Everyone loves a good wedding. From the first glimpse of the bride coming down the aisle in her dress to the emotional first dance, they are joyful celebrations of love and happiness that can leave guests on a high for days, even weeks afterwards. But for serial bridesmaids, weddings can also be an expensive summer activity, dictating how they spend their finances and free time, even having a negative impact on their mental health.
It’s undoubtedly a great honour to be asked to be bridesmaid, a gesture that shows just how much the bride values your friendship, but for those who are tasked with organising multiple hen parties, the responsibilities that come with the role can start to feel more like a second, stressful and unpaid job. As anyone who has received a cheerful 'Hey ladies' email asking for a bank transfer for a villa or brunch deposit will know, hen parties today typically involve up to 20 girls, a foreign destination, a tight schedule of organised fun, and a hashtag.
Hen parties today typically involve up to 20 girls, a foreign destination, a tight schedule of organised fun, and a hashtag.
Often compared to Katherine Heigl's character in the rom-com 27 Dresses, Hannah*, 31, has been a bridesmaid seven times, an honour that has left a big dent in her bank balance and a general feeling of disillusionment. She says the current trend for having big, extravagant and complicated hen parties has been at the expense of her own holidays and savings – she had to use her work bonus to pay for one. "I moved to London on an 18k salary so the first couple of years I didn’t actually go on holiday myself as I was paying for weddings and hen dos," she says. "What happened to just having a fun night out? Why should we be spending all our money and using all our holiday because a friend has decided to get married?"
It's not just hen parties that now take the form of overseas holidays; the growing trend for weddings abroad means that guests are expected to use their holiday days as well as holiday savings to fund both the hen party and wedding. Lisa*, who at 32 has been a bridesmaid six times – or seven if you count the bride who had two weddings – spent almost £5,000 performing bridesmaid duties at weddings in New York and South Africa one year. While she turned both overseas trips into a holiday, adding on time either side of the wedding, the costs escalated rapidly, far exceeding the original projected costs she had budgeted for. Having friends dictate how she should spend her money has left her feeling resentful, she says. "I would think differently now about agreeing to fork out a lot of money. Or at least first confirm the costings of overseas weddings more thoroughly, as it can get ridiculous."
Aside from the financial costs involved, the responsibility of organising a hen party for a random mix of girls who don't know each other can be incredibly stressful, says Lisa. From budgets to tastes to dietary requirements, it can be tricky – and require a level of tact – to agree on a plan that caters to everybody's needs. That Brazilian restaurant scene in Bridesmaids, in which Kristen Wiig's character's Paris-themed party idea is shot down, is perhaps closer to home for some bridesmaids than you might think. "Having to consider what everyone wants, not just the bride but the other hens as well, and cover all bases is so stressful," explains Hannah, who has organised hen parties where different friendship groups have stuck in their cliques and not made any effort to integrate and talk. "There are always hens who just expect you to entertain them and look sour-faced the whole weekend because they don’t want to be there or wanted to do something else."
Lisa was told before one wedding that she was not allowed to be taller than the bride, and at another, she was the only bridesmaid not to have her hair and makeup done, due to time overrunning.
Then there's the fraught issue of the dresses. Finding one dress to suit the often vastly different body shapes of the various bridesmaids, not to mention the question of who pays for them, can add another dimension of anxiety and tension. "Saying you don’t like the chosen bridesmaid dress is horrible!" says Hannah. "You feel like you’re being so difficult but then you end up wearing something you really don’t feel comfortable in, which can affect how you feel about the whole day." Lisa agrees: "I hate the silly rules, such as being told what shoes to buy with my own money!" Lisa was told before one wedding that she was not allowed to be taller than the bride, and at another, she was the only bridesmaid not to have her hair and makeup done, due to time overrunning. Not ideal on a day full of photographs.
It’s not surprising, then, that being a bridesmaid to three or four friends over the course of one summer can take its toll on a girl's stress levels, sometimes even resulting in complete burnout. "The combination of time/money/admin/pressure to get it right can be extremely stressful, especially if you’re organising more than one hen do at a time," says Millie*, 32, who is planning a holiday on her own – once wedding season is over, of course – in order to recover from a particularly demanding year which will see her be bridesmaid three times. "I’ve certainly felt that my life is not my own at times. That’s not to say it hasn’t been fun, amazing and worth it in the end, but I’ve felt I haven’t had an active choice in what I do, who with and how I spend my money." Both Hannah and Lisa have experienced extreme anxiety on the day of friends' weddings, brought on, in part, by a cumulative build-up of pressure and responsibility. From being on the verge of a panic attack to crying in the toilets and clashes with fellow bridesmaids, it seems the big day itself can sometimes be far from the relaxed and enjoyable affair the photos portray for the bridesmaids involved.
Sadly for serial bridesmaid Hannah, being asked no longer feels like an honour. "The stress and cost involved have tainted it," she says. "On the day, yes, it's lovely when you see your friend so happy. But then I think: Why did the run-up have to be stressful? Why do you have to do all these extra things – knicker-decorating, cupcake-making, holidays abroad, WhatsApp groups with millions of messages." Perhaps, in order for it to really be a special experience, being a bridesmaid is something we should have the honour of doing just once or twice in our lives, rather than four times a summer. But even given the risk of burnout, is it ever okay to say no to being a bridesmaid? "I really wish it was but so far I’ve never been brave enough to say no for fear of disappointing the bride or looking like I don’t care enough," admits Hannah. Millie and Lisa agree that, despite considering it, they never would actually say no, and recognise that declining could be a deal-breaker for some friendships. "Overall it’s so worth it to see my friends feeling so loved and special and I’m incredibly grateful to be able to share the experience with them, however they want to do it," says Millie.
If the time comes for these bridesmaids to get married, they vow not to make it a stressful experience for their friends. "I wouldn’t have any adult bridesmaids and I’d organise my own hen do, if I had one, keeping the budget very low," says Hannah, adding: "Although there is a little part of me that wants to throw the biggest, most lavish wedding and hen do ever just so everyone has to fork out loads of money for me and I can get my own back – but I would never do that!"
*Names have been changed