Mention the words 'hen party' to any woman and just watch as a mixed wave of dread, melancholy and fatigue washes over them. It's not news that hen parties are no longer the dinner and pub situation that they once were, but they've never been as expensive, rigidly organised or maddeningly extravagant. The latest statistics, as published by Lyst, report that the average hen party costs £357.
The horror stories are endless - I have one friend who was forced to pay close to £1,000 for her best friend's hen party in Ibiza, another who, after being singled out as the only hen without a partner, was made to wear an 'on the prowl' badge all night. I've heard of hen parties overseas that have descended into a bridal version of Lord of the Flies after everyone fell out. I know another who was excluded from her own sister's five hen dos (yes five), after the bride's friends decided that she'd do something as awful as follow her sister's wishes and shut down any such parties if she was involved. There's another story I've heard about someone being asked to do a Tough Mudder in the name of hen fun; it was a cold, wet and punishing day. Another hen sprained her wrist after participating in a human hen pyramid designed for Instagram.
The hen do business has never been bigger - today it's a show of popularity, status and taste. The penis straws and strippers of old might be less common, but in their place are lavish weekends away, militantly organised forced fun and big-time costs. It's become the ultimate show of how good a friend you are - how well you know the bride and how much you're willing to pay for her to have a 'really special time'.
Hen parties have been in the news of late, after it was revealed that over £1 billion will be spent on hen parties in the UK this year which works out at an average cost of £471 per attendee. Then there's cries that the single sex nature of hen and stag dos is largely outdated (correct), prompting a rise in de-gendered pre-wedding parties, dubbed 'sten' or 'hag' dos. Is there a way of conducting a hen party without it making the guests feel like that they're partying under the guise of tyranny? Getting rid of the below neo traditions would certainly help...
The rising expense
As noted above, hen parties now cost the same as your annual holiday. There is no excuse for asking your friends to pay a tonne of money in a way they probably don't want to with people that they probably don't know or like. If you're asking a group of women to celebrate your last night of alleged freedom (an archaic notion if ever there was one; any woman who feels that she will no longer be able to see her friends for a night out after she gets married doesn't belong in this époque), then varying salaries and budgets need to be considered. This is where the idea of hen weekends/holidays fall foul - while few could argue with the joy of an all-girls holiday, the dynamic is very different on a hen. Instead, this is about appeasing the bride at all times and following the regime of a potentially power-hungry maid of honour, rather than adults having equal say and autonomy in the day's activities. Overseas jaunts aside, what also gets expensive are the staycations - where the bride's 'low-key' expectations involve a beautiful cottage for 12 in the Cotswolds or an activity-filled night in London involving theatre, food, cocktails, dancing, taxis and accommodation. A hen do that costs around £150-£200 is now seen as the lower end of the chain, which gives you an indication of how utterly ridiculous this has all become. I know friends of brides who have been forced to sell belongings on eBay just to ensure that they don't have to choose between a hen party and already planned holidays.
One final point on this - please can we all commit to stop paying for the bride? It is the bride's party - we are already paying for travel, accommodation, food, drink and needless activities, coupled with the cost of the upcoming wedding (which will be either abroad or at least 20 mins taxi ride from a train station), wedding present and new outfit for the big day. Must we also cover the cost of the woman at the centre of it all?
It's always interesting to note when looking at such issues how the men are doing it - and by in large in the case of stag dos, men don't create militant itineraries where there is zero chance of spontaneous fun. Hen dos so often involve entertainment and activities that no one would ever dream of doing in normal circumstances; when have you ever felt a hankering to do life drawing, hat making, mug painting, public fancy dress, sports days, any form of culinary tutorial or cocktail making before? Or perhaps you'd want to do one of the aforementioned, but it's unlikely you'd want to do them all at once because that would be expensive and tiring. Next we come to the often lengthy, embarrassing and archaic notion of Mr and Mrs. For those fortunate enough to be unfamiliar, this is a game where couples answer questions about each other to see how well they know each other - usually with hilarious results! Everyone watches while the bride-to-be giggles over whether or not he knows her favourite colour etc. Stags don't have to endure these hijinks - they instead follow the same getting to know each other method as generations before us: drinking. Then there are the 'how well do you know the bride' and 'how well does the bride know you' games which are designed as ice-breakers, but also work as a wonderfully easy way of inducing inadequacy and alienation.
The horrible competitiveness and pressure to be the best friend ever
There's something about hen and stag dos that bring out the worst stereotypes in both gender - for women, it's the hideous competitiveness to prove how close you are to the bride. The film Bridesmaids is funny because it amplifies truths - everyone can relate to feeling outdone by another hen, or just felt an immense pressure to partake and pay for whatever unnecessary activity has been deemed best for the bride. Regardless of how much you're told a certain part of the day is optional, it takes a strong woman to put her foot down and say she'll skip a certain aspect of it in the face of such social pressure. No one wants to look like a crap friend, but true friendship isn't defined by whether or not you have the time or money for afternoon tea at Fortnum & Mason. And no one in the group will be immune to these pressures either - the maid-of-honour, who is often in charge of the hen, is under it to come up with the 'most special day/night/weekend/week/year' for the bride who may or may not already have imposed certain demands. This pressure filters down through the hen hierarchy to the bridesmaids, who are all trying to vie to do their bit - perhaps with an assortment of DIY collages to prove just how much XXXX means to them or by filling the hen house with approximately 150 tea lights for the bride's arrival by which point the venue will look like a mausoleum. The triangle finishes with the second-tier friends who are all quietly resentful that they have had to fork out £150 for a cocktail-tasting-chocolate-making-flower-arranging course in Bath that they have gone along with for the sake of an easy life.
The dreaded #bridesquad WhatsApp group
Nothing makes a woman shudder more than being added to the hen party WhatsApp group. There is a fleeting moment of feeling flattered, before the #wedmin #bridetribe #idocrew discussion begins - months upon months of inane, passive aggressive messaging about what form the hen party should take, when it should happen, how much it should cost and how long it should be. Your phone will not have battery again until after the wedding and if you look away for more than an hour, expect to see 125 unread messages. Every now and again, a brave little hen will say that perhaps the £60 set meal is a little steep, to which the maid of honour will invariably say, 'No problem, I just want it to be really special for XXXX' - as if there was some sort of implication that the aforementioned hen had plans to sabotage the bride's party, ruin the wedding, and all that love is. If you try and mute the WhatsApp group, you may or may not find yourself lumbered with a £70 bill for a West End musical you'd rather not see - so best be on your guard.
Single sex hen parties
It is truly baffling that most hen and stag parties are gender specific. My favourite people are not only women and I want them all there at any important celebration if they're available. Most people have friends of the opposite sex, but for some reason this most allegedly hedonistic celebratory experience needs to happen with only same sex guests. For men, women are still too sensitive and fragile to handle their big shot boozy night out or weekend away. For women, there is more openness to gay male hens, but on the whole straight male guests are a no-no. If your friends are all women, then great, but if you have a mixed-sex group of friends then why commit to a tradition that feels regressive? Most of most would agree that gender inequality is a negative, and yet hen and stag nights merrily compound divisions.
Disclaimer: Not all hen dos are hideous. Everyone wants to celebrate their friend getting married (although isn't that what the wedding is for?), and love is the best cause for a party. I have been to at least two hen nights/weekends that I have enjoyed, all of which have gallantly involved the requisites of a good party - food, drink, music, good company and a hint of spontaneity.