ruffle beast. The film is naturally a comedy, starring Kristen Wiig as a 30-ish single professional who endures the trauma of becoming her best friend's Maid of Honour. The trailer - which makes the film look hilarious - readily exploits the litany of humiliations attendant with being an attendant: the bridal lunch gone wrong (food poisoning); the ugly dress (natch); the ill-fated bachelorette road trip.
This fish-in-a-barrel mockery may be a reaction to the overblown new model wedding: The average Canadian one actually increased in cost between 2009 and 2010 to $20,129, according to WeddingBells.ca. As cost has inflated, bridesmaid obligations have as well: Bridesmaid101.com lists dozens of expensive and time-consuming "duties" including handwriting invitations and tossing the bride bottled water as she approaches the aisle, like a boxing coach. So no one really wants to be a bridesmaid any more, though only brides seem not to know this. (Also, the loaded word "maid" - as in old maid, barren, the-one-who-isn't-getting-married-by-the-sea - doesn't help.)
Katherine Heigl played a serial bridesmaid in the film 27 Dresses, her closets exploding with flouncing monstrosities - behold the Little Bo Bridesmaid - that disprove every bride's defensive rationale: "You'll wear it again." The book Bad Bridesmaid by Globe and Mail reporter Siri Agrell is a laundry list of horror stories of inhuman expectations and shattered friendships, like the bride who fired two bridesmaids on her wedding day for the crime of wearing lipstick in a disagreeable colour.
I never was a bridesmaid and I never had one (I think City Hall might charge extra for that). But I like the concept and am leery of the murmur of sexism running beneath anti-bridesmaid sentiment: the assumption that women, even women who are friends, secretly hate each other. The problem with selecting a bridesmaid, says the murmur, is that it's an opportunity for a bride to control and abuse a friend, then force her to look ugly, thereby crushing any competition on her special day.
But I've always been more moved by bridesmaids than brides; perhaps, as a member of the divorce generation, I have more faith in friendship than marriage. In peripatetic times, when more people live farther from home than ever before, friendships are the new family. This holds truest for women. A study out of UCLA showed that female friendships can decrease stress and increase happiness: Women under stress actually release brain chemicals that cause them to seek out relationships with other women. A separate study, from Harvard Medical School, found that women with more friends are less likely to face health issues and more prone to joy.
In Roman times, bridesmaids formed a first line of defense, protecting the bride from potential dowry snatching and criminal shenanigans. The symbolism is apt: Friendships do the same, building a fortress of protection from life's hurts.
It has always unnerved me that marriage is marketed as a narrowing - full, far-reaching lives reduced to a pea pod of two against the world. The idea that marriage becomes the central, most pivotal relationship of one's life is actually a modern concept. A century ago, marriage was not meant to take over from public and personal commitments, but to supplement them. Now, the time Americans spend socializing with others outside the workplace has declined by almost 25 per cent since 1965.
Anointing a friend a bridesmaid seems like a push against this shrinking, a way to merge a bride's past with her future and a proclamation of an aptitude for love of all kinds. Just one thing: Let her pick her own dress.