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Bridesmaids Revisited

Gaby's Wedding

Take it from someone who knows, really knows; bridesmaiding is not glamorous work, but a hard slog at buffering the bride and groom in the social occasion war zone -- you are putting your body on the line.

September 30, 2006 was a day of important events in Little America. Firstly it was the AFL Grand Final, which saw the West Coast Eagles defeat the Sydney Swans by a single thrilling point. Secondly it was the marriage of my sister to a man now referred to as Mr. McHummel. Thirdly it was the day I shucked off my wrist corsage and drew the following line: no more bridesmaiding. Not because I’m afraid of superstition banning me from the altar after my third time round, but because in Little America, and I’ll assume universally, bridesmaiding is a tough and noxious business, a gig no girl really embraces but at the same time can’t easily refuse. I tried, but was shot down with accusations of emotional blackmail. It didn’t occur to me until later that talking me into being a bridesmaid in the first place demanded a form of manipulation sneakier than anything I had attempted.

Dazed by guilt and emotional turmoil, I agreed. Soon I became accustomed to the role and even quite keen about my duties, in the same way a sentenced prisoner becomes used to his feloniousness and pickaxe. Both times I’ve been a bridesmaid I’ve started off this way, not only because I like the massages and manicures, lunches and champagne, handcrafting invitations and buying presents, but because I’ve wanted to please the brides who’ve asked me to jeopardize my sanity for their wedding. The trouble with bridesmaiding -- and being part of the institution that is The Wedding -- is that the horror of it creeps up on you gradually, so the full extent of the damage is only apparent through objective example or in retrospect.

The Bridesmaid’s Predicament is illustrated by the plight of Lydia in that great existential masterpiece of the last century, Four Weddings and a Funeral. When we first see Lydia she is clearly into bridesmaiding. Caught up in osmotic happiness and smiling her head off, she is the first to hop out of the wedding car and the last to stop fussing over the bride’s dress. Yet at the end of the wedding reception, Bernard finds Lydia slumped alone over a table, bored and depressed:

Bernard: How's it going, Lyds?

Lydia: Bloody awful.

Bernard: Oh dear, what's the prob?

Lydia: I was promised sex. Everybody said it. You'll be a bridesmaid, you'll get sex, you'll be fighting 'em off. But not so much as a tongue in sight.

Bernard: Well, I mean, if you fancy anything, I could always...

Lydia: Oh, don't be ridiculous, Bernard. I'm not that desperate.

In literal terms, I didn’t have the same problem as Lydia. For one thing, I’d been up since dawn and was too buggered to think of anything but sleeping, and for another she ends up snogging Bernard anyway, and there was no-one to compare. But the essence of Lydia’s woe was true for me, and probably has been for centuries of bridesmaids everywhere. Anyone who knows of the labours, trials, insults and come-ons a bridesmaid endures cannot fail to see the reason why we are delighted before the wedding begins and depressed before it ends. For the unenlightened, here are some of my own (freshly un-repressed) memories of what happened to me on the day in question, to use as justification for future refusals if anyone asks me to be a bridesmaid ever again.

Trauma #1: Hair

Worried about leaving my dog at home alone all day while I was busy bridesmaiding, I planned to take him out for a 7am run on the beach after which I would engage in some soothing yoga and eat a leisurely detoxifying breakfast. My plans were thwarted by the bullying ways of Moustachioed Roberto, the hairdresser who insisted on us girls arriving at 7am for our hair to be done in time for the 4pm wedding. So I relinquished one and a half hour’s worth of much-needed sleep, hit the beach early, cut yoga from my schedule, jumped in the shower and bolted down some soggy muesli. My mood still buoyant, I couldn’t for the life of me think why hair was so time-consuming and important (that’s why I don’t write for Vogue, I suppose.) From 7.05am til 12pm I sat avoiding my reflection, while a girl half my height applied hot tongs to my head until it was a mass of curls and singed scalp. The result of these dead hours was that the bride looked lovely, rather like Lana Turner with an up-do, whereas I looked more like Lana Turner’s pet poodle.

Trauma #2: Frock

After lunch we were about 20 minutes into So I Married An Axe Murderer, another metaphysical cinema classic especially selected for the occasion, when the make-up girls arrived. Although there was nothing painful about this in itself, make-up also meant the time was nigh for donning my frock. It’s a terrible cliché that all bridesmaids’ dresses are hideous and I am glad that I am able to refute it. My dress, a silvery little concoction from Cooper St Clothing, was and is lovely. On the clothes hanger. On the matron on honour. Not so much on me. In fact, when I put it on that afternoon I finally realised who I reminded myself of: a younger, overgrown Fergie draped in her grandmother’s lace curtains.

I was told I had a choice in the matter of the frock, but that statement, like the question 'Will you be my bridesmaid?' misleadingly implied I had options. Since the dress fitted me, the other girls loved it, and there were no alternatives, the matter was pretty much sewn up. It is another cliché to say that all dress shop retail assistants are evil anorexic trolls. I’m glad to report this is false. Most of the time. Except when I tried on my bridesmaid dress. The assistant looked me up and down and commented that the frock 'was not overly big', implying, of course, that I was too large (but I run! and I do yoga! and eat soaked wheat-free muesli for breakfast!) In actual fact the frock went on without a problem, but as to flattering…well. I must be a freak of nature, because how else could the dress, perfectly nice on everyone else, drown out my waist and transform my neck into a tree stump when hanging from my body? At the time I was too humiliated by the presence of said evil troll to leave the dressing room and check myself out properly in the mirror. If I had, I might have noticed the frumpish Fergie resemblance earlier and had time to come to terms with it before the wedding.

Trauma #3: Photos

Being photographed is never my favourite occupation, especially a few days after being told I’m overly big, but it was no hardship on the day of the wedding until about the 15th pose, when the traffic slowed down outside my parent’s front garden for motorists to gawk at the spectacle, and the muscles in my cheeks locked into my 'nice, big smile'. To save my face for the rest of the day, I devised a strategy: I’d throw back my head and laugh, see, instead of smiling, see, thereby releasing endorphins and giving me a natural gaiety, while also giving my masseters a badly needed stretch. Nothing prepared me, though, for the tricks those sadistic camera-monkeys made us perform post-ceremony: we ran barefoot along the beach, dodging razor fish and stinky seaweed, jumped up and down in the air like we were advertising Toyotas, all the while looking photogenic (or in my case, like a braying donkey) and ever so natural.

Trauma #4: Mingling

I was looking forward to the ceremony because it meant that being groomed was over. For a brief moment I was able to relax under the shade of the marquee, listening to soft vows and funny asides, enjoying the spectacle of the spring sunshine wash over the nearby ocean. Then the ceremony ended with applause (to the dismay of my mother, who thinks it an appalling Americanism that has no place in an Australian wedding) and the reception hobnobbing began.

I really did the best I could under very trying circumstances. You must believe that. I bore with good grace the comment, 'It’ll be your turn next, ha ha!' over and over (and over). I kissed a lot of elderly relatives and hairy strangers. I also put up with the wedding guest from hell, because there’s always one, if not more. In this case it was a know-it-all, spotlight-grabbing turd-on-legs called -- we'll call him 'Maurice' -- life partner to one of my mother’s friends. Maurice was somewhat confused by the point of the wedding; evidently he thought it a backdrop to the starring role he occupies in his own private "Day in the Life" show. He had gone to great pains to make sure the catering on his film set was up to standard: his girlfriend rang through his dietary requirements, then he contacted the venue to obtain the details of the menu, then he rang up my mother to inquire as to the same, and then on the day of the wedding, literally minutes before the ceremony, he accosted the groom to ask him the very same question that had been answered ('No, Maurice, we are not feeding you chicken and yes, Maurice, we do have your diabetic cake') weeks before.

The set arrangement wasn’t up to par either, as he somehow contrived two chairs for himself and his girlfriend, despite the fact seats were only meant for family members and there was more than one pregnant guest who stood out the fifteen-minute ceremony on her feet. After entrée Maurice had me summoned and because I was on my best behaviour I appeared at his side with a crisp, "You wanted to talk to me, sir?" to which he replied, with deadly irony deficiency, "No need to call me sir." Our conversation consisted of him hammering me with questions and then interrupting my answers to provide them himself. Didn’t I go to his gym? Yes, he’d seen me there. Did I know the big fat man who goes to aquaerobics? That’s right, I swim there on Fridays. Why didn’t I go at night? Of course, I can’t drive. Wasn’t I still studying? Oh yes, I’d just finished my degree. As well as a chicken-abstainer and film star in his own right, Maurice was such an expert on everything Kathryn that I begin to suspect someone must be secretly web-camming my life. Hello, out there?

Trauma #5: Dancing

I don’t dance accurately, but I dance with wonderful expression. I also enjoy it, especially when a fabulous jazz band, like the one hired for the wedding, is playing. Being a bridesmaid means you must set an example and encourage others to get out of their seats and onto the dance floor. This proved impossible since most of the guests were moving and shaking politicians and trade unionists who were at the wedding solely to network and guzzle as much free booze as they could hold. Except for when I swung outrageously to Tu Vuo' Fa L'Americano with my second cousin (sad but true), and a time when my sterling example stirred four girls and a handful of couples into action, the band played loudly to no-one and my attempts to shift bums resulted in blatant lies about sore legs and various other sporting injuries. Strangely enough, when the music was interrupted for the bouquet toss (another Americanism, says my mother darkly), the floor became flooded with writhing bodies. Wasted of enthusiasm, I stood to the front of the crowd and didn’t even attempt to make a catch, although with my alleged largeness I could have wiped out the whole field.

Bridesmaiding ended that day with me leaning over my bathroom sink at 1am, half-dead, swabbing my face with litres of cold cream and fields of cotton wool. My frock spent the night pooled on the floor, my withering corsage in the fridge, but my poodle curls remained with me til the next morning, calcified by hairspray. The happy couple passed the night very happily indeed and no ceremonial after-effects were apparent when I saw them the next day. The very fact that I was still alive to see them is proof that a spot of bridesmaiding won’t kill you, and is a stroll in the park compared to being a humanitarian aid worker or doctor with Médecins Sans Frontières (I imagine). But however you’re persuaded into it, remember that bridesmaiding is not glamorous work, but a hard slog at buffering the bride and groom in the social occasion war zone. Like those hard working people in the front lines of human suffering, you, too, are putting your body on the line.


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