Who the heck put the health in hen parties?

As millennials swap booze and strippers for yoga and meditation, Stevie Martin wonders – what happened to fun?

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Hen dos are having an identity crisis. Back in the old days they followed a recognisable format: you went to an All Bar One with the bride’s most terrifying friendship groups – judgmental home friends, Laura who she worked with in 2013 and so on – did endless shots, then the next morning learned that you had passed out during the karaoke. While this was pretty lame, the recent rise in Instagram-worthy, image-obsessed bachelorette parties is just as bad.

Take Pippa, 30, who recently found herself making a terrarium in silence for her best friend’s hen do. Yes, a terrarium. ‘It was a load of people sitting round putting ferns and moss in glass,’ she tells me. ‘We even had to bring our own beer.’

Last year, I went on a hen do involving a calligraphy class and an evening of meditation. As lovely as this sounds, it was £300 and involved a group of women who didn’t know each other silently writing their own names then sitting in yet more silence.

Samantha, 27, from County Durham, dodged a bullet when she couldn’t attend a hen do involving a night decorating pairs of knickers: ‘Afterwards there was a £70 cocktail-making class, and the pants cost £12 each, too! The maid of honour really tried to sell the idea of decorating your own pants and how it would be a brilliant ice-breaker.’ Yes, because nothing says ‘fun’ like carrying out an array of tasks as if you’re an underperforming human resources team.

If you’re not working hard at some obscure activity, you’re now just as likely to find yourself working out. With sobriety on the rise – more than a quarter of 16- to 24-year-olds say they don’t touch alcohol – and fitness at the forefront for many millennials, there’s an ever-growing number of ‘healthy hens’ who are opting for spinning classes over strippers.

“I went on a hen do involving calligraphy and meditation. It cost £300”

In the 1960s, when hen dos first emerged as part of the sexual revolution, a bride-to-be would walk around her local pub with rude words pinned on her jacket. Bit odd, but I’m sure it was a good laugh. Now we’re putting rhinestones on pants and often for entire weekends. ‘I went on a no-phones weekend getaway with gong baths and vegan buffets. Everyone was in bed by 9pm,’ says Freya, 27. ‘I would only want to do that with my closest friends – not people I don’t know. It was awful. And cost me £700!’

That’s the crux: not only are these activities super-dull, you’re also paying through the nose to be bored – in the UK, we’re spending more than £300 million a year on hen and stag dos as we forgo quantity (of alcohol) for quality and actual fun for likes on Instagram.

Perhaps that’s why the ‘zen do’ – a weekend away with the girls – is increasing in popularity. According to Booking.com, 74 per cent of women now view hen dos as an opportunity to enjoy downtime with their friendship group. Instead of party games, the key to a zen do is a chilled itinerary: massages rather than strippers and relaxation rather than party games. And instead of reserving a table at a local bar, you are more likely to find hens heading to sunny far-flung locations, with 50 per cent of them booking villas in top zen-do (and more photogenic) locations Barcelona, Ibiza and Majorca.

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Of course, one of the main incentives for the modern hen isn’t so much about how much fun you’re having IRL but how it looks on social media. Which is why wedding sites are full of info on ‘how to throw an Instagram-worthy hen party’ articles and nobody dared mention that the yoga-calligraphy hen do I went on was painfully dull. Even though we all secretly know that a good photo doesn’t equal a good time. ‘My friend had several hen dos. We had a massage, afternoon tea, hot tub and really awkward games,’ says Lola, 25. ‘Everyone was filming it on their phones rather than being in the moment. It was sort of fun, but a little forced; I think they wanted it to be social-media worthy.’

Of course they did; the maid of honour had to match every fabulous #hendo that she’d seen on Insta. Becky, 30, who went on a mostly silent life-drawing hen do, agrees that it’s to do with social pressure: ‘You can’t tell your mate, “We’re going to Nando’s” and be done with it – you’d be labelled the world’s worst bridesmaid.’ If lifestyle blogger Rosie Thomas (The Londoner) can book a villa on Mykonos, then something low-key feels like you’ve not done your job properly.

“We all secretly know that a good photo doesn’t ALWAYS equal a good time”

So how can we strike a balance and create a genuinely fun celebration? Jack Robson of Last Night of Freedom, one of the UK’s leading hen and stag do organisers, reckons it’s all about tailoring. ‘It’s all well and good booking a generic package or flights, but from my experience it’s best when it is centred on the hen,’ he explains. ‘Personalising it is the key because, if the hen loves it, everyone else will have a great time.’

Case in point: I once went sober bird-watching for a hen do because my friend who was getting married watches TV shows about sparrows for fun. It sounds dull, but I can’t tell you how great it was. I think we all cried when we saw a heron. The fact that the bride lost her mind with joy was enough to make even bird-watching fun.

Personally, I’m hoping for a backlash against the Instagrammable healthy hen do. The best
one Becky, who endured the life drawing, has ever experienced was the simplest: ‘I went to the pub with two mates, had loads of drinks and Mini Cheddars, then stumbled home. Perfect.’ Sure, it would get barely any likes, but I would take it over fern, moss or yoga any day.