We Speak To The People Who Optimise Their Proposals For Instagram
At the end of June, a story from the Atlantic went viral, about an Instagrammer’s extravagant proposal. Marissa Fuchs, the director of partnerships at Goop, posted a series of pictures, videos and stories on Instagram of her following her influencer boyfriend, Gabriel Grossman, from New York to Paris in a scavenger hunt-style adventure. The story went viral because, it turned out, the proposal was fully sponsored, with Fuchs herself in on the “surprise”, revealed by a pitch deck sent around to brands offering them a chance to pay for product placement. But what was also striking about the story was how relatively nonplussed readers were by it. “This doesn’t surprise me,” one Twitter reader wrote. “Not even a little.”
The pressure to have a social media-friendly life is no secret and that goes double for anything related to romantic love. Weddings, birthdays, anniversaries and holidays are just a handful of the moments social media users feel pressured to signpost when they are in a couple. Increasingly, though, there’s one supreme moment that couples feel the greatest pressure to make perfectly Instagrammable. And that is the wedding proposal – to be flawlessly staged, romantic and, crucially, photographed. While the Instagram proposal trend is often driven by vain aspirations on both sides of the couple, many people are finding the pressure greater than they could have ever imagined. And in some cases the pressure has been so great that it’s broken couples for good.
“I was proposed to by my now-ex in a manner that most would adore,” Marie, 32 from Cambridge, tells me. “Romantic, beach-side restaurant, candles. But when we walked in I felt a panic rising that he might propose.”
Marie says that she and her then-boyfriend were on a “make it or break it-type holiday” and that the relationship was so badly on the rocks she wasn’t sure it would survive the trip. “When he got down on one knee, I saw a flash of the photographer he'd hired to catch the moment and I felt obliged to say yes,” she tells me. “Within a couple of hours he had the edited pictures and had them up on Instagram. It basically made him look like the most romantic man ever.”
That, for Marie, was the last straw and she says that she broke off the relationship a few days after they got back. But even then, her ex had got such great engagement off his Instagram of their engagement pictures and she tells me that she had to fight him for weeks to get him to take them down.
“The man just bought the ring based on his girlfriend’s Pinterest and Instagram likes, then planned a big event at a local industrial loft,” Brandon tells me of one over-the-top proposal he was involved in. A custom jeweller based in Seattle, Brandon has helped to organise hundreds of proposals. None of this social media pressure comes as a surprise. “The large room was left largely empty, then he decorated one small area with paper lanterns, hundreds of candles and some posters with photos of the two of them and pieces of their favorite bible verses, along with their favourite music in the background. Their friends and family were hidden in a back area, ready to surprise her after she said yes. He proposed. She said yes. The lights came up and turned into a surprise engagement party.”
Brandon says that from what he’s seen men are increasingly more stressed about the proposal than actually picking out a ring and will often spend just as much money building and capturing a perfect, Instagrammable moment. He tells me people fall into three categories: people who “never do a formal proposal, simply have a conversation where they decide to get married”, people who “do a formal proposal with some element of surprise, but not an elaborate one”, and people “where the proposal is a complex staged event".
“We have had clients that rented private spaces for the proposal, had teams of people help them decorate the venue, hired videographers, dancers and so on to make the proposal a crazy experience,” he tells me. “I think the common theme among them is that the women hint to them along the way that they want a big deal proposal… They comment favourably [on social media] about friends' proposals.”
“Often the partner's friends or family are in on the plan and try to make it as special as possible for the couple. [Even if it] isn't always expensive, at the very least it takes lots of planning and often involves many people to help make it happen.”
A common drive behind these elaborate proposals is one-upmanship – plans having little to do with the couple themselves, but serving as a way to show up other couples with a flashier, more impressive engagement. Brandon tells me that the couple he helped get married in the empty warehouse “were active members of their local church” and that “Many of their friends were getting engaged around the same time and all of their proposals were complex.” Marie tells me that she believes her own Instagrammed proposal was driven by familial pressure, after her then-boyfriend’s brother proposed at the Eiffel Tower.
But another common theme was slightly trickier. Most of the men I spoke to asked to remain entirely anonymous and unquoted, specifically because what their girlfriends/fiancées wanted from a proposal was extravagant – and they believe entirely brought on by this social pressure. On the whole, most said that their girlfriends were constantly seeing trendy rings, foreign locations and perfectly photographed moments plastered all over Facebook and Instagram, leading them to warped ideas about what a “good proposal” should be. They wanted to get engaged in Paris or Rome, on the side of a mountain, have a flash mob or have their entire extended family in tow. Two men even told me that they know their now-fiancée is disappointed in how they got engaged, purely because it wasn’t in an aesthetically striking location.
The pressure is so extreme for many couples that those who don’t conform to a social media-friendly proposal are the ones who feel the greatest backlash. Several people I spoke to said they were shamed for having an unpostable proposal by friends, colleagues and family.
“At the time we were on different continents, trying to secure an EU family permit for her to join me,” John tells me of his proposal story. “When I proposed, we'd been in a relationship for seven years. I met an immigration lawyer to advise on what the best course of action was for us to get together and he said if we were married it would be much easier. So I simply wrote to her, ‘It would be so much easier if we were married. I can be there in May. Marry me?’
“At work, when I said that I proposed to my wife via WhatsApp,” John says, “people laughed. They assumed I was joking or being sarcastic. Everyone had a super elaborate proposal story and no one believed me. They acted like it was a ludicrous thing to do.”
Cathryn, 32, from London, had been with her partner for nearly 15 years last summer when, on a lazy beach holiday, they agreed they were going to get married.
“We returned home to the UK without an engagement story, without engagement pictures and without a ring,” she tells me. “'[My friends'] faces dropped when I said, ‘We just talked about it a lot and decided.’”
But despite shunning a big proposal moment, Cathryn admits she still waited for the ring to arrive before sharing a post on social media. “It felt to me that it was next-to-impossible to announce the engagement without a relevant picture to accompany it.”
When I posted across various social media platforms asking people to tell me about their experience with proposal pressure, I was as inundated with stories of over-the-top proposals as I was with humblebrags about people’s private, intimate engagement moments. Men eagerly messaged me to tell me how they were above the “Instagram trend”, proceeding to however tell me they were “more than happy” for me to share their proposal story in GQ. One woman even claimed her brother’s proposal proved the opposite of the pressure trend because it was so private – but then told me that he had recorded it with hidden cameras and plastered it across all of his various accounts.
I ask Marie, ultimately, why she thinks her ex was so desperate to show off images of their hollow engagement. Vanity? Family pressure? Was he actually a low-level influencer? “Just image obsessed, I think,” she says, “He had maybe 200 followers.”
“However, his followers did shoot up,” she adds, “After he posted it with all the necessary hashtags.”