Being a bridesmaid can sometimes feel like another form of employment, what with all the emails, WhatsApp groups and excessive planning but in China, genuine professionals are usually hired to fill the role and it’s not for the reason you may think.
Traditional wedding practises in China often see bridesmaids undergo a lot of harassment on behalf of the bride. They’re encouraged to excessively drink (a 28-year-old bridesmaid died in September from this in Wenchang, Hainan province) and can be victims of verbal, physical and sexual abuse.
Historically, bridesmaids used to dress up as the bride to lower the chances of the bride being kidnapped as she was traditionally susceptible to being held for ransom by rival families or criminals. Today, a typical contemporary wedding in China is a big, fancy affair, complete with a banquet and bedroom stunts in a ‘boudoir’ (AKA the bridal room) that the bridesmaid guards. This means that in order for the groom and groomsmen to enter, they often have do a dare involving something with a sexual undertone.
Examples include licking a banana or presenting innuendo-laced gifts like nuts to the bridesmaid but in darker cases, the bridesmaid may be made to strip in public or allow sexual actions to be done to her. For the most part, bridesmaids are objectified for the wedding display and seen as a symbol of power for the wedding families, depending on how many bridesmaids they have and how physically attractive they are considered to be.
But the tradition of the bridesmaid needing to protect the bride remains, so she’s expected to fend off guests’ drinking requests and to drink on behalf of the bride – which can have a slew of consequences.
Rural areas and provinces with more traditional gender norms have most reports of sexual harassment or alcohol poisoning experienced by bridesmaids. However, some women are still afraid to come forward about their experiences because of the ‘disloyalty’ to tradition and their fear of not being seen as ‘pure’ before their own weddings. While, in more urban areas, like Shanghai, these ‘stunts’ are sometimes played on the groomsmen, as gender roles are seen more liberally.
It’s no surprise then that women are becoming reluctant to take on the role of bridesmaid, and that instead, a booming industry of professional bridesmaids are becoming a routine option. The job spec can be anything from doing the bride’s make-up, to fending off rude guests and taking part in ‘vulgar stunts.’ Many of these women do this in addition to full-time jobs for anything from £22 to £90 per wedding. However, with no legal provision around this growing profession, these women are at risk of being objectified and of continuing a chauvinistic tradition.