A typical reaction to an engagement announcement includes a congratulatory exclamation and a demand to see the ring. What irks me about this reaction is that the bling seems to outshine the thing that really matters: the person you’ve chosen to make a lifelong commitment to. What this reaction illustrates is just how much our consumer culture has permeated even the most sacred, the most intimate decision the human heart makes.
I’ve told Nathan countless times not to buy me an engagement ring, but the peanut gallery often undermines me, giving Nathan the aside, “she doesn’t mean that.” Actually, peanuts, I do. If I don’t find meaning in a tradition, or rather, if I find all the wrong meanings in it, then why participate? For many women, the diamond symbolizes the eternal nature of love. But it’s a symbol I never bought into (pun intended, bonus points for collecting them all). I don’t understand why the symbol of a lifelong partnership is so frivolous and gender biased. Why would a couple just starting their lives together spend so much money on something that literally does nothing? It just sits on a finger, and sometimes by the sink.
Imagine explaining this tradition to an alien: The man saves up for months to buy a rock dug up from the ground, most likely by exploited workers of color, in dangerous conditions (If you think that diamond of yours is fair trade then prove it with something more than a piece of paper furnished by a mostly unregulated industry. The truth is you can never really know what the working conditions are: if the workers aren’t in direct physical danger, chances are they are underpaid and overworked. Don’t believe me? Google it and read the scores of articles highlighting the industry’s challenges, exploitation being only one of many). After he’s done his research and has fooled himself into thinking the rock is ethical (or at least concedes that unethical exchanges are often difficult to avoid and he has no choice in the matter because society demands this act from him), he then places the dusted off, questionably sourced rock on the finger of his beloved. That’s it. “Why doesn’t the ring fold out into a new apartment, something she really needs?” asks the alien. (I like the way this alien thinks.)
So, don’t get a diamond, you say. How about a nice ruby or emerald, you persist, ignoring the perfectly good point made by the alien. That doesn’t address the gender inequality of the gesture. Why doesn’t the man get a gift? How can I teach a class on gender, stand in front of my students and push them to challenge gender norms and recognize patriarchal ideologies in fairy tales, Disney movies, clothing trends, song lyrics, magazine covers, legislative bills and relationship dynamics while wearing a ring reminiscent of Victorian era female dependency and male ownership? Why do we even need a gift exchange to be part of the engagement ritual? Isn’t a promise to spend forever together enough? Must the market be involved for love to be recognized?? (That last question is for you, Marx.) While we’re spitting in the face of tradition: I don’t want you on bended knee, either, Nathan. I want you to stand beside me and make this promise to me, eye to eye, as equals.
Lastly, and, most importantly, I want our kids to grow up seeing a ring-less mommy as normal. I want to model for them that it’s ok to challenge traditions and encourage them to create their own. They will face a lot of pressure to conform in every way imaginable and I want them to be able to say, “Nah. That just isn’t me.”
My intention is not to make those of you who have a sparkly band on feel bad. Chances are, you look down on your ring and are reminded of a romantic and life changing moment, charged with love and happiness. In fact, I hope you do! Of course, I don’t think all traditions should be abandoned; I just think we should take a critical look at our customs and only engage in them if the value of the practice rings true to us. I have my own traditions that I’m sure many see as frivolous or wasteful such as decorating Christmas trees, carving pumpkins and tucking my dog in at night (ok, so Nathan does that but I love it). I think that when seeped with personal meaning and reflective of our belief systems, rituals can mark milestones in life in beautiful and ceremonious ways. It’s just that my engagement milestone doesn’t need an actual stone.