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Wedding Pictures: Yes. Groom: Not Yet.

by Sharon Salt

Sharon as Tea-Time Flower Lady. All photos by Sharon Salt.

When I was a junior in college, I studied abroad in Hangzhou, China, just an hour west of Shanghai by train. Our program required us to take a one-on-one class on any topic of our choosing. I decided to study "Chinese Subcultures and Alternative Lifestyles." Perhaps I should have predicted that my Chinese professor would not be too keen on discussing fringe groups at length; the class focus shifted to what could effectively be called "Practices Foreigners May or May Not Find Slightly Unusual."

Thankfully, my professor managed to choose relatively interesting topics. In one of my favorite units, we studied the rise of extravagant wedding photography in China. As in the United States, weddings in China are becoming more and more showy. People are spending excessive amounts of money on the dress, the location, and the catering, among other things. They have become full-blown events.

The major difference that remains between Chinese and American weddings, though, is the wedding photography. Unlike wedding photography in the United States, which usually happens the day of the event, wedding photography in China often happens months before the actual wedding. What's more, the pictures are shot in seemingly random locations, the bride in a dress she neither owns nor has chosen.

"These are the pictures that go on mantles and pianos?" I asked. "The ones they look at everyday?"

My professor confirmed this. She also told me that as single girls approach their late twenties without any prospects of marriage, it's not uncommon for them to seek out these photography companies themselves. "It doesn't matter if the picture is taken a few years prior to the wedding, before she has even met the groom," she explained, "as long as the bride looks young and pretty."

I found this baffling. If you weren't wearing your wedding dress, was it still a wedding picture? If it was taken years before your wedding and without your groom, was it still a wedding picture? Wasn't it just another picture of yourself, then? Right?

My professor suggested I experience the process for myself — single girls can do this, too, after all! For my field trip the following week, we met up at a company named something like Romance Spring or London Kitten. I agreed because I wanted to see what the fuss was all about, why people were paying so much money for something that, to me, felt so fake. It's also true that I like playing dress-up.

Chinese wedding pix

More wild looks.

At my request the girls at the company sold me the cheapest package, which consisted of three outfit and makeup changes, an assortment of prints, a glass-framed picture, and a poster-sized blow-up. They then sent me home to compile pictures of models and inspirational settings onto a USB drive to give them an idea of the looks I wanted to embody. This was a nice gesture but turned out to be more or less worthless, as we soon realized that I was much bigger than the average Chinese person, in both body and foot, and the wardrobe pickings were slim.

My three looks ended up being what I like to call Tea-time Flower Lady Person, Ice Queen, and Disco Weirdo. These looks were achieved by safety-pinning me into whatever dress would allow for it and then, when taking the pictures, carefully hiding any gaping holes or too-tight fabric with cropping, artistic shadowing, and layers of accessories. I tried to explain that, with the aforementioned techniques, it was unnecessary for me to squeeze my feet into the company's plastic and rhinestone-studded baby heels. But they insisted that I wear them to "complete the look."

As for the makeup, all I can say is that it was a lesson in Chinese beauty ideals. They cooed over my pale skin but covered my freckles with globs of foundation. (On a train in China, I had once been asked whether I was sure that I didn't have a contagious skin disease.) They cooed over my light eyes, as well, and lined them in an effort to make them even bigger. My lips, on the other hand, were too big and thus covered entirely in skin-colored concealer before being redrawn, in a more appropriate size, with lipstick. Hair extensions were added, and fist-fulls of flowers were pinned into my hair and onto my dress, perhaps to distract from the ill-fitting bust.

I was a princess!

I wobbled on my plastic rhinestone-studded baby heels to the photo shoot set. The photographer was super nice. He was also wearing a fedora. He took picture after picture, moving me into a new room of props with each outfit change and demanding me to look pretty or like I was in love. "Lie down, close your eyes, and look natural," he instructed. "And stop laughing! You are sleeping!"

At the end of the day, my professor, who had kindly insisted on accompanying me, and I were told to come back within a week to view the pictures.

Chinese wedding pix

Disco weirdo shots.

A week later, I visited the company's viewing location, which was altogether separate from the shooting location, and a few attendants clicked through my pictures on the computer. I was to choose which pictures I wanted prints of, which I wanted framed, and which I wanted blown up into a poster. I didn't know how to choose. I thought I looked dead in the eye in all of them, but the attendants kept enumerating the many aspects of my beauty. I'm pretty sure the compliments were included in the cost of the photo package.

"Your eyes look the biggest here," they said. "And look at the bridge of your nose! It's so high! So pretty! You are so pretty." So I ranked my pictures appropriately, by eye size and nose height, as would anyone, and I chose which one I wanted in poster form to be hung above my toilet at a later date.

That's right, in my bathroom, above my toilet. No, these pictures would not grace my mantle or piano, and not just because I didn't yet own a fireplace or baby grand. It's also not because I look like an unfeeling fish in half of them. It's more because, if I get married, I still want my wedding pictures to capture real moments in real time and not be carefully crafted and prepackaged beforehand. These were just some pictures someone had taken of me once. In the scheme of things, they couldn't have been less important.

That said, I understand the appeal. It's fun playing dress-up with fancy clothes that aren't yours and putting on makeup in such a way that you really can make your lips smaller, your eyes bigger, and your skin tone more even. But I bet it's more fun when the clothes fit, and you really are in love, or you're dying to be. I bet all that comes across on your face and you look as beautiful as you could ever hope to look, wedding day or not - and that's a picture that deserves a place on the mantle.

BUT WAIT, THERE'S MORE

The Serious Business of Chinese Wedding Portraits (Jezebel)
Beautiful Me! (Foreign Policy)
Kitty and Lala-Sassy Wedding Photography for China's '80s Generation (CRI English)
Bizarre Wedding Photo Trend: Miniature Brides (Tacky Weddings)

Despite her enthusiastic and indiscriminate distribution of these photos, Sharon is still single. She travels for the distraction.

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