I recently got engaged to the love of my life on vacation in the desert. We were joking about what the most fun, ridiculous wedding would look like (“There could be an X-Files theme!” “A wedding in a cave!” “All-you-can-eat coconut cream pie!”), then suddenly we switched from the third person to the first person. Before I knew it, we were planning our real-life wedding, and I have no clue who had the idea first. Our engagement happened organically and unconventionally. There was no genuflecting on one knee as I was presented with a ginormous diamond ring in an embarrassing restaurant scene. I wasn’t caught off guard in any way, and I’m thankful for that. We decided to get married the way we decide to do everything: through conversation and open communication. And suddenly we were in full-on planning mode, dreaming up the most out-there “us” wedding we could possibly have.
I was over the moon — until I started telling people.
“Where’s your ring?” a friend demanded of me upon hearing my happy news.
“Uh… I just haven’t got it yet,” I muttered, feeling like I’d somehow failed some sort of girl test. Two months in and still ringless, it’s a question I’ve gotten quite accustomed to hearing, though it doesn’t make it any less annoying.
Don’t get me wrong, my fiancé has tried to buy me a ring. But any time he’s brought up the subject of getting a ring, I’ve shut him down. When we pass jewelry stores, I find myself speeding up, hoping he doesn’t get the idea of going inside. When he does, I’ll invent some lame but plausible excuse. “We have to get tacos first,” I’ll say. “My fingers are too puffy today.” Or simply, “Maybe tomorrow.”
I may be happily counting down the days to my wedding, but getting an engagement ring fills me with complete and utter dread. Why? Because I want no part in the girl-on-girl action I’ve witnessed lately. Whenever my engagement comes up in conversation in a group of other 30-ish women, here’s what always seems to go down: left hands inevitably shoot up into the air while women begin comparing rings the way they might compare handbags. One woman is always declared a winner, not overtly, but the other women seem to have an innate understanding of who has the “best ring” (in most cases, it is the most expensive ring). The woman with the “best ring” holds it out for other women to fawn over, while those with inferior rings tuck theirs away.
Call me cynical, but this just doesn’t feel very romantic to me.
But people are spending more and more money on engagement rings. According to a 2015 national study by The Knot, the average engagement ring costs a whopping $5,855 today. And when you drop that kind of money on a ring, I totally get why you’d want to whip it out socially to invite others to give you their approval. I’m not going to pretend I wouldn’t do the same. The problem with this scenario, though, is that these rings aren’t really functioning as symbols of love at all, but as status symbols that place us in competition with one another.
When women say, “Can I see it,” I feel like what they’re really saying is “How much money do you guys make?” “How much did he think you were worth?” “How on trend you are?”
The popularity of wearing diamond engagement rings actually has pretty creepy underpinnings. Basically, a British-controlled diamond mining company in South Africa hired a New York–based ad agency, N.W. Ayer, to sell its diamonds back in 1938. According to The Atlantic, the ad agency decided to market celebrities rocking big diamond rings as “role models” for those with less money. The agency explained their diamond-marketing tactics in their 1948 strategy paper: “We spread the word of diamonds worn by stars of screen and stage, by wives and daughters of political leaders, by any woman who can make the grocer’s wife and the mechanic’s sweetheart say ‘I wish I had what she has.'” So the entire diamond ring industry today was built on manufacturing envy, competition and insecurity among women.
The Atlantic writer Matthew O’Brien writes that engagement rings became a thing in the ’30s, just after legislators scrapped the law against breaking engagements. Since women could no longer take legal action against men who’d decided to give them the slip before their wedding day, they needed “collateral,” O’Brien explains. “That way, if the couple never made it down the aisle, she’d at least be left with something. And that something was almost always small and shiny. The diamond ring was insurance.”
So can you blame me for being hesitant when it comes to the whole make-him-prove-his-love-in-diamonds insanity? For wanting to keep my fingers naked just a little longer?