The wedding industry isn't targeting you… it's targeting your parents

January 16 | Guest post by Sarah Thomas
Wedding porn makes parents happy too. Photo by Faller Photography

So: during the Plague Years I was a telemarketer.

Now, I am aware that telemarketers are the lowest form of life. I am aware that, in a joke about lifeboats, lawyers, and Josef Mengele, telemarketers are not only thrown off the boat, but ground into a fine paste and rubbed into the boat ropes to reduce friction or something. I feel an appropriate (read as: burning) level of shame that I did this. But I call them Plague Years for a reason. I wasn't making my best choices, but I needed money. That's a pretty good summation of where I was mentally at the time.

Now, not only was I a telemarketer, but I was a telemarketer while living with my grandfather. It was right about the time his mental acuity started to take a turn for the worse; he was still basically together but it made the whole family feel better that there was someone there with him full-time, and my life was clearly going nowhere (see: telemarketing). I reminded him to take his medicine, we went out to the Old People Lasagna and Spinning Pie Restaurant for lunch, and he asked me every day if I had A Fella Yet. But he could still drive, he could still go dancing with his girlfriend and hold a conversation on whatever Fox News had told him to be scared of most recently. In short, he was his old self.

With one exception. Like a lot of elderly people, my grandfather was prone to falling for scams. He never used a computer, so we didn't have to worry about Nigerian princes, but he'd answer the phone every time it rang and end up with subscriptions to magazines he'd never heard of and couldn't cancel. Packages from the Home Shopping Network would arrive, sometimes every day, with jewelry for me and my mom that we didn't need and never wore. When he died and we were cleaning out his house, we found dozens more that he'd never gotten around to giving us.

And I couldn't protect him. Because for the eight hours of the day when he'd get taken in by these scams, I would be out. At work. Perpetrating the exact same scams on other people's grandparents. Like I said… Plague Years.

One thing that my time seeing both sides of the telemarketing system gave me — other than a very black conscience — is understanding about how different generations process and interpret media. For my grandfather, those voices on the phone and on the television were authoritative and legit, because there is a certain way men my grandfather's age expect shady people to sound, and if you sound that way you don't get a job telemarketing. If clean-cut sounding Justin on the phone said these Time Life books were a once-in-a-lifetime offer that his grandchildren would cherish, then it was true. If it wasn't true, how could Justin say it?

I'm not convinced that my parent's generation, as they become the new old people, process authority in media a whole lot differently than my grandfather did.

It's strange to me to contemplate, but had I taken a different fork in the road before the Plague Years then my mom would now be someone's grandma. My fiance's mom and dad are already grandparents. I don't see them that way — as old — but marketers sure do. And I'm not convinced that my parent's generation, as they become the new old people, process authority in media a whole lot differently than my grandfather did.

We spend a lot of time here laughing about the Wedding Industrial Complex, and we should, because it's fucking hilarious. Someone the other day alerted me to the existence of Cake Knife Corsages. Which I assume is flowers you tie onto your cake knife, so if your wedding guests experience temporary amnesia while you're cutting the cake, they can quickly reassure themselves that they aren't at one of your regular cake-cutting formalwear ballroom parties but in fact at your wedding. This is transparently hysterical, and should be laughed at, but we should also understand that it's not really directed at us.

It's directed at our mothers.

I'm not saying this is because we, as a generation, are so cool and savvy. I'm saying it's because we, as a generation, are so fucking BROKE. More and more people are paying for their own weddings, and that's great. But the most recent statistic I was able to find was from 2010, when it was still about a three-way split between all couple, all parent, and half and half. That means that in 2/3 of the weddings in the country parents are making some purchasing decisions.

If you're a young person, you haven't hit your peak earning potential yet anyway, and paying for your wedding has to slot itself around a lot of other life changes that, statistically, you're likely to be making at around the same time — like children and houses. Also, if you're a young person, chances are you will have some immediate familiarity with weddings as you're planning your own, because your peers are planning theirs too and inviting you to them.

For all your parents know, when the ladies on TLC say that $3,000 is utterly as cheap as wedding dresses get, it's true.

It's different for an aging parent. In many cases, their major life choices are already set, and they've already peaked or plateaued at the top of their earning potential. They have, proportionally, more disposable income now than they ever have before. And they may not have been to weddings for years before you come along and say you're having one. For all they know, when the ladies on TLC say that $3,000 is utterly as cheap as wedding dresses get, it's true.

The older you are, the more money you're likely to have, and the less basis of comparison for how much of that money is really necessary to spend you're likely to have. That combination is a telemarketer's wet dream, and probably a wedding marketer's, too.

I've been to a half-dozen weddings in the last three years, and every one of the brides told me the first thing their mothers did when they said they were getting married was buy a stack of the fattest, glossiest bridal magazines in the local Barnes and Noble. When I went home for Christmas, they were all over my parents' house too. I don't know if there were cake knife corsages in any of them, but it wouldn't surprise me.

It would never occur to me to buy a bridal magazine; for planning I'd go straight to the Internet. Not my mom. From a glossy magazine, it's more authoritative. It's the WIC equivalent of Justin's soothing voice, reassuring them that this book set is the one that's going to be an heirloom that their families will cherish after they are gone. And of course, on a diet of glossy magazine weddings, every road leads to Martha Stewart Debtor's Prison.

When I argue with my mom over the things she wants to spend money on, I hear the same tone I used to hear in my grandfather when I'd tell him to stop buying me things. Why won't you let me love you?

Over Christmas, my family watched the Steve Martin remake of Father of the Bride, as we have a million times, but I appreciated it anew from my engaged perspective. That backyard barbecue wedding George imagines Annie having? TOTALLY LEGIT, and would probably end up featured on Offbeat Bride if it had happened. And his change of heart, when he fully embraces the WIC, doesn't come when he sees the pretty cake pictures, or argues with his wife, or even goes to jail. It comes when he sees his daughter reading a budget bridal magazine, and fears that, because of his actions, his daughter might remember her wedding day as a day on which her dreams were compromised. And he can't have that. He loves her too much.

When I argue with my mom over the (to me) foolish, frivolous things she wants to spend money on, I hear in her voice the same tone that I used to hear in my grandfather's when I'd tell him to stop buying me pearls from HSN. Why won't you let me love you?

I wish I had an awesome answer of how we're supposed to help our mothers (and fathers, let's not be gender essentialist — my dad was the one whose bottom lip started quivering when I ragged on cake toppers) avoid these scams, and feel like they're loving us. Like they're doing this wedding thing "right," without letting Martha's marketing director determine their conception of what "right" is. We — the people actually getting married — have blogs, we have a healthy disrespect for tradition, we have recently married friends, we have a whole giant trampoline of awesomeness cushioning our wildest experimental leaps. Our parents have nothing but the fear that they're going to let their children down, and a bunch of Franck Eggelhoffers whispering that that fear can be assuaged with this lovely cake knife corsage.

  1. Good god, YES. YES. YES. All the yeses. Thank you. This is fucking spot on.

    47 agree
    • Since I can't "This" the whole article, I'll just have to agree with your comment.

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  2. I totally had to deal with this. My mom, in fact, used the word "Bridezilla" a few times when I tried to scale BACK the wedding! I wanted desperately to keep it simple, and fought hard for it, but apparently you can't win either way.

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    • Ugh that word. I am so sick of it being thrown around anytime the 'bride' has an opinion of her (or his) own! It's like women with power in the workplace being called bitches. Worst invented word ever. I feel you lady! It's been hurled at me too for similar convictions!

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      • I've been battling with this word alot lately. Except I've been throwing it at myself. Ever since we started planning the wedding in earnest (about a year ago) I was so afraid of being perceived as a bridezilla that I became petrified of saying no when loved ones started throwing out ideas, or explaining to me why the ideas I had for my own wedding weren't good ones.

        I finally had a "come to Jesus" moment this past weekend, and realized that ya know what? It's okay if someone thinks you're a Bridezilla. That's absolutely fine, cause a) other than being pregnant this is the one time in your life you have a culturally acceptable excuse to be one and b)Who cares? as long as YOU know you're not being rude or hurtful to people, and that you're actions are motivated by the desire to be true to yourself and your fiance then go ahead. Be a bridezilla.

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  3. The best part of my mom's "you oughta" sentiments is that SHE hadn't done ANY of them in EITHER of her TWO WEDDINGS.

    Veil? I didn't want it, but she insisted. Did she wear a veil? Nope! (I won that one in the end.)

    Dress? I wanted fancy-but-not-too-much. She wore a white cotton sundress when she married my dad, and a pants suit when she married her first husband. She wanted me in a dress with a ginormous train. I compromised at a sweep train.

    DJ? She insisted. We were thinkingiPod. In the end we went with DJ and I'm OK with it — we kind of suck at making playlists.

    Other things that we had at our wedding that my mother didn't have at hers: An actual venue (she went backyard/courthouse). Attendants. A catered meal (she went potluck).

    So all of this is to say, yes, it IS directed towards our mothers! Thankfully, my mother is a feminist (and also wasn't helping to pay for our actual wedding beyond the welcome reception the day before — another thing she insisted on but didn't have at her weddings), so I did a quick crash course in WIC-avoidance and APW/OffBB values and we were pretty smooth sailing after that.

    (That said, when your mom insists you wear a veil and you don't want to… showing her a picture of the store's model wearing the dress with no veil goes a long, long way.)

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    • Good idea on showing mom pics of models without veils. I'm currently in my own Battle of the Veil, since my mom doesn't think a bride actually looks like a bride without one.

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      • Real life example: My sister didn't wear a veil when she had her wedding and she is otherwise a veeeeery traditional and conservative person. I don't plan on doing so either. I would definitely show pictures of real brides sans veils as well just to show that the idea is not a totally new one.

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  4. Very well-written and well-reasoned and well-said!

    In all my inspirational planning I have found one important truth to keep in mind: no matter who pays for what or how modern (or rather, postmodern) we are, no matter how personal every expression gets, the wedding is kind of for my parents too. Because weddings are still locuses of family get-togethers, parents can indeed feel like weddings reflect on *them*, too. They feel like the wedding will be a measure of how they love and express that love for their daughter (or son) — and maybe for "tradition," too, but I think you're more right on with that first "cuz … love" idea. How much they spend, how much they have in common with previous family weddings, is all too often read as an expression of their hospitality. This is totally unfair, as we all know, but so many parents don't have this concept nailed down quite yet. And it's not really their fault: thanks WIC!

    Thing is, I'm not sure how to combat it, except to be sweetly understanding of that weird hidden parental pressure and keep communication open. I've been lucky enough to share my fun and silly ideas with my mum, and becase she loves me, she pretty much loves them. I want to include family remembrances because they are likewise important to all of us. I try to think of this thing as being for all of us, because it kind of is. Even though it's really for two at heart.

    Great idea: wedding blogs for parents of engaged-offspring, with the refreshing perspective of OBB. Make it so, bloggosphere? ;)

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    • I know for a fact that we have a chunk of mother-of-bride readers! :)

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      • if someone could write an article for traditional moms of offbeat brides, i would just be so in love. my mom is not understanding any part of what i want out of my wedding and i can't seem to get through to her.

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      • I'm a mother-of-the-bride, and love OBB! I come from a long line of obb's, and if anything, I tend to push my daughter in the less traditional direction, and she tends to push back. but in the end it's hers and her fiance's wedding, and it will be just perfect for them, which is the ultimate obb value anyway.

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    • This is so true. For my mom, it was also about how my wedding reflected on her as a hostess. As much as I felt like my wedding only reflected on me and my husband, she felt like it was unavoidable that many of our guests would think of my mom as the host, and that their comfort would reflect on her. … And from there she made the leap that they would somehow be more comfortable with china rather than compostable plates, which is total WIC brainwashing, but anyway. The point is, weddings are definitely about parents too.

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      • Absolutely. My father was much more stressed about our wedding than I was, because the "Father of the Bride" is still a position of honor and the ultimate host. If our guests were unhappy with the wedding, it wouldn't just reflect badly on us, but on him as well. So he had an investment in this party that was beyond just knowing where his money went.

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  5. Awesome article!!! I'm totally emailing this to my mother! Love love your website!!

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  6. Excellent and truth-heavy post! I found it to be exactly the case when I was planning my wedding.

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  7. This is great! I will save it to show to my mother at the opportune moment.

    I've found it helpful to distinguish between tradition that's actually meaningful and tradition that's there to sell something. I love the tradition of making things for your wedding distinct, i.e. your dress is not something you would wear everyday. That being said, that does not mean you must spend thousands of dollars to get the proper dress! I feel that the importance shouldn't be obscured by the pomp & circumstance. I've gone back and forth with my mother about this, & I've watched a friend get pulled into a very traditional wedding despite her inclinations otherwise, as the ceremony obscured the meaning of tradition.

    Talking about it seems to be the best solution, but if it's not an option, sometimes it just has to come down to money. My mother and I don't agree on some things, so they don't happen! When I lack the means for something she feels is necessary, but she does not supply the funding, then I do my best to let her comments fall by the wayside. My honesty can get in the way, but at least I know where I stand, I suppose.

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  8. This is very well written with so many great points! It helped me to understand why my future mother in law becomes furious with me because of my short wedding dress, or when I tell I tell her we will not be wasting our money on favors and personalized matchbooks.

    I'm really lucky that my parents had a simple, DIY wedding back in the day and really do get it. My future in-laws are just the opposite and quite a bit older.

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  9. I am past my own wedding and I rarely read OBB anymore (I'm more of a Homie now ;) ), but I am SO glad I saw this headline and popped over to read. It is such a good piece. I feel like this needs some sort of perm-sticky as an important introduction to wedding planning.

    Thanks for writing it Sarah, I feel like this is going to really help people. Kudos! :)

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  10. This is something I would never have thought of before, but you are exactly right. I suppose I'm fortunate/unfortunate to not have any motherly or fatherly influences on my upcoming nuptials because it lets us really make everything personal.

    But I do love me a good magazine read, and sometimes I just want to venture into the WIC world and read to see what's going on. At least now, compared to my first marriage, I know how to read between the lines and know what I want versus what I'm told I need.

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  11. I have 3 daughters, and from the time they were in middle school, we told them that we would pay for EITHER their undergrad degree-of 5 years or less-OR a wedding. They all chose the degree. (It may sound crass, but lot of marriages don't work out, and your degree will never cheat on you or call you fat.)

    That said, when our first daughter got married, I surprised her by paying for the dress…the one she chose when she thought she had to pay for it HERSELF. And, married or not, the other two will get a similar monetary treat when they least expect it.

    Otherwise, our retirement may have had to be a rocking chair in THEIR house! Something none of us would want.

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    • My parents did the same thing! They financed my and my two sisters' educations and did a "surprise" monetary contribution for weddings. I put "surprise" in quotation marks because it's consistently been paying for flowers (my mom had to tell me she was paying for flowers because I wasn't even going to have them originally). My older sister surprised me by paying for my dress! I was pretty floored when she did it. Floored in a good way :)

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  12. Yay for this on the main blog! It's freaking brilliant!

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  13. We're pretty lucky in that all of our parents live interstate, so we can basically plan it it how we want it. We were also up front from the get go – we're paying for it ourselves and planning it ourselves. If you'd like to donate some cash to help us out that would be lovely, but we're certainly not relying on it or expecting it. The only exception is my mum is an uber talented amateur cake decorator (she's won prizes), so we've asked her to make a cake for us.

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  14. I love this! I'm lucky enough to have a mom who had an offbeat-lite wedding, encourages me to be me, and is excited to be at our gothic masquerade Halloween wedding!

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  15. Every time my mother sighs when I scoff at some WIC crazy thing, I will think of this. And then try to find another way to let her love me. This was awesome!

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  16. Sarah, you are (and have been/will be) such an eloquent BAMF.

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  17. I was reading this and just mildly, kind-of relating until BAM you hit me with this one:

    "my dad was the one whose bottom lip started quivering when I ragged on cake toppers"

    Can I just say that, yes, Dad threw the fit when we weren't having the a wedding as traditional as he would have wanted… or at least as traditional as the WIC told him our wedding needed to be?
    He went with us to the cake tasting which was actually a cupcake tasting because we liked single-servings and he FLIPPED out because the bakery had all these really nice cakes and cute cake toppers

    If you are having a cake and/or cake topper more power to you. I can't stand 'em. Dad finally got over it and helped himself to TWO cupcakes day of :)

    By the time the wedding came, he enjoyed himself thoroughly. Months later he still comments on how much fun he had on our special day. THAT'S definitely a win in my book!

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    • My Dad totally went Dadzilla on me. Hated our English Christmas Cracker favors and went behind my back and ordered a bunch of engraved bottle stoppers from China. It was a very weird moment. But then I remembered that my parents still have a bunch of swizzle sticks saved in a jar from all these weddings they went to in the 70s and 80s. So giving people something tangible was very important to him, so we put out the ugly bottle stoppers. I actually kept a bunch and use them all the time.

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  18. I'm in a similar but opposite situation.
    My dad offered to build the dance floor for our wedding that he presumes will be at a family friends farm in the middle of the summer. Once we have a firm date /location I plan to let him down easy by saying: "What I would really love is to have you be truly present and well rested the day/weekend of." (and maybe suggesting he give me the gift of a day of coordinator, a job I performed for him at his farm, diy, pot-luck wedding 2 years ago).

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  19. Solution: send your parents to OffbeatBride! Or print off a couple of your favorite wedding profiles, so they can read them. When I finally showed my mom some of the weddings that get featured on here, she FINALLY started to understand that I wanted something a little different, that it can be TOTALLY FUN to express yourselves and do things a little differently. After seeing all the excitement and general awesome-ness here, she could finally get excited WITH me over my unconventional centerpieces and rock band first dance. :)

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  20. Sarah Thomas, you do an excellent job of illustrating that the single biggest generational divide between the internet generations and the previous ones is the free exchange of incredibly vast quantities of information, along with – and this is key – contributing to it.

    Welcome to the democratization of knowledge, information, and creativity. We are no longer passive observers. Fuck yeah.

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  21. Frankly, I think a lot of the issue with this is also mothers your mother is around/works with. Most of the time these mothers orchestrate a normal cookie cutter wedding. A mother upset about floral arrangements, fights with the caterer, etc. And when you have a poor mother at work telling her friends that her daughter "is looking for action figures for her place cards" there is a hint of embarrassment there. Even though they know I'm a weirdo, being a girl and not wanting flowers at my wedding did not compute. Mom-bot malfunction!

    I love my mother and without her my wedding would never have succeeded but I did butt heads with her a lot because she started resisting my offbeatiness. She hasn't gone to a wedding since 1995 and it was a big white, catholic wedding. So while I had the venue and the big white dress, my TARDIS invites, online RSVPing, my Legend of Zelda ceremony music just confused her.

    Once she saw the end product and how happy my new husband and I were about it all she loved it too.

    I love this article. Bravo.

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  22. As David Mitchell says in his soapbox rant about wedding indviduality, there's a lost generation that had their own weddings spoiled by their parents, as used to be traditional, but haven't been allowed to spoil their children's. "But they're basically the people who stiffed us on pensions, so sod them."

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  23. Re: the Steve Martin "Father of the Bride"…RIGHT?! That backyard BBQ wedding WOULD have been totally legit. It seems like they could have found some middle ground between super-casual and Franck that would have saved Steve Martin from going crazy and getting arrested over hot-dog buns.

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  24. Great post! Getting now why my Mom keeps insisting on the "proper" wording for the wedding invite and pooh-poohed a "too casual" invitation and keeps pushing for a veil. She is trying to let me and my fiance plan the wedding we want but every now then, she can't resist trying to inject another "tradition" or push for the "right way", ie. favors for the guests. I am not a fan and think they are a waste of money and time but to my mom, you didn't host a proper wedding without them – so, there will be some nicely wrapped, cheaply acquired chocolate or candy favors. Now, it makes sense.

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  25. If this ain't true I don't know what is! I realized early on that even though the wedding is "about us", it's also more or less a big party for the parents. I understand they have their own personal pressures on what is ideal for their kids- but the wedding industry makes it that much worse!
    For example- when checking out flower vendors one lady was shocked I'm not having a flower girl. She even said, "Are you sure you can't find ANYONE to be your flower girl?". I politely told her I don't WANT a flower girl (my dog Deja is the honorary flower girl) but she looked at me like my wedding was going to be very sad. I got that icky feeling inside, which isn't right.
    As soon as I got outta there I felt better, but it really effected my Dad. He started feeling like our wedding wasn't up to par because of it, but I had to tell him (several times), not having a flower girl makes me happy. That made him happy and forget the whole thing. Course that's only the tip of the iceberg…

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  26. I bought a couple of glossy magazines too when I go engaged. Because I knew nothing, Jon Snow.

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  27. As a mother of two young daughters what I am surprised at is how much time my husband spends thinking about their weddings….way more than he did about ours I promise. It makes so much more sense to me now why my otherwise cheep skate, style illiterate dad was so concerned about yes we need the 6$ seat covers and we really want to buy you the expensive dress.
    Parents have images of their child's milestones too, and just like everything else in their lives like the first day of school or the best violin teacher or the perfect Christmas morning they want to give us perfection.

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  28. So so so true… Throughout wedding planning my mom was the one collecting magazines and sending me links for venues way over our budget, even though we'd already chosen our venue (for $122!).

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