Since my partner and I decided to get married, I have gotten the constant question of, “where’s your engagement ring? Why don’t you have an engagement ring?” Followed by, “You NEED to have an engagement ring.”*
Full disclosure: I’ve turned down two proposals. One was a high school boyfriend desperate to keep me from breaking up with him when I went to college. I didn’t love him. One was a kindergartner who proposed with a ring pop. He told me I could still keep the ring, and I did. It was delicious. That will be the only giant rock that I’ll be sporting. This shocks close friends and perfect strangers, but I have never wanted an engagement ring. If he likes it, he shouldn’t put a ring on it.
You see, the engagement ring is a combination of three things I greatly dislike: public displays, materialism, and slut-shaming. Telling someone you want to be with them until you’re dead is a big freaking deal. Not even the Zales and Shane Co. commercials can make me feel less wonderful about that as a concept. So, why are we doing this on scoreboards or in skywriting or via Twitter hashtags or with flash mobs? I’m all for folks doing what makes sense for them, but I wish we showcased positive relationships as much as we advertised their associated materialism.
Public Displays. Yes, love is a many splendored thing. Love lifts us up where we belong. All you need is love! However, engagement has become more about one-upping your friends than starting the rest of your life. Proposals have become about how expensive and extravagant you can be to show someone you care, much like the elaborate mating dance performed by peacocks. Instead of two people getting together and really talking about making a life together, the time investment goes into the proposal. “How did he do it?” is the second question after “Oooo, can I see the ring?” It’s not, “what makes this person the guy you want to wake up next to as you get really old?” Something that is incredibly personal has become about other people and showing off. I’m happy for anyone to have jewelry that they think is cool and appreciate the symbolism, but I wish that were secondary.
Materialism. The engagement ring originally had a small key, not a diamond. People try to say that this signified a man giving a woman the key to his heart, but it really was a symbol for a key to his wealth. Archduke Maximilian of Austria started the whole diamond thing back in 1477 to show just how obscenely wealthy he was and to take over Burgundy by bagging his wife Mary. With the discovery of diamond mines in the 19th century, diamond engagement rings weren’t just confined to the rich anymore and betrothal became something that could be bought and sold (and, incidentally, something for which many miners have died—how romantic).
In 1930s, diamonds really became the thing you give a woman when you’re asking her to be with you til-death-do-you-part. This was because of really successful ad campaigns from De Beers. First, a man should spend a month’s salary on a ring. Then, it became two months’ salary to increase profit margins. Now over 80% of women receive a diamond ring to symbolize intent to marry. It’s close to 100% if you and your future ex-husband’s combined income is over $90,000. Tradition, tradition! Engagement rings now cost an average of $2,900 each (2007). I won’t dictate how someone spends their money but provide this argument as so many people have made varying comments about how my partner not purchasing me an engagement ring is some sort of sign of a lack of commitment or care for me. Despite the class privilege that I have as a professional, that’s a whole lot of money to “prove” you love someone.
Slut-Shaming. This ring was considered a woman’s insurance policy. If a man broke off the engagement, it was said to give her some security due to her “damaged reputation.” This implied that if she put out before she said “I do” she was now a slut and her stock declined in the marriage arena. The wedding itself has its implied ideas of female purity. Note: the woman wears white, but the man does not. Hmmm. The ring was also an idea that the man owned your body. Even though marital rape is now illegal in all fifty states (but only as of 2003, gross), we still push the engagement ring concept like it’s the most romantic thing in the world. If it feels that way, wonderful, regardless of history, but this history is still important for us to deconstruct.
As a recently married person, I’ve bought into a pretty messed up institution with a problematic history. I acknowledge my own hypocrisy and how it is nearly impossible to completely bypass these systems despite their sordid histories. I’m troubled, however, that choices that defy tradition can still be seen as an affront to other folks’ choices. Feminism is about choice. So let’s respect if someone doesn’t want a relationship with a ring on it.
*PS this post is super hetero-normative because engagement customs are super-heteronormative. I believe that pairings involving any combination of genders have the right to buy into our cultural commitment to engagement rings. As a queer person, I’ll save a broader critique of marriage’s construction in our culture for another day.