Engagement Rings: Why Have We Attached So Much Meaning To A Tiny Symbol?

Kelly Siegel says if you want to share a photo of your engagement ring on Facebook, fine. If you’d rather not, that’s fine too. Just stop arguing over the “right” way to get engaged. Marriage is not a competition.

When my now-fiancé proposed after five years together, he got down on one knee and presented me with a lovely gemstone ring, one that suited my tastes, was sized appropriately for my hand, and that I just couldn’t stop staring at for the next several weeks. Suddenly, I was walking around with a sparkly little indication of my new status as a fiancée.

New York Magazine published a piece recently by Chloe Angyal about the “context-free diamond”—the picture many newly-engaged ladies share on social media of their left hand sporting a big sparkly rock—and how the phenomenon seems to suggest an obsession more with the engagement ring than with the person wearing it, never mind the person who bought it.

Angyal suggests that the ring shot is a symptom of our cultural obsession with weddings and the ever-growing Wedding Industrial Complex making young women believe that our wedding day is supposed to be an outward reflection of our inner, apparently super-rich, selves. As a recently engaged lady myself, and one who wears a ring, I have to say I agreed with most of her argument (except some of her speculations of what planning a wedding is like. That woman is in for a shock). There is so much cultural pressure not just to have the right partner, but also the right ring, followed swiftly by the right wedding. While we did announce our engagement to our Facebook network, I personally refrained from sharing my ring with the online world. I had a few close friends and family who asked to see it, and I privately sent them a photo, but I otherwise felt I’d rather keep my sparkle to myself. 

Because here’s the thing: Your engagement is not really about your ring. There was a time when getting married was just something you did, everyone got married and people who didn’t were regarded with a mix of suspicion and pity. But, as people get married later and later and often not at all, marriage becomes a weighty choice, one option among many, and one not to be entered into without due process. There are other ways to celebrate commitment and milestones as a couple, but choosing to get married still carries a public weight and significance that living together, combining finances, or having children just don’t.

And, no matter what your proposal looked like, whether he totally surprised you or you just decided one day to head down to the courthouse and get hitched, chances are you didn’t arrive at the question-popping moment without having a few discussions about it first. The odds are small that one of you just decided, completely on your own, that you were ready to get married. They’re smaller yet that when you decided to share this decision with your partner, they happened to be on exactly the same page, with the same timeframe, and magically said yes. Engagements are decisions couples make together. The road leading to marriage can wind in many different directions, but both parties need to be ready and willing to commit. That’s what an engagement is about. It’s two people, deciding together, that they want to share their love with the world in a permanent and legally binding fashion.

But here’s the other thing: Sometimes, your engagement is really just about the ring. Mine was.

My ring isn’t a diamond, and it cost far less than the $5,200 the average American couple spends on an engagement ring. But for my fiancé, who had been underemployed for 18 months prior to our engagement, it was a big expense. It was a project, a way to prove to himself that he was ready for marriage, that he could get things together, save his pennies, make some important decisions and ultimately make me happy. It was a way for me to feel like he was really ready for marriage, too, and to learn to let go and let him be in control of our lives once in a while.

The ring signified a decision we had already made, but made it public. We knew where we were going—we already had the shared lease, the joint bank accounts, the co-owned pet. The ring said to everyone else “look, we’re a unit now, our own family.” It said to our parents “we’re ready to plan that wedding you’ve been dreaming about!” And, in many ways, it was convenient. It did a lot of the hard work for us. As such an obvious and widely recognized symbol of commitment, the ring has saved us a lot of work explaining the state of our relationship.

I like my ring. It sparkles when I type and clinks when I drink. It reminds me that I’m loved when I’m having a bad day. Sure, sometimes it bothers me that I wear a public symbol of our commitment and he doesn’t, but that will change when we get married. My ring is not unequal, or unethical, or even all that valuable. I don’t need the ring to validate my commitment, and I don’t need you to validate the ring.

Perhaps the most uncomfortable moment of my engagement came just one day in. I had told one of my colleagues about the proposal and showed her the ring, and since we work in an open plan female-dominated work place, word spread. One of the older women in the office, whom I am not close to and would not have chosen to share with, approached me to “offer congratulations” and literally grabbed my left hand while demanding “so what does he do?” without even looking at my face. Her disappointment in both my answer and the ring was clear. This is not how we make other women feel positive about their choices, or let them know that it’s OK to stray outside the lines.

The dialogue around engagements needs to change. Let’s turn “how many karats?” into “how do you feel?” Let’s stop thinking about the wedding and start rejoicing in the marriage. Let’s wait to be told whether the engagement was about the ring, or the question, or the partner, or the moment.

On the other end of the spectrum, I resent the implication that I’m a bad feminist because I wear an engagement ring. This is why this back and forth argument about the “cult” of wedding rings and our cultural tendencies surrounding them is so heated. We’ve attached so much stake to a tiny little symbol, and we can’t separate ourselves from what we think marriage might say about us. If there’s something that can make you a bad feminist, it’s making value judgments about other women’s choices. Marriage is not a competition, and just as there is no “right” way to get engaged, there is no “right” way to share your engagement with the world. As I look back at the New York Magazine piece, I see myself nodding along with the author, and I have to stop myself from making assumptions about girls I’ve never even met.

There are a million reasons to wear a ring, or not. And a million more reasons to share it, or not, on Facebook. Some women wear their engagement ring just because it’s beautiful. For others, it’s an honor, an heirloom, a comfort, a battle scar. We can talk incessantly in the media about Kate Middleton wearing Diana’s ring, but I bet it means a lot more to William than it does to any of us. Like so many cultural conversations about women and our roles, the engagement ring discussion is fraught with the pressure to put women onto teams. Team mom, team vegetarian, team curvy. Team single, team married, team engaged. Somehow wearing a ring puts me in stark opposition to the non-ring-wearing ladies of the world. And even when we’re in the same group, the competition doesn’t stop. We’re trying to get the first ring, the biggest ring, the most unique. What about our partners? Don’t they get a say in whether or not we have an engagement ring?

We need to stop.

If Facebook is the easiest way for you to show your newly adorned left hand to your far-away friends, go for it. If you’re only putting the picture up because you want to make those friends jealous, maybe think again. We need to pull ourselves out of the mindset that there is a right way and a wrong way to be a woman, to get married, and to make decisions. There are certainly valid reasons not to want a ring, and there are probably many women who wear them just because it’s what you’re “supposed” to do.

But to me, there’s nothing wrong with an engagement ring as a symbol, a choice two people have made to get married, an investment in your future. And if you want to post a picture of just your ring, by all means feel free. I’m sure it’s perfect for you.

Kelly Siegel lives and works in New York City where she focuses full-time on education and politics, and part time on feminism. She loves to cook, read, and travel.

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