Your social media feeds have probably been inundated with happy couples in recent weeks. We’re in the middle of engagement season, which runs from Thanksgiving to Valentine’s Day. According to WeddingWire, nearly 1 in 5 engagements occurs in December, including my own.
My now-fiance popped the question a week before Christmas Eve, which is proposal prime time. And while it was a wonderful and unforgettable moment, it didn’t happen exactly as I’d hoped.
Like many women, I had very specific ideas about what the big moment would look like. Or, more accurately, I had very specific ideas about what I would look like: hair perfectly coifed, makeup tastefully applied and nails expertly lacquered for the all-important ring reveal. Call it vain, self-absorbed or just plain superficial. But I’m not ashamed to admit that I wanted to look my absolute best during such a pivotal moment.
I’m not the only one who feels this way. “I envisioned looking romantic in a dress and wearing nice makeup,” said Lian Parsons, a 22-year-old journalist who got engaged in January while traveling in Edinburgh, Scotland.
While Parsons’ proposal was “definitely a surprise,” it was quite casual. “We climbed up a mountain,” Parsons said. “By the time we got to the top, my shoes, coat and jeans were pretty muddy. My makeup was starting to wear off from all the walking, exercise, cold and rain.”
Meg Jorgensen, a 28-year-old marketing consultant, had a similarly not-so-tidy experience. “I was a mess,” Jorgensen said. “We had swept and mopped his huge work depot. By the time we got home, I was filthy with dust and sweat. My nails even had dirt under them.”
That wasn’t how Jorgensen had dreamed of her proposal going down. “I imagined my hair and makeup being done but not overdone, wearing jeans and boots with a cute coat,” Jorgensen said. “I wanted to at least look put-together and cute, so we could snap a few pictures right away.”
I, too, had long fantasized about those crucial post-proposal pictures, the ones that would officially announce our big news to the world. In those fantasies, I looked impossibly chic, perhaps barefoot on a beach in a lush maxi dress or standing tall in front of the Eiffel Tower in four-inch heels and a perfectly on-trend jumpsuit. My face is bright and luminous, I have zero flyaways, and my manicure is chip-free.
Reality was a lot different. My hair was a tangled disaster that hadn’t been washed in days. I wasn’t wearing an ounce of makeup, and my nails were au naturale—not exactly the polished appearance I had dreamed of. Perhaps I’d spent too many hours stalking the proposal photos of complete strangers on Instagram, but I always felt that I had to look like a runway-ready goddess for the Big Moment.
Of course, living in the era of the performative proposal doesn’t make it any easier. Whether it’s inscribing “Marry Me” onto a frozen lake or enlisting the help of Tom Hanks, every other week some absurdly over-the-top proposal goes viral, further exacerbating the pressure on couples everywhere.
“When I took the obligatory ‘We’re engaged!’ picture, I wished I looked better,” said Mara Andersen, a 31-year-old nonprofit organization director. “I was wearing gray sweatpants and a zip-up that had my corporate logo on it. I’m sure I also had on cozy socks that were likely mismatched.”
Andersen’s now-husband had picked a “regular Tuesday” to get down on one knee in their kitchen while she loaded the dishwasher and ate leftover cookies.
“I spit crumbs,” Andersen said. “He said ‘Will you marry me?’ Through the last few bites of a sunflower cookie, I said, ‘Yes!’ I didn’t cry. I didn’t scream. There weren’t any crowds cheering. No family popped out. It was just he and I together.”
And looking back, that’s precisely what made the proposal so special.
“I love that he thought on his own that he wanted, on that day, to make me his wife and him my husband,” Andersen said. “He drove to the first jewelry store he thought of and bought a ring. It’s beautiful and symbolizes it all perfectly.”
Similar to Andersen, I’ve come to appreciate what made my fiance’s proposal meaningful. He later revealed snippets of his planning process: how last summer he’d asked our photographer friends to capture the moment; how he’d wanted to do it sooner but had to get a new ring designed when the first one didn’t meet his standards; how he’d flown to and from Miami in one day (without my knowing) to pick up the ring because he was so worried I’d come across it; how he’d called my father a few days earlier to ask for his blessing; and how he’d been obsessively checking the weather forecast that week to make sure Mother Nature didn’t rain on our parade.
So no, I wasn’t dolled up like I had always imagined. But that was totally irrelevant to my partner. He’d gone through such great lengths to guarantee that the moment itself was just right. Nothing else—least of all my appearance—fazed him. He didn’t care that I was wearing a drab, puffy winter coat, that my nails weren’t freshly painted, or that I had bags under my eyes from a lack of sleep.
I quickly realized the significance of that fact. I’m often dressed casually and not even remotely well-rested. As it turns out, he proposed to the most authentic version of me—not the most idealized version. And while that may go against the notion of the picture-perfect, highly stylized proposal we’ve come to expect in the digital age, it shifted the focus to what really mattered: We were committing to spend the rest of our lives together, messiness and all.