I love me some Beyoncé and have happily danced along to “Single Ladies” while out with friends. But like some other songs that cause toes to start tapping, its catchy hook obscures its problematic lyrics. Essentially, “Single Ladies” expresses a common sentiment concerning the engagement ring. That if you “like it” then you better “put a ring on it.” And why is that you may say? Well, so that everyone, including the woman herself, knows that it is yours. The problem is that the “it” in question is your future wife or life partner and NOT some possession or thing.
So why, in 2014, must a man still “mark his territory” or “stake his claim” by affixing his fiancé with an engagement ring?
Now you might argue that I am overthinking the issue or that I am missing the important symbolism of the engagement ring tradition, particularly the meaning it provides for the couple and the message it sends to the outside world. But let me assure you, this is not the case. Instead I am merely trying to shed light on a social tradition that many of us feel compelled to adhere to despite internal misgivings or without really knowing why. To do this, we must look at the origins of this custom and ask some questions. For example, why is it that men don’t wear engagement rings? If it truly is a symbol of a future lifelong commitment, why does only the woman wear one prior to the official nuptials?
It is in answering this question that the overtly sexist origins of our modern tradition become apparent. In fact, “today’s symbol of love was once something more like virginity insurance”, a replacement for the “Breach of Promise to Marry” law that “allowed jilted fiancées to sue their former lovers, particularly when the pair had premarital sex and thus the woman’s value was damaged due to her lack of virginity” (O’Brien). Farther back in history the sexism inherent in this tradition was even more evident as rings were used by sultans and sheiks to “tag” each of their wives (Bare).
Thankfully, times have changed since then, and in most civilized places a woman’s worth is no longer determined by how chaste she is or to whom she is married. This progress might cause some to argue that even though the engagement ring tradition may have had sexist roots, we have transcended these dark origins and made the act into something more meaningful and egalitarian. Yet, even if you say the ring is merely the embodiment of a promise to marry and not some politically-charged object, the question remains: why is that only the woman wears this ring? Both the husband and wife wear the wedding ring, a symbol of their lifelong commitment to each other, so why isn’t that the case with the engagement ring?
There are two potential answers to this question and both cast women in a negative light. The first is that women cannot be trusted to stay faithful during this interim before the wedding unless they are wearing an object that wards off potential suitors. Otherwise, why must women wear a symbol of this commitment in public while men need not? The second reason one might give for the persistence of this tradition is that women want the ring. And while in many cases, this may actually be true, this reasoning implies that women are materialistic and superficial, an idea that has been reinforced by the competitive nature of this tradition whereby one’s love is seen as directly proportional to the size of the diamond. In fact, just recently in US Weekly, there was a full 2-page spread of engagement rings, a display of wealth that invites the reader to see this supposedly deep, symbolic and intimate act as a competition. This is why I feel a bit sad every time someone gets engaged and the first thing women ask to see is the ring. It’s as though the fact that this couple has decided to bind their lives together is overshadowed by a piece of rock in some metal.
If you voiced my concerns to jewelers like those at DeBeers, they would likely dismiss any overtones of misogyny or materialism in this social tradition. Perhaps they would argue as DeBeers’ website does that “ today, perhaps more than ever, the diamond engagement ring remains the most powerful universal expression of true and everlasting love and an essential part of the marriage ritual across the globe.” And many people would agree with this sentiment without being “wrong.” After all, a symbol is an object to which we ascribe value. And if people want to see engagement rings as symbols of love and enduring fidelity, then who am I to stop them?
The only thing I ask is that they consider why they feel this way. Is it because they truly believe this or because marketing and social pressure have told them that they do?
Because that’s exactly what DeBeers wished to happen when it started marketing diamond rings to the masses in the 30s, even going so far as to suggest in the 80s that this purchase should be the equivalent of 2-3 months of salary (Bernard). Copywriter Frances Gerety and publicist Dorothy Dignam for N.W. Ayer & Son ad agency even explicitly stated that their goal was “to create a situation where almost every person pledging marriage feels compelled to acquire a diamond engagement ring” (Sullivan). To do this, they convinced Americans, particularly the women, to ignore their more practical natures and indulge in their superficial and materialistic sides. Prior to this campaign, an extensive survey conducted by N.W. Ayer found that most Americans thought diamonds a luxury for the very wealthy. Moreover, Frances Gerety herself stated that women wanted men to spend their money on “a washing machine, or a new car, anything but an engagement ring…[as]…”it was considered just absolutely money down the drain” (Sullivan).
But with their campaign, Gerety and Dignam changed that. After just two years, sales of diamonds in the U.S. increased by 55% (Sullivan). And since then, the tradition has only grown stronger, so much so that jewelers now say that “a girl is not engaged unless she has a diamond engagement ring” (Sullivan). Not everyone feels this way as 25% of brides don’t wear one for whatever reason (Sullivan). Still, it is clear that the majority of women do feel that an engagement ring is important or necessary.
And despite my personal contempt for the custom, this article is not about my sitting in judgment of that vast majority. Again, I am only asking that they consider whether they ascribe this value or meaning to an expensive piece of jewelry because they truly believe it to possess such worth or whether it is because society and marketing campaigns have assigned it that significance. Because much of what we want in life is really what others tell us we should desire rather than what we actually do ourselves. And the result of such pursuits is usually unhappiness or dissatisfaction with one’s life.
Perhaps after reflecting, you might decide that, like me, you would prefer to spend your “engagement ring money” on a wonderful trip with your fiancée. Personally, I’d rather be showing my friends the amazing pictures from our time together in Spain than a piece of jewelry. And instead of having a physical object representing that commitment for the rest of my life, I would have those memories of that first trip together as a soon-to-be-married couple.
Then again, I’ve never been a jewelry person, so perhaps that is why it is easier for me to dismiss this tradition than it is for others. Still, after learning about the engagement ring’s origins, it is hard not to realize that, just like with Valentine’s Day and Christmas, the public has been “sold” a story in order to increase company profits. Whether you truly believe that story is up to you. Because in the end, I’m not trying to make people feel badly about wearing or wanting a ring. I’m only asking you to really think about why you want it, to make sure it is not because of the value others ascribe to it but because of the value you do.
As for myself, if you like me, then you better not put a ring on “it.” Instead let’s have a mature discussion about our desire to commit to one another for the rest of our lives, and then we can plan a trip to celebrate!
Hmm, I wonder why Beyoncé didn’t make that the chorus to “Single Ladies”?
Bare, Kelly. “The History of Engagement Rings.” Readers’ Digest. 2014. Web. 2 March 2014.
Bernard, Tara Siegel. “With Engagement Rings, Love Meets Budget”. New York Times. 31 January 2014. Web. March 2014.
O’Brien, Matthew. “The Strange (and Formerly Sexist) Economics of Engagement Rings”. Readers’ Digest. 2014. Web. 2 March 2014.
Sullivan, Courtney. “How Diamonds Became Forever”. New York Times. 3 May 2013. Web. 2 March 2014.