By Ben Mathis-Lilley

Slate

My wife and I just got a big delivery of pictures from our wedding photographer. She asked us to look them over and mark any shots that we didn't want in the final albums that she'll print for us and our parents.

She did an excellent job capturing the day -- many artfully lit shots of people dancing, eating high-fat foods and drinking, as we wanted -- so we didn't have many notes for her. Only one, actually: Please remove as many shots as possible of the two of us kissing. Our own pictures had creeped us out.

Compared with the other engagement and wedding pictures that show up in my mailbox, our photos were fairly discreet. Many couples apparently consider it normal to have themselves photographed kissing, gazing deeply into each other's eyes.

I seem to be an outlier for finding the practice unusual. In an informal survey of the six couples I know who remembered posing for wedding or engagement smooches, five said it hadn't made them uncomfortable -- including one woman whose uncle was her photographer.

Only one friend wrote back that he'd been somewhat skeeved by his own wedding pictures, and he made a perceptive point. "It was uncomfortable," he wrote, "because of the sheer volume of kisses required in addition to them being extremely passion-less."

He identifies exactly what I find unnerving about posed PDA (public displays of affection) photographs: They're performances. They're not candid moments that tell you something about a couple's affection for each other.


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Nor do they document the wedding for posterity. They exist to formally insist on the physical connection shared by two people whose physical connection I never questioned in the first place.

Stephanie Coontz, a professor at Evergreen State College who specializes in family history, says that wedding ceremonies started becoming more important to Americans in the 1950s. It wasn't until relatively recently that ceremonies and related wedding paraphernalia began emphasizing the compatibility of the couple involved. A typical wedding in the 1950s was between two people in their early 20s who had been dating for maybe six months. The ceremony was less about their personalities and more about celebrating their mutual decision to launch a new family.

This is still true to some extent, of course, as it's the rare reception that doesn't include a joke about the bride and/or groom's parents looking forward to grandkids. But as gender roles loosen up and individuals wait longer to wed, Coontz says, weddings have become culminations -- the celebration of two mature adults who have found their match. A marriage is the payoff for years of perfecting oneself and searching for just the right partner. It's the outcome of maturity, not the beginning of it.

In this environment, documenting your own PDA might make sense, Coontz observes, though she notes that she's never formally studied wedding photographs.

We now think of wedded couples as having found an ideal match, and physical compatibility is part of that match. Looking at it this way, sending your grandparents a photo of you and your fiancé is not much different than giving those same grandparents an optimistic take on that fiancé's job prospects. Both have the same message: "I know I waited a while to do this ... but don't worry: I made the right choice. We are so perfect together."

I bet most couples who've been engaged could do without this kind of perfection anxiety. There is too much pressure to come across as blissfully relaxed and confident during the culmination of a very unrelaxed engagement and wedding-planning process. Our weddings could stand to be less performances, less like job interviews in front of hundreds of relatives and friends.

You don't have to have life completely figured out to know that you love someone. If weddings tilted back some toward what Coontz describes, a celebration of two promising rookies starting their marriage career, we might feel less stressed about them.