A Big White Sham?

ImageWhat is the fascination with the traditional white wedding? As a student currently exploring ideas of gender roles, separations and expectations I find the ideals of the perfect wedding quite an interesting phenomena. Unlike many other traditional ceremonies a marriage has retained key elements and stood the test of time. Why is this? What is our pre-occupation with the big white dress, the large wedding cake and our transformations into princesses? In a society where almost nothing lasts forever and divorce is rife is there still a place for such ideals?

Traditionally a wedding has been seen as a day for women to be transformed, to become princesses and beautiful beacons of virginal innocence. White, veiled beauties graced many an isle demonstrating their virtue by wearing white as symbolism of their virtue and virginity akin to that of the Virgin Mary who is often shown in similar attire. Their veiled faces a hint of their humility; their beauty hidden and kept safe only for their husband’s eyes. Even the sharing of the wedding cake or fruit’s a symbol of their ability to share life’s bounty.

In recent times I sometimes catch myself wondering if the idea of a wedding hasn’t become rather over commercialised. At the base of these ceremonies is the love and care that two people have for each other, however it seems to me that often many couples become overwhelmed with the need to fulfil social conventions and expectations.

Why do we desire to fulfil these criteria, is there a need to portray ourselves in a certain way to our family and friends or is it to ourselves? There seems to be high levels of anxiety over to way a wedding day is perceived by those outside of the union. Recent television shows such as ‘Four Weddings’ and ‘Don’t Tell the Bride’  provoke and encourage scrutiny of the day people put together. Suddenly a wedding doesn’t become a deeply personal ceremony between two people, it invokes a whole new set of complications and expectations. Why do we put ourselves under such scrutiny and I feel the answer to be social pressure.

Arguably one of the most focal elements of a wedding in modern times is the dress. In an age where holding onto one’s virginity and purity is not seen to be as key as previous years and rightly, so is the need to wear white so necessary? Today we do not expect to be disowned and shamed at the loss of virginity before our wedding day, we even have the option to live with our partners before marriage, why therefore is white so key? I attended a renewal of vows recently and although this was undertaken in a foreign country away from British ideals and expectations to have a white, traditional wedding, the dress was the most important factor for that bride. She had never had the chance to wear the “dress of her dreams” at her first ceremony and her deepest desire was to wear her perfect dress, white and billowing on her renewal day. It almost seems ingrained, if we do not wear white, if we do not appear to be that virginal and pristine young lady walking down the isle we have somehow failed. Has our wedding day been somewhat of a sham; not up to standard? On occasion dresses of different colours have appeared on ‘Four Weddings’ often to be met with scorn and a huffy “well I wouldn’t have done it that way” criticism muttered in the corners of the reception hall.

Even if we dare to be different, strike out and go for a different tone the wedding suddenly warps into a ‘quirky’ affair that people believes removes the serious tone it needs. Why do we need to have such stringent affairs? Why is ridicule so necessary? We hold to these old fashioned values and judge couples upon them even though most of us would agree that they have mostly become void in our modern society.

Often I feel a great degree of sympathy for the woman who is suddenly thrust into the spotlight; under everyone’s magnifying glass. There is such emphasis on how a woman and her bridesmaids look. Most are happy to be the centre of attention and very rightly so on their special day, but if a woman were to turn up in a tracksuit and no make up does this make her any less of a princess on her wedding day? She’s a princess to her fiancée and should also be so to those friends and family attending the wedding. What are we trying so very hard to prove?

To me it seems like such utter madness, I’d like to hope that when it comes to my wedding day that I shan’t fall victim to the same social pressures. However can I escape it, can I escape the sense of success and desire to fulfil social expectations? Can I stop myself from spending a small fortune, from dressing myself up to be something I’m not and most importantly can I retain the sense and atmosphere of commitment and love that brought me to my wedding day in the first place?

The Wonder of Greed

ImageBoxing Day, 2004 was to many people the same as any other; turkey sandwiches and the tail end of Christmas movies. However for a small island in the Indian Ocean it was a day of tragedy, one that it would struggle to recover from.

Even eight years on the destruction and plight that the country still suffers from is still glaringly obvious. Buildings barely stand, three of their four walls missing and scaring the otherwise beautiful landscapes. Animals limbs are missing and distorted from the raging water that smashed their frail frames against rocks and buildings. But it is the people of Sri Lanka that really drive home to a western traveller the cost of such a momentous act of God. Wherever one travels the sight of poverty, disfigurement and desperation is rife, but, oddly it is coupled with the most inspiring and moving determination and upbeat perseverance that one only sees in the very desperate.

The contrast between our comfortable, western society and the run down areas of the very poor are stark. The city of Colombo where my tourist group landed is a mash of well built, new structures that would not look out of place in any city in the UK, sitting snugly against run down shacks of corrugated iron sheeting and wood. It was in these dingy buildings that meat was hung and flung onto wooden slats, baking in the mid-day sun. Dogs ran in and out climbing through stock piles and children play in the dirt by their parent’s feet.

The further into Sri Lanka one gets the more desperate the situation appears to become. With small shells of buildings left over from the tsunami patched up as well as can be expected. Boards cover the holes where windows once were and in most circumstances the same materials served as walls that were otherwise missing. The landscape is parched, nothing can be grown in some areas and the struggles of everyday life are evident.

During our time there we were under the direction of  guide, a young man name Sam. As we toured around the country he told us many insightful stories of the plight of the inhabitants, in 2004 and today. Before the tsunami hit his country had been on the up. Tourism was high and souvenirs were easily manufactured, facilities were good and money was coming in. After the disaster a great deal of their working population were killed or severely injured, leaving many families destitute and without a breadwinner to supply them with the money they needed to recover their health and properties. Sam himself had lost family members and as a result his elderly mother and other members of his extended family had to move in with him and his young wife and daughter. The extra strain soon become difficult to bare, his taxi had been washed away in the current and destroyed leaving him to survive on what little seasonal tourism work, labouring and tips brought in. They have no shower or toilet; buckets sufficing for both. One quickly realised the stark differences between our lives, the great chasm that we otherwise would like to ignore. The native Sri Lankan battles constantly against poverty, often we and other westerners would be followed down the street in the hopes that we may tip a little something at the end of the journey. Their desperation does not need to be voiced it so clear and so raw it cannot help but hit you between the eyes.

Sam had often asked  if any of us had donated to the humanitarian aid programme that sent billions of dollars to the affected countries; of course most of us had contributed in some way. He confirmed what we had suspected since we had landed, that our 14 billion dollars had mostly been siphoned up by the fat cats in government while they allowed the people below to suffer in the mud. As a westerner the thought that my money lined the pockets of those who are stealing from people in need, the people I believed I had aided, is a difficult pill to swallow.

On our travels we visited many an animal sanctuary attempting to care for creatures that had lost their parents or suffered severe and crippling injuries during the tsunami.  In a dark corner of one of the out buildings a small elephant was chained to the floor, barely able to stand upright. His front leg had been badly broken and healed at an appalling angle, while the other was missing a foot. He had been swept up in the waves and battered so badly one could not help but wonder if it would have been kinder to let the creature die. Turtles we saw had limbs missing and dented shells from being buffeted up against buildings and debris in the carnage. Even the elderly man who ran the shelter had scars across his body from the same event. His connection to these animals made even stronger by their shared experiences.

On one of our last days in the country we were taken to Kandy, a town on the coast of the island. Here we came across the most serene sand beach; deserted except for our small party. It was here that the tsunami hit first, crashing over the small nature reserve and killing many animals. However nothing was more tragic than the remains of a small café that had once stood on the shore, it’s walls missing and parts of the floor still scattered under about under the sand. The steps and the foundations were all that remained, a haunting reminder of what had once been. The café had been full of tourist groups who’s bodies were never recovered. The artistic metal waves and plaque made of the old floor tilling that has been erected there the only reminder of the human life lost on that very spot.

Sri Lanka is a fantastic and beautiful country. It’s people warm, open and accepting and better hospitality I have failed to find anywhere else. This only aids to make their plight all the more distressing to me.  Eight years after such a disaster and those people who still bare the scars mentally and physically of that tragedy are being short changed by the rest of the world. A tip here and there can only do so much, something bigger is needed, desperately needed and maybe we should be the ones to give that something.