I'll always remember the first time I entered a bridal shop: accompanying an engaged friend as she attempted to get to grips with the range of white puffy floor-length things available to the modern bride. A few moments later, persuaded to try on the shop's most expensive and offensive garment, the vision of my most stylish friend swathed in a sequins-tulle-lace-spangles nightmare overcame me: I giggled.
'I'm sorry!' I said, attempting to stifle the mirth. 'It's just that I...could never imagine myself in your position.'
My friend turned and smiled at me from beneath a veil that the saleswoman had draped over her head for effect.
'Don't worry!' she said, gesticulating with the dusty bouquet of plastic flowers that the shop had also kindly provided her with. 'You'll find someone.'
Jane Austen wrote of the universally-acknowledged truth that men of good fortune must want wives, but these days accepted wisdom still seems to hold that single women of a certain age are riven with envy when they have to witness another woman tie the knot. And no time so much like the present: the spectre of Kate Middleton snagging the heir to throne is meant to have us prostrated with grief. 'It should've been me!' read the t-shirts and tea towels. Even in spite of last week's poll that found that the vast majority of us have no desire to be Kate, single women being jealous of brides remains as important a part of the romantic narrative as the happily-ever-after bit.
I've happily attended about ten weddings sans partner over the last five years, delighted to support and celebrate my friends. But at every ceremony where I've turned up with a handbag as my only arm candy, someone (or several someones) at some point in the proceedings has offered well-meaning but misplaced sympathy for the poignant ache I must be feeling. Or the phone numbers of their nephews or single male friends ('He's not that old! He's a dentist!), in the hopes of helping me to satisfy my own painful desire to be a bride.
I can understand why this kind of jealousy might have been a genuine thing in days (in living memory, it's worth noting) when most women depended on their husbands to grant them social status and income. Despite my best efforts, sometimes I can't help but get a little green-eyed on occasion when I hear of someone scoring a job I would love. So I can see how when women's material well-being – and even their intangible sense of achievement – depended on and their husbands, it might be possible to wish that one was sashaying down the aisle in lieu of the woman in the white dress. To forget that life can be very rich and interesting and satisfying in spite of not being that woman.
But now that we have the freedom, for the most part, to make relationship decisions that are not purely motivated by economics, the desire of one person to get married really has nothing to do with the decision of two other people to tie the knot. Unless you are actually passionately in love with groom (a different kind of problem altogether), thinking 'it should have been me' is ridiculous. Wedlock in and of itself no longer a goal worth seeking if it's not entered in to with a loving partner, and it's high time that we dispel the notion that women feel like they've failed unless they've gotten someone – it seems that anyone will do, in this kind of fairy tale - to put a ring on it.
And that's why the extension of comfort to the single woman at a wedding (or a bunting-heavy street party) is a well-meaning insult. It fails to acknowledge what is now the real truth: that women are able to celebrate other people's happiness without even a tinge of sadness that we're not the centre of attention. We don't think it should've been us, because getting married is no longer a competition run against a stopwatch; because the agency to choose whether we do it and who we do it with is precious; because for the most part, we're not marrying for status and money; and because it takes an incredible leap of logic to think that the life choices of some famous strangers have anything to do with our own. But that's probably too many points for one tea towel.
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