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Wedded to old times Do you love me enough to become Mr Asthana? My problem with marriage And the bride wore botox...
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Do you dream of that perfect day, where all eyes are on you, where you are proclaiming your love to another... or does the thought of it bring you up in a cold sweat? Personally I get the urge to run away. Landing a man is assumed to be a womanâ€™s main goal in life, to become crazed bridezillas then devoted wives. Shelling out a fortune for just one day, to have the gigantic pressure to look as amazing as possible, even give up our names. Is this what is wanted anymore? Is it still the dream?
What has happened to just being with the one you love?
Is there such a thing as the white wedding dream or has it become a nightmare?
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It was touchingly romantic. A freezing midwinter day, the snow swirling around. We were standing on a bridge over a river. And then - without any warning - he went down on one knee and asked me to marry him. Misty-eyed, and carried away by the emotion of the moment, I said yes.
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I've regretted it ever since. Not because getting married was a mistake - anything but, in fact, since we're about to celebrate our 20th anniversary and have four lovely daughters. The regret isn't about the marriage, it's about the proposal. What were we thinking of, shackling ourselves to some outmoded convention that dictates that it's a man's prerogative to decide when and where a couple opt to spend their lives together? What possessed us, two people with progressive views about the world, to throw ourselves back into the 18th century when it came to making the most important joint decision of our lives? According to convention, it's the bloke who gets to take the decision about when, where and how a couple decide to get married. The only exception to the antiquated rule is in a leap year, like we're in now. On February 29, today, comes the one day in four years when it's deemed acceptable for a woman to ask a man to marry her. It would be nice to think there isn't much call in the 21st century for a special day on which women can "pop the question" because they're popping it already, every day of the year. Alas no. Monica may have proposed to Chandler in Friends, but offscreen - depressingly - women tend to wait (and sometimes wait and wait) for men to take the lead. One poll found that fewer than one in 10 marriage proposals involves a woman going down, metaphorically speaking, on one knee; almost all the rest were down to men grasping the nettle. Surprisingly few couples decide to get married on a joint basis - simply by having a conversation about their future, and their feelings for one another and deciding they want to go through life side by side.
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It's surprising because it seems clear to me that it's the most sensible way to approach a decision of that significance: deciding to care for one another emotionally and physically for years and decades, and possibly to raise children together, is a choice of almost breathtaking enormity. And while romance, and romantic gestures, have their place in that other country that is a long-term relationship, romance isn't what I'd call an essential cornerstone. Commitment, hard graft, loyalty, pulling together, working as a team - all these are far more important foundations for marriage than romance. The problem with putting the onus on a bloke to propose is that, in our day and age, it bears no relation to the way we otherwise live inside our relationships. It's muddled thinking, because it belongs to another era, an era when men really did take a lot of decisions, and really did believe they could own women (hence that other outmoded tradition of name-changing). What we want - what we need - is a model for engagement that reflects the fact that both partners in a marriage are equal players and reach decisions by joint discussion. That would provide a better foundation at the start of a marriage for the way we want it to go on; and if we made the very beginning of married life more realistic and more organic, it might provide a stronger basis for success. In a nutshell, marriage - like everything else - should start as it means to go on. Most of us aren't going to wait for our men to move on all future decisions, so why leave it to them to start the ball rolling on this one? The best contribution we could make to the future of marriage this leap year would be to chuck sexist convention out of the window forever, and make any engagement that involves a man going down on one knee a thing of the past.
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It was the first time I had heard of anything like it. So many people I know simply assume it will, and ought to, be the other way around. Even those female friends who are determined to keep their surname concede, in most cases, that their husband will keep his own and pass it on to their children. These are women I would call feminists. They want successful careers, comparable salaries and partners prepared to share the childcare. Yet here is one custom that many of them have never questioned. Nor have their partners. Adam is the first man I have come across who would happily change his surname to that of his wife. 'It's traditional; it's expected; it's the way I imagined it would be,' my friend Rosie explained after I brought it up over a drink. An hour later and we had not come up with one good reason why. The only point that had any logic to me was the notion of a 'family name' for parents and children, but then why should it be the man's? After all, this is a big thing to give up. One of my friends said losing her name would be like losing her arm. 'It is your identity,' granted Rosie. 'It is huge, but it's something I accept. Someone has to give it up and it has always been the woman.' But where did it come from? In his book Face of Britain, The Observer's Robin McKie writes that surnames were introduced during Norman times, when authorities wanted a way to assign ownership of business and property. The surname became an ancient form of the identity card, McKie argues, and the reason that it was passed down through the male was simple: men owned everything and women inherited nothing. Could there be any better reason to end this tired tradition? It is not as if it is entrenched worldwide. Recently, in Uganda, I met women whose daughters took their surnames while boys took their father's. In Britain, the best is a halfway house, where women do not give up their name, but rarely pass it on to their husband or descendants. Occasionally, there are couples who choose a third, neutral name. But it is time to go a step further. Time for a rebellion stretching far beyond the fringes. Time for men to sacrifice something for love. It has been a millennium since surnames first entered this island; 1,000 years in which men have dominated the family tree. It is our turn now.
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As a woman, something very strange happens as you approach 30 - friends who previously seemed quite sensible either start shelling out incredible wads of cash for their weddings, or whipping themselves into frenzies over being single. Faced with this recently, I found myself questioning why the idea of marriage retains such a hold over us. I suspected that, like all conservative institutions, marriage helped preserve the status quo, and thus the dominance of men - specifically middle-class white men. And as I started researching the subject for a book, I was taken aback by how accurate this notion is. Let's get this clear: I like men, and my opinion isn't based on bitterness, bitchiness or spinsterish rage. It is about marriage itself - a bloated, aged, outdated institution, which consistently screws women over while selling them a snake oil vision of romance. Just consider its history. Once upon a time, marriage tied a single woman to a single man for life, to the extent that, legally at least, said woman became part of her husband. According to Sir William Blackstone's Commentaries on the Laws of England, published in the 1760s: "The very being of legal existence of the woman is suspended during the marriage or at least incorporated and consolidated into that of the husband." Marriage asserted paternity; in doing so, however, it also entrusted men with the ownership of women's bodies and reproductive abilities. Marriage was a deathly serious contract that bound two people in the sight of a god that, these days, few of us even believe in. Wedding rings have always been the symbol of this contract. In ancient Rome a man claimed a woman with the giving of a ring, making it a sign of ownership rather than affection. Greek and Italian custom dictated the giving of complex puzzle rings - very difficult to remove or replace quickly - as a way of ensuring a wife's fidelity. In most European countries, the ring was traditionally exchanged along with a promise of money from the bride's father, which was often the primary motivation for the marriage. Cash, mistrust and ownership - hardly a recipe for romance. Until 1840 brides were wed in a variety of colours, but in that year Queen Victoria set the trend for wearing white. It's not a coincidence that her era was also the one in which the traditional belief that women were lustier and earthier than men (remember that temptress Eve?) was replaced by the notion of the sacred feminine, of women as symbols of ethereal purity. This desexualising, patronising vision led to generations of belief in the idea of "the little woman", including the notion that women's delicate sensibilities are unsuitable for the harshness of life outside the home.
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Another less-than-brilliant custom that still crops up is that old chestnut of asking for a woman's hand in marriage. These days this is often viewed as charmingly old-fashioned, but what woman wants to be handed from father to husband like a prize cow? Likewise, the custom of fathers giving their daughters away at the altar: a symbolic handing of the woman from one owner to another. And don't get me started on the whole changing-your-name debacle. While it's easy to laugh off all this symbolism, the fact is marriage is statistically still much, much better for men than for women. It is common now to suggest that marriage - and particularly divorce - is wonderful for women's pockets. If a marriage goes well, it's often supposed, a woman can sit around eating bon-bons while her husband sweats away his youth; if the marriage breaks down, she can score a great settlement. In fact, women are better off financially without marriage. Research by Jan Pahl at the University of Kent found that in over half of British marriages the men have more money to spend on themselves than their wives do. A recent US study also found that, while 20% of unmarried women outearned their partners by at least $5,000 (ÂŁ2,450), only 15% of married women did the same. And that's not taking into account single women. It's not relationships that are the problem; it's marriage. Then there was a global survey of 17,000 people in 27 countries, that came to the conclusion that married men do significantly less housework than their wives - and, astoundingly, less than their co-habiting male counterparts. The research suggested that marriage altered the division of labour between couples, pushing the female partner into doing more "woman's work" while her new husband presumably relaxed with a beer in front of the football. Researcher Shannon Davis, of George Mason University, said: "Marriage as an institution seems to have a traditionalising effect on couples. It's the way the society has defined what being married means that affects behaviour."
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If economic penury and piles of washing up don't bother you, you might want to think about another insidious effect of marriage. We are constantly inundated with reports about how marriage is good for our health, but it's not actually that clear-cut. While marriage may generally be beneficial, in those cases where a relationship descends into fighting, it's far more harmful to women than to men. Research by psychologist Robert W Levenson, of the University of California at Berkeley, illustrates that wives suffer the ill-effects of arguments far more than their husbands, because they remain stressed for longer - which has negative consequences for physical and mental health. Dr Janice Kiecolt-Glaser, of Ohio State University, monitored the healing process in the bodies of couples whose relationship was initially supportive but later deteriorated into nastiness, and found that wives invariably suffered more from the change than their husbands. Researchers from the University of Pittsburgh and San Diego State University, who looked at data from more than 400 healthy women, found that marital dissatisfaction tripled a woman's chances of metabolic syndrome, a group of risk factors for heart disease, with unhappily married women more at risk than single women or divorcees. In 2000, a Swedish study found that women with coronary heart disease had a greater risk of recurrence if there was severe stress in their marriages, while stress at work didn't seem to have a significant effect. Marriage is, overall then, a pointlessly venerated, thoroughly out-of-date institution. It is hard to see what the benefits for women are, aside from encouraging relatives to shower you with generous wedding gifts. So why do we do it? Why the continued obsession with flaunting our love as publicly as possible, while tying ourselves to these restrictive legal contracts? Marriage obviously quite suits a patriarchal society, helping to keep women in our place for the estimated 200 years it will take for the pay gap to close. Next time you are tempted by a big white dress, remember: it might just damage your health ...
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'Things I did in preparation for my wedding included running, starving myself, having Eve Lom facials, a fake tan, my hair cut and dyed - I still have no idea why I dyed it - a manicure, a pedicure and my hair done," says Charlotte MacInnes, recalling her wedding three years ago. All of which might sound ridiculously excessive, but when it comes to your average wedding preparation is actually pretty modest. As wedding season approaches, another crop of brides is currently immersed in a torturous process of self-improvement. It is hardly breaking news that women face daily pressure to look good, but most of the time this pressure is a background hum: mildly annoying for some, extremely so for others, but a hum, nonetheless. Then a woman decides to get married. A day looms on which she knows that she will be photographed, videotaped and scrutinised by everyone present. A slight paranoia ensues. And into this window of insecurity marauds an entire industry intent on feeding off the natural desire to look your best. That background hum increases in pitch and intensity, until it is a screaming chorus of, "But will your nail varnish match the flowers?" A recent report in Newsweek magazine highlighted the lengths that US women are going to in preparation for their wedding day, including teeth-straightening, Botox and extreme dieting. It cited academic research that found that 70% of US women who were engaged were trying to lose more than 20lb in time for their wedding, and a further 20% were closely monitoring their weight. Of those who were trying to lose weight, more than 20% were taking an approach that the researchers perceived as "extreme", including downing laxatives, vomiting after meals and adopting a new-found smoking habit as a way to stave off hunger pangs.
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And the phenomenon of intensive wedding preparation is just as prevalent in the UK, with a wide array of weight-loss books targeted at British brides - including Gillian McKeith's Wedding Countdown Diet, and Perfect Bride: the Complete Beauty, Diet and Exercise Countdown. There are also hundreds of UK personal trainers who market themselves specifically to brides, and a bridal boot camp in Wokingham which offers intensive 10-week weight-loss programmes and introductions to "beauticians, hair stylists, nutritionists and image consultants". A bridal body image survey for You & Your Wedding magazine reveals that 91% of respondents intend to lose weight for their wedding, 7% are planning to have rhinoplasty, 8% are opting for breast enlargements and 5% are preparing for a breast reduction. And then there are fake-tan companies such as Sienna X, which recently launched a bridal service that includes an entire schedule of tan "fittings" for three months before the wedding - to ensure you end up with exactly the right shade. The subject of serious weight-loss crops up all over the internet wedding forums. One woman talks of starting a diet 18 months before her wedding; another has bought a wedding dress three sizes too small as motivation; another is living on 1,000 calories a day - half the recommended intake - for six months, and feels that she is "letting herself down" by having a cup of tea, due to the calorie content of the milk. Another forum member explains that although she is happy with her size and has thyroid problems that make extreme dieting a bad idea, she has stopped eating during the day after colleagues wondered aloud why she wasn't buckling down to a weight-loss regime.
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And that last story underlines the social pressures heaped on women about to be wed. Victoria Laser, who is getting married this year, admits that she doesn't need to lose weight, but cultural pressures have led her "to think about going to the gym more often. I know I don't need to, but I do want to look my best."Another comment thread on a wedding website is titled "How did you know your dress was 'the one'?" and forlornly asks, "What feeling did you get? I was expecting to feel butterflies and want to cry but I didn't." In a recent online survey for Onewedding, 21% of married women said that finding the dress was the most stressful part of the whole process and that the cost of the wedding outfit had accounted for 16% of their total budget, (a massive amount when you consider that the "average" wedding now costs almost ÂŁ20,000). "I almost had a panic attack over having to choose," says Amy Lyddall, an alternative therapist who is getting married this summer. "I always had this feeling that I should try just one more shop because the perfect dress might be there. But the dresses don't fit properly because they're all one size, so they're pinned in or let out and you're made to try on dresses you don't like and it's a lot of hanging around in your underwear being bullied." Many women report having been insulted on visits to bridal shops. "One dressmaker made a comment about the size of my hips and another about the size of my breasts", says one, while another was told, "Well, of course, you will be losing weight before the big day," even though the dress she was trying on fitted perfectly. And this type of bullying and condescension is also applied to women's tastes. "Every time I was about to say, 'I really like this'," one woman tells me, "they'd say, 'Oh, that doesn't flatter your figure.'" A survey last year coined the phrase "Competitive Wedding Syndrome" after 60% of respondents said they wanted guests to think their wedding was "the best they had ever been to". But it doesn't seem that brides are experiencing smug delight at improving their appearance: only panic at what's expected of them.
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"When I got engaged, my friend showed me this book," says Laser, "and every page was filled with details of makeup artists, hairdressers, photographers and how much they charged ... I thought, 'My God, how am I ever going to know all that?'" Back on the wedding forums, one member offers to share her 20-page word document of possible hairstyles, featuring 200 pictures. Others ask about Botox, cosmetic surgery and hair extensions. From the outside, it seems like madness. But the pressures are apparently almost impossible to resist. You could say bollocks to it and get married in something from Topshop, but it's not easy for any woman who has grown up with the beauty myth - even if she's actually read The Beauty Myth - to do that on the one day still marked most seriously by old-fashioned notions of femininity. One woman I spoke to became so stressed, she ended up cancelling her plans and opted instead for a tiny register-office wedding. "But I will probably have my hair and makeup done on the day," she says. "Even though it's only our parents there to see it, I still want to look as beautiful as I can. I can't even really explain it," she pauses, "but I do".
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