September and October are becoming increasingly popular months for weddings, overtaking the more traditional wedding month of June, which makes now the perfect time to talk about the wedding industrial complex, or WIC for short. I first heard this term on APracticalWedding.com, where the editor-in-chief Meg Keene wrote a fantastic post on it, and it resonated with me immediately. You see, I’m getting married this weekend. I was in the thick of fighting off the WIC—now I’m almost through!—and it is difficult, despite my knowledge of social psychology.
For those of you who are married, and especially those who got married during the current social media era where social comparison is ever easier, you may already know what I’m talking about. For those of you who would like to get married eventually, consider yourself warned. The WIC is basically all those factors that interact to make the two people getting married feel pressured to have the “right” type of wedding. Note: “right” often translates to traditional and expensive.
The WIC preys on the unsuspecting good-intentioned folks who just want to have a nice wedding. They want to have fun, they want it to be organized and pretty, and they definitely do not want anyone to be hungry. Deciding the specifics that correspond with each of those desires is more ambiguous. Enter the wedding industry. The wedding industry is a $51 billion dollar a year industry that seeks to convince you that you absolutely need to have a fully stocked open bar, and your dress must be Vera Wang with an intricate bouquet to match. Anything less, and your wedding will be just that: less than.
Admittedly, I’m painting a harsh picture of the wedding industry, making them seem calculating and manipulative, all in the goal to get you to spend as much money as possible to have The Perfect Wedding. If I’m being fair, the wedding industry is not the only cause to blame here; after all, the ultimate goal of businesses is to turn a profit. It’s also you. Yes, you, your expectations, societal influence, and more than a little bit of social psychology.
One of the most egregious examples of injunctive wedding norms I’ve ever seen
Why do we feel the need to stress out over seemingly inconsequential details about the wedding (like whether the cumberbund color will clash with the table runners)* when, realistically, we know that a wedding is not about the color scheme? What it really boils down to is social norms. That is, how people “should” behave and how people are actually behaving. The former is an injunctive norm, and it implies there’s a right and wrong way to do things. The latter is a descriptive norm, and it describes how people are actually behaving.
The injunctive norm tells us that weddings are supposed to have a sit down dinner, that paper flowers are not okay, that not having a bridal party—gasp!—is totally crossing the line. I won’t even get into the proscribed norms about how a bride should look. The descriptive norm incorporates all those wedding experiences of your friends, family, celebrities, and the wedding industry as if to say, “See? This is how weddings are happening all across your world.” Descriptive doesn’t imply that an action or event is right or wrong, but the boundary between descriptive and injunctive seems to get blurry when wedding planning is involved.
Clearly, both types of norms contribute to the wedding industrial complex, because they draw in a person’s experiences and exposure to what the mainstream culture suggests is appropriate for a wedding.
So how can you escape the seemingly impenetrable wedding industrial complex? Well, you can use norms to your own advantage. Specifically, use descriptive norms in a way that promotes and helps your wedding experience. Make your wedding the norm. After all, your wedding should count as much as any of the others. Seek out additional sources of support (like apracticalwedding.com) that diminish any injunctive norms, because there really isn’t a right or wrong way to do weddings. Finally, even if you aren’t planning a wedding yourself right now, be supportive of anyone who is. Don’t contribute to the wedding industrial complex by imposing injunctive norms on anyone. You may have been part of the problem, but you can also be part of the solution!
Wish me luck this weekend.
*Some profanity in here. Potentially NSFW.
**The traditional wedding I’m drawing my norms from refers primarily to a middle-upper class wedding. Admittedly, weddings of all shapes and sizes exists with their own accompanying pressures!