When First Looks Become Habitual: Rethinking Wedding Norms
This pandemic has led to me having more time in my head, which is admittedly a huge privilege. My weekend was spent mindlessly weeding the backyard, noticing new bird calls, thinking about how this was my first summer in 10 years not being absorbed by a “wedding season.”
Sundays used to look like me trying to make up for lost parenting, recovering from hauling my gear around for 9 hours the day before, and recharging my batteries (both literally and figuratively) for an impending engagement shoot that would leave my wrist vibrating with Fitbit fireworks at the end of the night.
Much of this time has made me want to rethink my approach to weddings, as inequities that have always been there are being exacerbated. You don’t have to look long to notice forms of oppression — including racism, classism, sexism, and other isms — that divide us within the wedding industry. I’m reluctant to say this will be the first in a series of subtle observations, because I know the pressure to be productive will only send me into an anxious spiral. So instead, I’ll share my discoveries as I feel motivated and hopefully they resonate with someone.
So, what is a first look?
One of the first things I’ve always discussed with potential clients is the idea of incorporating a “first look” into their wedding photo timeline. It’s a popular term within the wedding industry, so sometimes I have to take a step back during intro calls with potential clients and remind myself that not everyone is familiar with this term.
For me, first looks have become habitual for wedding day coverage. It’s an opportunity to create a relaxed timeline, so the couple can see each other before the ceremony and check off any major photo to-do’s, such as portraits, wedding party photos, and family formals.
I’m always excited to capture portraits before the ceremony. It’s a way for the couple to relax together and soak in moments of reflection and laughter, after presumably having spent much of the morning apart. I’ve witnessed so many deep breaths enveloped in embrace during this quiet time together following a first look. It’s always been a joy to capture the intimacy there, and the dwindling nerves that subside as hands intertwine. It’s usually one of my favorite parts of the day.
For years, I’ve recommended first looks, followed by portraits, since that hour together leading up to the ceremony can really help ease the couples’ nerves and distract them before guests start to arrive in a whirlwind. It’s also a way to ensure my clients actually enjoy their cocktail hour, if they’re having one, which can be such a replenishing time for all. Another technical element is that for those planning winter weddings, pre-ceremony photos are crucial if you want portraits taken with natural light before an early sunset.
During this time of reflection, whether I’ve been weeding my backyard or my Animal Crossing island, I’ve been thinking about this idea of a first look and how it’s become a natural part of our work day as wedding photographers.
What’s the first thing that pops into your head when you envision a first look?
To many, you might imagine a groom with their back turned, while the bride taps them on the shoulder from behind, with a big reveal, and in the best case scenario, some shared tears. Much of this is based on the tradition of not seeing your partner until the actual wedding ceremony. There are of course LGBTQ-inclusive first looks, however the trend largely encourages the idea that the bride is a romantic object, while the groom is expected to in some way react.
You don’t often see the groom coming up behind the bride, tapping her on the shoulder to reveal his attire. In fact, when I tried Googling for examples of this flip in gender norms, I was met with results of brides who pranked their future husbands by doing a “fake first look,” with the best man surprising the groom in a wedding dress. These usually go viral and include the men holding each other while laughing.
Much of these “pranks” that I get let in on as a wedding photographer are rooted in internalized homophobia. The kind of humor that at first seems harmless, but as you dig deeper, realize is produced by the same toxic masculinity that makes men less likely to wear face masks.
This need to draw attention to one partner over the other is something I’ve been noticing relentlessly during wedding-related pandemic coverage. An emphasis on “brides” and how they’re coping or responding to having to postpone or cancel their wedding. This not only neglects the groom as a participant all-together, but also doesn’t make space for the engaged folks who don’t fall into heteronormative wedding narratives.
Adapting toward inclusivity
How has the wedding industry not adapted to be more inclusive and representative of all partners? And why are we assuming these weddings are being planned by one partner alone?
According to Pew, roughly a third of Gen Zers know someone who uses gender-neutral pronouns, compared with a quarter of Millennials. The youngest generation is also the most likely to say forms or online profiles that ask about a person’s gender should include options other than “man” or “woman.”
As language in the mainstream gives voices to the nuances in sexuality and gender, there will likely be pushback to wedding traditions that are often gendered and at times narrow by nature.
Asking the dad for permission to propose. “Giving away” the bride. Father-daughter or mother-son dances. Making assumptions about which partner will be proposing. Implying that surnames will change. The bride’s family being responsible for financials. Beauty checklists catered to brides, who are pressured to figure out their wedding day style. Dividing wedding parties by gender in the name of tradition.
This idea of not seeing each other before the wedding day because it’s bad luck has its nerve-wracking moments. The logistics of making sure both partners are hidden away leading up to the reveal takes coordination. In a post-pandemic reality, partners are more likely to be staying in the same space, so how might that affect pre-ceremony planning and first look coverage?
Even more than the pressure of capturing it smoothly, oftentimes from two angles, I can sometimes feel a looming tension from couples afterwards. Like maybe they had disappointed me in some way by not crying or having the “right” reaction.
The only thing I can compare this to is giving birth. Society made me feel like having my firstborn baby placed into my arms would be this perfect TV moment. Our eyes would lock, my heart would melt, and we’d have this undeniable connection. For me, that moment was overwhelmingly filled with physical trauma, and all I could focus on was my failure for not living up to societal expectations. The pressure took away from the moment for me and ate at the joy of it all.
Embracing our differences
The truth is, there’s no “right” way to react, just like there’s no “right” way to plan your wedding.
As a wedding photographer, I am here to celebrate you in any way you choose. Whether you want to do a first look or don’t. Whether you feel like crying or don’t. If a first look doesn’t feel organic to you, we can brainstorm alternative ways to start the day together. Like helping each other get ready or exchanging letters in person before portraits. There are so many ways to create a safe, intimate space without potentially adding pressure with a first look.
If at any point during your pandemic wedding planning, you want to join me in re-examining social norms, I’m so down. If you don’t, this is a judgment-free space and I love the shit out of you for reading all of this.
Just like any other part of the wedding day, first looks don’t have to be habitual and we can create our own traditions. We are all different and I’m here to embrace that.
Here are some examples of clients exchanging letters, getting ready together, and opting for some traditional and alternative versions of a “first look.”