04/19/2013 12:32 pm ET Updated Jun 19, 2013

Just Say No (to the Bridesmaids Dress)


Recently, a girlfriend of mine (let's call her Regina), was asked to be a bridesmaid in a friend's wedding. The request came as a bit of a surprise because, although they had known one another for many years, in recent days the hustle and bustle of everyday life had put some space between them. Not to mention that post the age of 35, being asked to be a bridesmaid is about as commonplace a question as being offered a Jello-shot or sharing mascara... it's a bit of a retro, 20something question.

But, back to Regina: so there she is on the other end of the phone being asked to be a bridesmaid for probably the 4th or 5th time in her life. Because she is excited for her friend to have gotten engaged and because she is flattered to have been asked and because, at the age of 37, she never thought she would hear that question ever again and was so genuinely taken by surprise, she did what hundreds of thousands of girlfriends do every day: she said yes to the bridesmaid dress.

Immediately she hung up and began to panic about what she had done and if it was possible to undo it. You see, as I'd mentioned, Regina had some experience with being a bridesmaid and each occasion had been borderline disastrous. Her own personal anxieties about being on display were exacerbated by the ritual of walking down the aisle and standing in front of a crowd -- regardless of the distraction the main event would provide. The fear would always prove a bit too much for Regina and the result would vary between distracting fidgeting during the ceremony, a bit too much Xanax or (and sometimes including) anxiety-induced poor behavior in her role as bridesmaid leading up to the wedding.

All of this is on top of the more typical gripes most bridesmaids have: purchasing a dress no one really likes or will ever wear again, having to take on what amounts to a series of group projects with a bunch of other women you may or may not like and trying to keep a happy face for your friend when you feel as though you just hemmoraged a mass of cash on all of the above.

Regina called me. "I know that this is unusual and everyone else I've asked has told me the answer is absolutely NOT, but I figured I would ask you: Is it OK to retract my earlier YES? Is it ok to say no to being a bridesmaid?"

My answer to Regina, and to all the rest of you women reading this out there, is a resounding YES... with one coda: only if your duties as a bridesmaid affect your ability to feel present and share in the joy and happiness for the friend who is getting married.

You see, the purpose of having a bridesmaid is no longer to distract a band of bandits from kidnapping the bride, nor is it to torture frenemies of the bride by outfitting them in something awful (though, that is sometimes a by-product). The role of bridesmaids today is to support the bride emotionally during the engagement and on the wedding day. This support takes many forms: from co-hosting a bridal shower to listening to stories about the bride's future mother-in-law to walking down the aisle and standing on "the bride's side." So, if the primary purpose of bridesmaids today is to be supportive, then it defies reason that anyone should chose to take on a job if and when they know they are unable to perform those duties.
In my friend Regina's case, the reason her previous stints as a bridesmaid had been such failures were because her preoccupation with feeling "on display" rendered her unable to be supportive of the bride. In fact, after a Xanax and a glass of champagne, she wasn't feeling much of anything. Our 20s are for doing what people "expect us to do," poorly or not. Our 30s are the time to be honest about our capacities and not to make promises we can't keep. Which is precisely why I urged Regina to call her friend right away and tell her that while she is super excited for her to be getting married, she thinks she'd be more supportive, present and "into" the wedding as a GUEST versus as a bridesmaid.

To my surprise, Regina took my advice and to Regina's surprise, her friend could not have been more accepting. She remembered how stressed out Regina had been during her previous stints as a bridesmaid and realized that maybe the best solution would be to have Regina come and get ready with her and her other girlfriends the morning of the wedding and then Regina could just go and be a normal guest -- not medicated or fidgety or pre-occupied -- just happy for her friend in the audience with the rest of the guests.

Despite the fact that a bride theoretically invites her closest friends to be bridesmaids, it never ceases to amaze me how difficult it is for people to be honest with each other about the request. For example, let's say you are invited to be a bridesmaid. You know immediately that it is going to have cost implications for you. If, for you, the cost implications cause you such stress and anxiety that it is all that you can think about -- not how awesome it is that your friend is getting married or how fun the wedding will be -- just how much it's going to stink spending all this money... why not feel comfortable telling your bride-to-be girlfriend about that? Wouldn't it be better to say "To be honest, I don't think I can financially swing being a bridesmaid this year, as much as I love you. I don't want to make your whole engagement about me being preoccupied with how much everything is costing me and I'd rather put more into a fabulous gift for your and your new spouse."

Instead, what typically happens is that most people just say yes. Then, for a year you resent having to spend your limited funds on a dress you don't want, a shower that you think is stupid, a bachelorette that is way more extravagant than what you would have planned on your own and you are irate about the other bridesmaids who don't seem to have the monetary worries that you do... On the day of the wedding you are often the one who didn't bother to get the dress altered, have managed to irritate all the other bridesmaids and are usually on the wedding planner's last nerve.

Wouldn't it have been better for everyone for you to woman up, be honest about your capacity and just have been a happy-go-lucky guest? I'm not advocating crappy friendship, just honesty in lieu of disappointment. If Regina can do it, I'm sure that you can too!