There are three major events that tend to bring out the worst in people: the arrival of a new baby, funerals, and weddings. For some reason, these occurrences become the Olympics for who can be the most inappropriate with other humans in an effort to center themselves. And as someone who’s been a bridesmaid in 5.5 weddings, I can say that they are the worst of the three. Not the wedding itself — I’m not a monster — but the duties and responsibilities of being a bridesmaid these days are just too damn much. That’s why I’ve retired from playing that role ever again. You’re not really allowed to say that as a single woman, lest you come off as bitter, but to hell with that. Hear me out.
The Wedding Industrial Complex tells women (in the most aggressively heteronormative way possible) that their wedding will be the single most important day of their life. Side note: I call bullshit. Let’s say I live to be 80 years old. You’re telling me that out of 29,200 days of living, I only get one day to feel special? That sounds like utter nonsense. But I digress.
This pressure we put onto a singular experience somehow makes it okay for people to spend upwards of $30,000 on a wedding they can’t really afford. It makes it okay for brides to be irrational in their expectations for the “big day.” Lastly, it makes it not okay for bridesmaids to say no to any request made of the bride.
And when you’re the single friend, you feel even more compelled to show up, because single women’s lives and accomplishments are considered secondary to those of wives and mothers. Case in point: Have you ever mentioned to a working mother that you’re tired? Don’t. She’ll tell you how you don’t even know what tiredness is until you have to raise children and a husband while holding down a job. And you know what, Deborah? I don’t know what that’s like — but I’m exhausted from having stayed up rewatching The Office because I have raging anxiety and depression, which often manifest in insomnia. So hey, we’re all fighting our own battles here, boo.
When someone asks you to be a bridesmaid, it is truly an honor. That someone values their relationship with you so much that they want you to stand behind them as they embark on this new journey is an act of love and trust. To accept that offer is a responsibility and a commitment that I never felt equipped to make, but one that I said yes to again and again.
I said yes even when I didn’t have the money. I said yes when my mental health was hanging on by the thinnest of threads, and the dynamic of the friend group to which the bride belonged exacerbated that struggle. I said yes when I didn’t believe the couple should be married. I said yes when I knew that I would have to devote a year of my PTO, extra cash, and time after having just started my first real job.
I said yes because for years I have struggled with people-pleasing and seeking validation from others. And because I was painfully insecure about being the only single friend, I was afraid of being viewed as jealous or bitter for saying no. So each time I was asked to be a bridesmaid — via an intricately decorated box filled with nostalgic pictures and a few of my favorite things, complete with a sentimental card recapping our friendship — I said yes, because I bought into the belief that their wedding was more important than anything I, as a single person, had going on.
As much as I love, respect, and admire my friends, being their bridesmaid was much more than I bargained for. There was the quintessential bridezilla who kicked me out of her wedding because I told her that her behavior towards another bridesmaid wasn’t fair. That was the same bride who, when I communicated the financial strain her wedding preparation was placing on me, told me, “If you can’t participate in every event, then you shouldn’t do it at all.” She followed that gem by saying, “You just don’t seem happy for me.” Dagger to the fucking heart, that one was.
There were, of course, the super-chill brides who didn’t ask for much — but after you add up the cost to get a dress made, then altered; planning and hosting (read: paying for) a bridal shower and a three-day bachelorette trip; the price of the requested nail design, hairstyling, and shoes for the actual day; and roundtrip airfare back and forth for each of these events, it actually is asking quite a bit. Besides the money, being a bridesmaid is also a huge time commitment. I once spent three days in an airport, trying to get to a wedding that ultimately, I never made it to. (Shout out to that actually chill bride for being so understanding and still giving me the loveliest bridesmaid gifts that I use to this day.) I’ve withstood the glares from other bridesmaids who took their role way too seriously. I’ve sat through awkward bachelorette trips with six women I didn’t know, which sometimes devolved into Thunderdome-style fights. And I’ve worn the dresses. Good Lord the dresses.
Everyone cannot be trusted to select appropriate dresses for a group of women with different body types. Everyone simply does not have the vision. If you want to know how the bride feels about you, look at the neckline she chooses for your dress. She is either devoid of an understanding of proportions, or this is her one opportunity to get you back for some shit you did in like third grade. Why was I, at a pre-breast reduction H cup, expected to wear anything that didn’t offer the same structural support as the Eiffel tower? Why? I am still trying to figure out what my past offense was.
I might have been resigned to a lifetime of saying yes to being a bridesmaid when my heart was screaming “no!”, had I not found a sense of community with other single women through the Every Single Day column, and podcasts like Unf*ck Your Brain and A Single Serving. Through these communities, I learned that I’d internalized the flawed messaging surrounding partnership and weddings. I believed that my worth was tied to whether or not I was “chosen” by a man, and my achievements as a single person paled in comparison to the “accomplishment” of marriage. While standing up at some random altar, a few thousand dollars poorer in an ill-fitting dress, I was faced with the fear that this may never happen for me, rendering my life less important and unworthy of celebration. I lived as though I was in a holding pattern of adulthood.
Connecting with other single women (and going to therapy) taught me that it is entirely possible to live a meaningful, juicy single life (as patron saint of single women, Tracee Ellis Ross puts it), worthy of celebration — and also desire partnership. In fact, it’s preferable to live a single life you enjoy, so that you have standards for what a person needs to be in order for you to change that life through marriage. Who knew?
I kept saying yes to being a bridesmaid because I was so afraid of letting anyone else down — even though if I’d simply said no or proposed an alternative way to show up, it probably would have been okay. In the process I let myself down, by prioritizing other people’s needs over my own. But I’m done living like that. Therapy and community have helped me to reframe singlehood into a time of self discovery, joy, independence, and fullness where my needs and desires are the priority. And I’ve done my time as the dutiful bridesmaid. From now on, while I look forward to being a gleeful wedding guest and bringing a great gift, my answer to that honorable request will be a very humble and gracious no.
Welcome to The Single Files. Each installment of Refinery29's bi-monthly column will feature a personal essay that explores the unique joys and challenges of being single right now. Have your own idea you'd like to submit? Email firstname.lastname@example.org.