Friday, May 11 at 1 p.m. ET

Books -- 'One Perfect Day: The Selling of the American Wedding'

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Rebecca Mead
Author, journalist
Friday, May 11, 2007; 1:00 PM

Are you or is someone you know a bridezilla? Why does the average wedding now cost tens of thousands of dollars? Author Rebecca Mead discusses her book, "One Perfect Day: The Selling of the American Wedding," the result of three years of research into the the $161-billion wedding industry.

Mead, a staff writer for the New Yorker, was online Friday, May 11 at 1 p.m. ET to take your questions and comments.

Mead will be appearing at Olsson's Books in Arlington (2111 Wilson Boulevard; 703-525-4227) at 7 p.m. on May 16.

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Rebecca Mead: Hi, everyone, I'm Rebecca Mead and I'm looking forward to fielding your questions about the wedding industry... let's take it away.

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Washington, D.C.: Your Publishers Weekly blurb says you thought that blaming brides for being Bridezillas was an inadequate explanation. How so? All industries want to maximize profits, and if there are hysterical control freaks and passive enablers out there, they will be exploited. You don't have to buy into that garbage. Why shouldn't we blame the brides -- and grooms -- who choose to make these things into nightmares?

Rebecca Mead: I think what we really should be asking is why the caricature of the Bridezilla figure has grasped the public imagination in the way that she has. I think it's because many people -- not just those with a daughter or a friend who has gone wedding-crazy -- have started to think that there's a larger problem with the way weddings are conducted in this country. Why has this become a $161-billion dollar industry, and is it a good thing that it has? I'm more interested in looking at the cultural forces that created the figure of the so-called Bridezilla than at the antics of individual brides brides gone wild.

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Seoul, S. Korea: I've heard an interesting theory about why weddings are so expensive - that paying thousands (or tens of thousands) of dollars is a way to publicly demonstrate credibility behind a commitment (to raise children and stay together until death). In other words, nobody would believe such a promise unless the parties demonstrated the depth of their intent by first paying a high cost. This is the same reason, by the way, why new members of a group usually have to pass through a hazing process.

Rebecca Mead: There's certainly an element of magical thinking that goes on with planning a wedding (and that is encouraged by the wedding industry): that the bigger the wedding, the bigger the commitment. Of course, it doesn't work that way at all. I interviewed one celebrity wedding planner, Preston Bailey, two of whose most spectacular weddings were for Liza Minnelli and David Gest, and for Melissa Rivers, the daughter of Joan Rivers. Both those marriages ended in divorce. And look at Prince Charles and Princess Diana...

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Silver Spring, Md.: I was wondering if you noticed whether the wedding industry is trying to appeal to same-sex couples now too. As part of a same-sex couple, I always felt removed from the wedding pressure and hullabaloo. But, with growing acceptance of gay civil unions and (in Massachusetts and Canada) weddings, it seems that some in the industry might reach into this generally untapped market.

Rebecca Mead: Definitely. While I was reporting the book I went to a same-sex wedding fair where vendors were offering just the same kind of products and services as you'd see at a bridal fair, though tailored to the specific market. Wyndham hotels were promoting themselves as a honeymoon destination for same-sex couples with an ad that read, "I want to go to a place where I don't have to call my boyfriend my brother."

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Washington, D.C.: Hey Rebecca, This is Michelle Singletary, personal finance columnist at The Post.

I haven't read your book yet -- and I will -- but a Publishers Weekly review says in your investigations you found that goods and services providers alter marital traditions -- and even invent new ones -- to feed their bottom line. What are some of the the things people do know in the name of tradition that were simply made up by merchants?

I also loved this line from the review that you expose the "ugly underbelly of our Bridezilla culture."

Finally, what was the worse money-grubbing thing you've witnessed or found?

My personal favorite are brides and grooms who send out the word that they want money because after all they've been living together for years and don't need more stuff. They just want the invited guests to foot the bill for the wedding and honeymoon.

Rebecca Mead: One is the diamond engagement ring, which was turned into a wedding essential by the DeBeers diamond company beginning in the 1930s. But I think brides and grooms will be surprised to discover how many elements of a wedding that are thought of as essential now were not seen that way not so long ago. I came across one survey done in the 1930s of middle-American, middle-class brides and grooms, and of them, one third had not had an engagement ring, one third had not had a reception in addition to a wedding ceremony, and one third had not had a honeymoon. Of course, these "traditions" of NOT having a ring, reception, or honeymoon are not ones it is in the wedding industry's interests to promote!

One of my favorite wedding products that I came across while researching "One Perfect Day" was something called the Heirloom Ornament: an engraved pewter disk that the bride is supposed to give to her flower girl (engraved with flowers) or her ring bearer (engraved with a cushion). Of course the definition of an heirloom is something that is handed down from generation to generation, not bought over the counter at the bridal store, but the product plays on the very powerful idea that you are participating in tradition by buying it.

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Arlington, Va.: I am so tired of hearing people say, "can you believe they spent $30,000 on their wedding, that's a downpayment on a house!" I scrimped and saved everywhere I could (I contend my mom and fiance have added all the major costs to the wedding--I could have done this whole thing for under $10,000 if I'd been given free reign), and it's still outrageously expensive in the DC area. Would I rather have that money for a house? Yes. But I don't, it'll be spent on a wedding that has gone way out of proportion to anything I ever imagined and I feel sick about it every day. But that's the way it is, and I wish people would stop commenting on how they can't believe how much people spend on weddings. All is does it make me more sick. All I can hope is that I will be able to enjoy the day and not worry about how much my parents spent on everything. At least I'm lucky enough to have parents who wanted to pay (which of course meant they got to make the decisions) - my friends are having the same wedding as we are and putting it all on a credit card.

Rebecca Mead: One of the things the wedding industry does by repeatedly telling people that an average wedding costs $28,000 is to establish the idea that there's something inevitable about spending on one day the equivalent of seven and a half months of the median household income in America. "That's the way it is," this correspondent writes. I hope that my book will make people question whether this is the way it has to be.

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Arlington, Va.: Who is the target audience of the book? Cause if I had bought a copy for my wife during our wedding planning, I would be single right now.

Rebecca Mead: Ha ha. Buy a copy now and read it when your daughter tells you she's getting married.

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Richmond: In your research, did you come across people who could afford an extravagant wedding but said, no, absolutely not, and what their reasons were?

Rebecca Mead: I came across a lot of people who said they wanted to avoid the whole big hometown wedding, and decided to elope instead. But what I found is that there is now an enormous elopement industry. I went to the island of Aruba, which has changed its marriage laws in order to encourage more American tourists to get married there, and now one in three weddings conducted in Aruba is of an American couple.

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Washington, D.C.: I haven't read your book, but am curious as to whether you compared the U.S. wedding industry to the wedding industry in other nations? Is it a typical American case of "super-sizing" things, or is this a trend that's being observed in other countries as well?

Rebecca Mead: My book is about the American wedding industry, but what happens here first often happens elsewhere later. In Britain, the wedding industry is expanding massively -- the average wedding there now costs $40,000. So not a good place to elope to.

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Washington, D.C.: Weddings are expensive if you buy into the traditional trappings. But there are so many couples now who don't, and I think that's great. Get married in a park wearing a sundress if that's what you want, and have a barbecue afterward. Lots of people make their own invitations, do their own flowers, find other ways to save. The industry only controls you as much as you let it.

Rebecca Mead: True. But I think a lot of people find that they get swept up in it all and don't know where to stop: and the wedding industry is very practiced at playing on people's emotions, on their hopes and dreams for this one day. It's well known within the wedding industry that this is one occasion in a woman's life (and a man's too) when she can be counted on to pay full price. One wedding industry consultant told me there are three times in a person's life when a lot of money gets spent: birth, marriage, and death. So the wedding industry takes advantage of that fact.

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San Diego: Do you think the whole wedding biz has had a negative effect on marriage itself?

People think they will die if they do not have a big blowout reception. In order to book a reception hall, band, etc. on a Saturday evening people have to plan as much as 2 years out. So you have all these people going around engaged and acting semi-married for a very long time.

It's a long time to be in limbo!

Rebecca Mead: I certainly think that there's nothing about planning a wedding that serves as any preparation for married life. Matching your napkins to your chair tie-backs has nothing to do with what marriage is about -- unless, that is, you and your spouse are going to go into business together as party planners.

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Reston, Va.: Is your objection to the wedding industry the fact that someone is making money from selling fantasy? Or is it the emotional manipulation of brides? Dishonesty in the marketing? Did you find anything in your research and reporting that was reputable and honorable?

Rebecca Mead: I should say that I met a lot of very pleasant people while I was reporting the book. Well-intentioned people, too. But they were nonetheless all participating in an enormous industry that is intent upon playing upon the emotional vulnerabilities of brides and grooms in order to increase its own profits, and that has every interest in making sure that weddings only get more and more costly, and more and more demanding upon the participants.

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Bethesda, Md.: Thanks for taking my question!

How about shower-zillas?

I've had many people asking me about a bridal shower, so much that now I think I have to have one - to make other people happy!

What is the point of a bridal shower these days, anyway? To me, it seems like just another excuse to get stuff.

Rebecca Mead: The other week I was at a bridal fair and I came across a company that hosts bridal showers. They go to your house, and offer body products and sex-toys for sale to your guests, rather like a racy Tupperware party, with fun games. ("Pass the Vibrator" was one of them.) Yet another example of the ever-expanding wedding industry...

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Washington, D.C.: So I hope I haven't missed the chat, but I'm wondering what's so wrong with spending tons o' cash on a wedding? Obviously, we can pick anything to focus on if we want to criticize people for misdirecting funds. But if people have money and want to spend it, what's the problem with going crazy on a wedding?

Rebecca Mead: I'm not telling anyone not to have a wedding -- I like weddings as much as the next person, and I hope I get invited to many more of them. What I am suggesting is that people should be wise to the ways in which the wedding industry exploits, for its own profit, the very understandable desire on the part of the bride and groom and their families to celebrate something as significant as a marriage. Weddings are really about family and love and deep, deep matters; they are not, in the end, about what kind of dress you wore, what kind of flowers you chose, and whether or not you gave your guests personalized M&Ms to take home at the end of the night.

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Rebecca Mead: This has been great fun. Thanks for having me. And if you'd like to make more comments about my book, or about your own experiences with the wedding industry, please visit my Web site, Rebeccamead.com, and sign the guest book. I'd love to hear more. Thanks!

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