I don’t think I’ve ever been thinner than I was on my wedding day. Through diet, exercise, and the pure strength of bridal willpower, I managed to lose about twenty-five pounds before saying “I do,” elliptical-ing my way down to a svelte size eight. When it came time to speak our vows, I felt confident and ready to take the aisle by storm.
And yet. When I got my wedding pictures back, I kind of hated them. I’d lost all this weight, but I still looked… squishy. My arms didn’t have the definition I’d seen in all the wedding ads, and my back still rolled over the top of my dress (I guess that’s what I get for refusing to acknowledge any gym equipment that won’t let me watch reruns of Saved by the Bell). And while I knew objectively that I looked beautiful on my wedding day, I still felt… disappointed.
The thing is, looking back, I have no idea what was going through my mind at the time. I was hot! I had a rockin’ bod that I’d worked my ass off for, complete with curves to inspire Sir Mix-a-Lot. So what happened? How is it that, even after gaining nearly fifty pounds of post-wedding weight, I have a more positive body image now than I did when I got married?
The answer lies where almost all of the complicated feelings of getting married lie: the big business wedding industry. Mainstream wedding media has created such an unnatural representation of bridal beauty that it’s nearly impossible to discern where “I’d like to look pretty on my wedding day” turns into “I’ll regret it forever if I don’t lose ten pounds before the wedding and get Michelle Obama’s arms.”
Just a quick glimpse at wedding dress advertising begins to unravel the complicated intricacies of brides, bodies, and beauty. First, there are the obvious issues: the lack of diversity; the untamed airbrushing; the fact that none of the models ever seem to smile. But peeling back the layers unveils an even more subtle beauty standard: these women are you, only better. None of them are runway-model thin. They are just a little thinner than you. A little taller. Slightly more polished. Like you, on your best day, at the most flattering angle.
And of course, couple these pressures with the messaging that your wedding is the single most important day of your life and you’ve only got one chance to do it right (and a limited amount of time to do so, at that), and we’ve got ourselves a problem. Before you know it, your brain starts playing a never-ending loop of Eminem’s “Lose Yourself” while you paw through sample gowns trying to find your size.
And while it may be impossible to escape this harmful messaging about your body and your wedding, there are a few helpful hints I’ve learned since getting married that should ease the pain and hopefully help you come out on the other side without the emotional battle scars usually reserved for Miss America contestants.
First, let’s acknowledge the dress. Strapless dresses make up a huge percent of the wedding dresses you’ll be presented with during your search. You will have to try them on in sizes that are nearly double the number that you normally wear (and even then they still fit too small), and most of the time they invent fat. (I didn’t even know you could be worried about armpit fat until I went strapless dress shopping.) This. Is. Not. Your. Fault. I promise that you will regret it if you try and squeeze your body into a dress made for someone else. So find an outfit that makes you feel awesome and works on your body, not on some unrealistic ideal.
Secondly, it’s not all about the pictures. No, seriously: mainstream wedding media has us all convinced that the end goal of getting married is the ah-may-zing photos—which is, of course, a crock (and I say this as both a former bride and a former wedding photographer). Yes, the photos are an important way to remember your wedding, but wedding photos are not the most accurate representation of how your wedding felt, no matter how good the photographer is. Also, you don’t owe it to anyone to produce red-carpet photos from your wedding, and there is no prize being given out on Facebook or Instagram to the-bride-who-is-most beautiful-by-societal-expectations.
Finally, at a certain point, you just have to let it go. Yes, it’s perfectly acceptable to have a little bit of body shame leading up to the wedding; your willpower would have to be phenomenal not to suffer from it. But it’s a disservice to yourself to carry that into the day itself—because seriously, there isn’t a thing wrong with you. Your partner chose you for a reason, just as you are, right now, imaginary armpit fat and all. Plus, you’re getting married. MARRIED! You have already earned the right to a happy wedding and don’t owe anyone a dang thing else, no matter how frequently the mainstream wedding media tries to tell you otherwise.
That said, if your wedding day does come and go, and you do find yourself falling victim to the same reaction as I did, please know that it’s okay. Weddings are complicated, as are our relationships with our bodies. And in the same way that insecurity doesn’t undo all the good things of your daily life, insecurity on your wedding day won’t undo the magic and joy of committing to a life with your intended. So trust me when I tell you that the future of your happiness, your beauty, your self-worth isn’t wrapped up in this one day. No matter what the salesperson tells you.
This post originally ran on APW + Etsy in June 2012