When my mother got engaged in 1979, she and my father decided against a traditional proposal. There was no expensive dinner, no bended knee and no ring. In the wake of second-wave feminism, my mother felt that a ring served as an unfair indicator that she belonged to my father; she would not wear a symbol to ward off other men if my father did not bear a similar marker.
Has culture surrounding engagement rings changed today? In some ways, it hasn’t; typically, men still don't wear engagement rings, and as a result, they more readily appear available to romantic prospects than their betrothed women do. Engagement rings may be even more detrimental to a woman’s sense of autonomy than ever. In an age where a woman can Instagram an image of her ring the moment of her engagement, where tabloid magazines compare the monetary values of celebrities' rings, engagement rings seem to be as much symbol of a woman’s worth as a symbol of a man's 'ownership' of her. It is in some ways as though the ring serves as an indicator of how much a man is willing to provide for his wife financially. Engagement ring ad campaigns run slogans like, “Buy Her Forever” (Neil Lane), and that’s as disheartening as it is telling.
Despite the ring’s negative connotations today, the concept of an engagement ring has also become more nuanced since my mother’s engagement. With more homosexual engagements and more women proposing to men, it is not only women who can wear rings. A friend of mine proposed to his boyfriend with an engagement ring, and now the two of them both wear rings. The ring is a way of expressing commitment and love, and it also has the potential to be an expression of a woman’s unique personality, since more women today help choose or design their own rings.
I personally wear an engagement ring. It never leaves my finger. Like my tattoos, it is an expression of my spirit, my life and my history. It symbolizes what for me is the most valuable thing imaginable: eternal love. My fiancé proposed to me with his mother’s engagement ring, and wearing it makes me feel not only connected to him but also to her. Engagement rings, in this way and others, have the potential to be sites of female bonding. For years, my girlfriends and I would pore over Tiffany's website, fantasizing about our futures. I always insisted on a family heirloom, something that would symbolize my love for a specific person and connect me to the women who shaped him.
My ring on my finger
What do you think? Is the exchange of rings a sexist, antiquated ritual? Or do you, like I do, feel that rings are no longer a black and white subject, that the choice whether or not to wear a ring hinges on what it might mean to the women wearing it? Can the answer to the question 'to bling or not to bling' only be found within each individual woman, and not be a part of a broader cultural truth?
Special thanks to Tim Kail, Frannie Kail, and Lisa Ruddick
Images via Zales, Alex Hines