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The secret life of bridesmaids: Communication Studies professor, undergraduates examine a wedding day tradition

On being a bridesmaid, the cliches are legion.

The research, however, is not.

Two Creighton University undergraduates and their professor in the College of Arts and Sciences’ Department of Communication Studies are trying to change that with an in-depth study on the role of bridesmaids, both for women in individual instances and in a larger societal context.

Both Ashlee Kolbe, a senior, and Emily McKenna, a sophomore, were in a Communication Studies course titled Princesses, Brides and Mothers, taught by associate professor Sheri Shuler, PhD, when they both hit upon the idea of examining the role of the bridesmaid in reality and perception.

“So I sat down at the library and looked at JSTOR and asked the question, ‘What have bridesmaids meant to our culture,’” McKenna said. “I found nothing. I went and got help from research librarians. They couldn’t find a thing. There was just nothing there. I decided to go back to the drawing board.”

But before giving up, McKenna went to Shuler and explained the predicament. That’s when Shuler said Kolbe was interested in the same subject and running into a similar issue.

“And I’m thinking, ‘They’re both good students, they’ve got a great idea for a project,’” Shuler said. “‘How can we make this work?’ Being a bridesmaid is an important marker in a friendship between women. How can we not have any research into it? We wanted to be able to talk about the role of a bridesmaid academically because, if you look around at the culture and in the popular culture, especially, it’s obviously an important role.”

Shuler, McKenna and Kolbe decided that even with a dearth of scholarship on the subject, the cultural placement of the bridesmaid was well worth studying. Funded by a Center for Undergraduate Research and Scholarship grant, the three embarked on a mission fueled by curiosity and the wide dragnet of social media that helped them accumulate data and testimonials.

With a lengthy electronic survey and an initial Facebook post to recruit participants, the researchers set about to compile quantitative and qualitative data: asking respondents the number of times they’d been a bridesmaid, the money they’d spent, but also encouraging them to weigh in on the experience with several open-ended assessment questions.

Expecting to engage maybe 100 participants, Shuler, McKenna and Kolbe were pleasantly surprised — and a little overwhelmed — when more than 500 people responded to the Facebook post. Those 500 tallied thousands of answers to the open-ended survey questions.

Emily McKenna, left, and Ashlee Kolbe, with a poster they created reflecting research they've done related to individual and societal impressions of bridesmaids.What they found was a decided mix of emotions on being a bridesmaid — there were a few bridezillas and stories of partying gone awry and one or two trousseaux of ugly dresses — but an overwhelming feeling that serving in the role was an honor and a privilege. The trio presented portions of their research earlier this month at the Organization for the Study of Communication, Language, and Gender's national conference in Omaha.

“There are some snarky comments in there,” Kolbe said. “But when you get down deeper into the comments, most of the women are feeling pretty good about the experience. There was an overall acknowledgement that you were special enough to be chosen to participate in a very special day, to be there for your friend. That meant a lot to many of the women responding.”

The idea of support and witness were also key themes, McKenna said. A majority of respondents said there was some financial and logistical burdens involved with standing alongside the bride on her wedding day and in the festivities leading up to it — including taking part in destination bachelorette parties and buying shower gifts — but the end result of standing up for a friend and recognizing her passage into a new phase of life mostly outweighed those complaints.

“The support and care many women recognized in being there for a friend was big,” she said. “There were stories of, ‘I was there when they met, I never thought they’d get married, and now here we are watching it come full circle.’ There was a true joy in being there for a friend.”

As for a next step with the data they’ve compiled, McKenna, Kolbe and Shuler said they are weighing a number of different directions in which they could go.

There’s the societal/pop cultural status of bridesmaids: “Mostly overwrought in television and film, compared to lived experience,” McKenna said.

There are also ancillary components of being a bridesmaid that might be worth exploring: “Just asking someone to be your bridesmaid is now a big deal,” Kolbe said. “Used to be that a simple phone call would suffice. Now, there’s a growing trend of bridesmaid proposals, an elaborate asking process for the women you want to stand with you.”

Shuler said the group hopes to put out an initial publication with the first gleaning of the data and then amplify the research in the future.

“It’s a start,” she said. “To come into this without much in the way of research, we were glad to see the responses we did and to be able to start telling this story. In the end, I think that’s the main thing we wanted to accomplish. This is another way of telling women’s stories, of adding a new voice and perspective.”

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