Lobster rolls, oysters, bloody marys, and plastic cups of beer filled the long, rough-hewn tables at Cisco Brewers on Nantucket last weekend. People sitting on similarly rustic stools sported various versions of the preppy New England summer uniform: white pants, gauzy beach cover-ups, salmon-colored shorts, light blue button-downs.
But five or so different clusters of women wore uniforms of a different kind. The color of the matching T-shirts varied from group to group, but each had some sort of nautical motif and a slogan like “Brides Mate,’’ or “Setting sail before the veil,’’ or “Let’s get ship faced’’—seriously. I am not making this up. In each group, one woman wore a white version of the shirt, offsetting her as a bride-to-be.
They were all bachelorette parties. They were all undoubtedly time-consuming and expensive. Many of the women looked miserable. And yet, lots of brides have a blow-out bachelorette, and lots of bridesmaids and close friends go.
Why do we keep going to these things if we’re so wary of them?
Last weekend, I was on Nantucket as a member of a bachelorette, too, but the maid of honor didn’t make us wear T-shirts. All of us thanked her for that small kindness as “Mandy takes the plunge’’ walked by our table.
If you’ve seen Bridesmaids, you know how terribly wrong these weekends can go. Now that I’ve been to a “destination bachelorette’’ and observed several others while I was there, or, excuse me, on island, the closest comparison I can make is that it’s like a condensed version of an all-girls’ summer camp, but with more booze, more sex, and less supervision.
And, of course, much higher stakes. Because one of your best friends is about to hitch her wagon to someone else’s wagon, and all of you are hoping that this is a good move and not one that leads to the wheels eventually falling off.
Like summer camp, a bachelorette party weekend can be either the best experience or the worst. You may deepen existing connections, meet new friends, make lasting memories, and come back with a tan. Or you could miss your mom the whole time, decide you really don’t like Mandy that much after all, and wonder why your mattress is so uncomfortable.
I got lucky with this one. The other women were wonderful, and no one got food poisoning. We danced, we drank, we talked, we laughed, and some of us (just me, actually) rented mopeds.
One of us (not me, actually) left the bar where we were dancing and had sex with a stranger in a dock-house. She recounted the details the next morning as we sat around, rapt, eating Honey Nut Cheerios out of red plastic Solo cups. One woman thought the encounter happened in a doghouse. She spent a lot of time asking questions about how they managed to fit in there until the confusion was cleared up.
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And then there are the horror stories. A friend of mine recently went to a destination bachelorette weekend where she was getting over a nasty stomach flu. One of the bridesmaids had just gotten out of a serious relationship and spent the whole time crying. Two of the other women got into a huge fight. My friend paid a lot for a pretty miserable experience.
There’s a lengthy list of reasons people roll their eyes when you tell them you have to go to a bachelorette party. The average age of marriage for a woman is 27, according to a Pew study from 2011. Her friends can expect to pay somewhere around $1,500 to be in a wedding. They may also spend somewhere around the same amount of money to go on a weekend-long bender—sorry, bachelorette party. There are pages and pages of Google search results devoted to “bachelorette party cost,’’ most of which are about how not to shell out over $1,000 per party. At this age, not everyone is able to comfortably spend the money or take the time away from their jobs.
Sometimes this expenditure feels compulsory. It’s a lot. Ultimately, though, we do it because bachelorette parties are more than an organized excuse to act like idiots.
They are the cost of community, tradition, and meaning that, after school, is largely missing for those of us who aren’t religious.
Being a 20-something after college is the first time many young adults are left to their own devices when it comes to building communities and constructing social activities and traditions. Until then, school, extracurriculars, and parents provided markers of time and milestones.
Even if you don’t get married or have children, most people start to get their acts together and develop routines and traditions as they get older. It’s through young adulthood that most of us have no idea what we’re doing or how to structure our lives.
Planning a wedding helps. It provides a sense of purpose, meaning, and tradition. Marriage comes with a set of rules—both in the orchestration and the execution—and it provides a set path. It gives us ceremony in our largely unceremonious times.
If weddings fill a ceremonial void in adulthood for the couple, the bachelorette party does so for the bride’s friends.
Case in point: There is a whole secret world of bachelorette rituals, much like the traditions at summer camp (the latter of which are usually offensive appropriations of Native American culture). Did you know that it’s tradition for each bridesmaid to bring a pair of underwear for the bride? And the bride has to guess who brought each one? Someone last weekend brought a pair of Depends. The bride correctly guessed who.
But the best ceremony of the weekend was when we played “the newlywed game.’’ Before we left on the trip, the maid of honor asked the bridegroom a bunch of questions about the bride-to-be and their relationship, recording him as he answered. The bride-to-be had to guess what her main squeeze would say to each question before we watched him do so in the video.
She got all of them right. They each said the same things about each other without knowing that the other one would.
It was then, as I lay on the floor in my party dress drinking a mojito from a penis-shaped straw, that I decided I did believe in true love.
Like mostly everything else in this world, bachelorette parties are a total crapshoot. I am no less skeptical of organized events and manufactured sentimentality than I was before I stepped foot on that ferry.
But what I now understand is that whether bachelorette parties are fun or not doesn’t even matter. If I’d had a terrible time last weekend, it still would’ve been worth it. We go because these ceremonies and traditions aren’t about us; they’re about honoring the person who’s about to be a part of the biggest ceremony of her life. And because we, as her friends, gain a sense of meaning by being able to play a part in her ritual.
So if that means pulling a T-shirt over my head that says, “Erin’s getting nauti,’’ I’ll take a size medium.
Illustrations by Charlotte Wilder.
Lobster rolls across New England: