The Bridal Beauty Paradox: We’re In Weigh Over Our Heads

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 in a $500 fake-taffeta David’s Bridal gown that I’d bought at the last minute two weeks before the wedding.

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 ads 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.

Read the rest on Etsy…

Photo by Hart & Sol West

Featured Sponsored Content

  • Diana

    OKAY, awesome to the core! Thank you!

  • Meredith

    Thank you SO much for this incredibly affirming post! The bridal beauty issue becomes even more of a minefield for those of us recovering from eating disorder issues, so I just really appreciate your perspective.

  • Lyndsey

    I got engaged three days ago, and am 28 years old. I’m suddenly under all this pressure to start exercising, taking vitamins, whitening my teeth, getting my skin looking great. Some I should’ve been doing all along, but some is the pressure to look my best. But this is how I see it: I never imagined I’d be getting married at an age past 22. So not only have I got 6 extra years of aging under my belt, I’ve been at a desk job for the same length of time, getting ‘soft.’ I’m not overweight, but I’m no longer toned. And I’m in love and effin giddy about it. I want to look as young as I feel, on my wedding day in front of everyone, and in photos. But I mostly blame what my busy lifestyle has turned me into, neglecting my health which thus reflects how I appear (not youthful, glowing, full of love and energy). I do agree there’s a logical line, where effort isn’t to be discouraged, but perfection (depending on how you define it) is too extreme. Wonderful, thought provoking post. Thank you for sharing.

    • Carrie

      Lyndsey, I hear and appreciate what you’re saying — that your health isn’t where you want it to be, and you want to improve it. Totally support that plan!

      I’m a little worried, though, that you might feel like you need to look like you did when you were 22 when you get married, or else you won’t look happy/glowing/giddy enough. Like, there’s some message that because you were “supposed” to be 22 when you got married, you’re behind now and you have to make up for it by doing your best to be 22 again?

      I just want to note that being a happy, glowing, giddy 28+-year-old bride (however old you’ll be on your wedding day) is awesome! And it is not a requirement to be 22 — or look like you did at 22 — in order to look good and feel good, on your wedding day or any other day.

      Congratulations on your engagement, and best wishes! :)

    • Ambi

      My gut reaction Lyndsey (and I really mean this in a helpful way) is that you seem to have internalized those societal pressures to look the prettiest you have ever looked on your wedding day. Don’t get me wrong – I’m right there with you, and it is HARD to try to step back from it – but my suggestion is to try. Maybe re-read Maddie’s previous post on the subject. Maybe look through this site and see pictures of beautiful, glowing brides who are well into their thirties and forties and beyond, who aren’t a size 4 or even a size 12, but who still look stunning, happy, and healthy. That helped me. It also helped to go to my cousin’s wedding last month and see how gorgeous she looked. She’s in her forties (and got married for the first time – fist bump for waiting for the right man!) She has always struggled with her weight, and she was not thin on her wedding day – but she looked absolutely amazing. I mean, really stunning. When the bridesmaids and aunts and her mom first saw her, we all cried. Several of us commented that that bridal glow you always hear about – it is real, and you will have it. It comes from happiness, and it is SO much more beautiful than thin arms or white teeth or perfect hair.

    • MDBethann

      Lyndsey, I am 33 and I got married at the beginning of May. The love WILL show and you WILL glow because you will be smiling and happy because you are marrying the person you love. My favorite pictures from my wedding aren’t the posed ones – they are the ones where I am throwing my head back and laughing because I am so happy to be married to my husband and dancing with him at our wedding. That is what I hope you will focus on. I don’t always like how my nose looks, or the fact that we are squinting in some of the outdoor shots because it is so sunny, but the love and the joy are visible even in the squinting pictures. THAT is what your family and friends will see.

      I wish you lots of luck as you navigate wedding land. Be the bride YOU want to be – find the dress that makes you comfortable and rock being a 28-year old bride!

  • Shiri

    Thank you, Maddie. That was not only gorgeous but completely smart and right on, and so necessary and helpful to hear.

  • I love these posts. I didn’t lose a pound for my wedding because I wanted to look like myself and myself is kind of chubby. I credit APW with making me feel like having a wedding could just be me and Dave throwing a party. No extreme weight loss needed.

  • Great post Maddie. This, “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.” Yes, yes, yes.

  • Carrie

    When I was engaged I went through the whole thought process of “I should lose weight for the wedding! No, I shouldn’t do it for the wedding, I should just do it for my health! But the wedding is a motivator. Maybe I should just use the wedding to motivate myself to exercise for health? No, I am just giving in to the WIC! But I still want to lose weight. AARGH ARRRGH ARGH.”

    And then life happened. I ended up scheduling my Ph.D. preliminary exam one month before the wedding, which meant I had a lot of work to do and not a lot of extra time to exercise. And I didn’t end up losing any weight at all. And it was okay.

    It helped a lot that my sister-in-law was making my dress, so I didn’t have to engage very much with the wedding dress sales industry. It also helped that because of genetics, my body size when I’m not actively trying to lose weight is one that can still fit into some of the larger sample wedding dresses (at least in the shops I went to — I’ve heard horror stories of some shops carrying samples only in, like, the two smallest sizes the designers make, which I would not fit into even if I did nothing but work out all day). So yeah, there was luck and privilege operating that made the whole process a lot less crazymaking.

    However, I can state that despite not losing any weight and not having the “perfect” body, I felt happy and beautiful on my wedding day, and I think I looked pretty good too.

    And the pictures do, actually, look good. I realize it is not all about the pictures, but I also realize that people worry about being captured on camera in some horribly unflattering way and having the friends and family who couldn’t attend the wedding thinking that’s what they looked like the whole time. As the wife of a professional photographer, I’d like to note that it’s a professional wedding photographer’s job to make images that DO capture you in a flattering way. It is NOT your job to look like a real-life fashion model for the sake of the camera!

    (And P.S.? A lot of the time, fashion models don’t look in person like they look on camera. My husband started out doing a lot of fashion work. He met a lot of models who didn’t perfectly fit all the “beauty standard” crap — their proportions would be a bit unusual, their faces might not be very symmetrical, whatever — but, as he puts it, “the camera liked them.” The small distortions that happen in the camera meant that their pictures fit the “beauty standard” even though they didn’t. Not to mention that Photoshop gets used a LOT more than most people imagine in fashion work. My point is, even ACTUAL MODELS don’t look like photographs of models. Anyone who tries to tell you that you should look like a photograph of a model? Is SO BEYOND FULL OF IT.)

  • Maddie, I really love this post. And then I went back and actually read the title and laughed out loud. You and those puns!

    • Maddie

      I loves them.

  • Kelsey W.

    “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.”
    HAHA. If anything, this is my takeaway- I now know that whenever I start thinking some crazy wedding shit, this montage will pop into my head. Thanks!

  • Amazing that APW always kinda knows what I’m thinking. I had a troubling conversation last weekend with my good friend who is getting married in January, 3 weeks before me. I just ordered my bridesmaid dress for her wedding and she “casually” asked me “What size did you get, an 8?”
    Hahaha. No. I’m a size 12, and cool with it. But she was shocked that I’m a 12 because I look so thin (go ahead and parse how many ways that is offensive, why don’t you) and then switched gears immediately to how I’m training for a half marathon so obviously losing weight, which I will undoubtedly continue to do after the race in September to be thin for the weddings.
    No. I’m not running to lose weight. (I’m doing it to survive the zombie apocalypse, duh!) And I don’t plan to diet myself skinny to fit some Kn*t ideal. Besides, my wedding dress got ordered already in a size 12. And also, did I mention, I’m cool with that?

    • (OMG are you using the Zombies, Run! app? I am brand-new to running and just discovered it. I’m obsessed).

      • Ambi

        I need that app! I am in the infant stages of running, and I’ve been using the Couch to 5K app and it just isn’t . . . fun. I have been beyond surprised to discover that I actually enjoy running, but that app sounds really motivating!

      • No I don’t have an I-phone. But I like to imagine zombies chasing me anyways. :-)

    • MDBethann

      I just fit into my size 10 wedding gown – it was like a glove. I am 5’10” and I’ve had people look at me and say “you’re so thin you should be a model.” So like the discussion earlier this day, store clothing sizes are soooo not a way to measure your size, and bridal store sizes run small, so they are even worse than most women’s clothing.

  • Makes me sad. All people are so beautiful, just the way they are. And also, a good photographer can help you look like the best you. But seriously, I wish brides didn’t feel such pressure to be someone else on their wedding day, because this photographer loves you all the way you are.

  • HollyMargaret

    These posts are so, so important. Thank you, APW, for encouraging these discussions.
    I just want to throw my two cents in and speak as a recent bride with a history of eating disorders (disordered for several years and in recovery for the past 6 years). I don’t claim that my POV is terribly unique, but I just want to make it clear that it’s where I’m coming from.
    I thought that day-to-day societal expectations of beauty were awful. Good lord. The propagation of bridal beauty norms have a special way of sucking all the joy out of a casual jaunt through wedding blogs.
    From the start, I knew that I’d have to pay very close attention to the WIC-body-speak and examine my reactions accordingly. The months leading up the wedding were a never ending cycle of reaction (“I look terrible! I’ll never look like a BRIDE”), reflection (“Hold up – What in the HELL does that even mean? Looking like a bride?”), and affirmation (“I look like me. I will be a bride. I will look like a bride”). And many darker variations of this chain of thought.
    I had to come up with a plan to keep sane and healthy. When I found myself in conversations that seemed headed full-tilt toward a comment about “bridal appearance”, I made a point of declaring, “Losing weight isn’t part of my wedding plan. It’s terrible when others assume that it’s necessary, you know?” Then, I’d continue on with excited talk about bushel of the plastic toy animals that I was spray painting gold for decoration. I did this over and over again. Giving voice to those words – “Losing weight isn’t part of my wedding plan” – helped to keep me focused on the bigger picture – the superfly love, the fun, the future, the good stuff. For me, it was empowering to put that declaration out into the world. And I really believe that it helped.

  • I don’t normally post anonymously, but it’s necessary for what I’m going to say on this topic.

    First of all, I firmly believe that people should never, ever be judged by their size or receive negative work or social consequences due to their weight.

    That said, I have been an actively recovering member of Overeaters Anonymous (based on AA) for over 3 years because I recognized that my relationship with food and body image was not healthy, physically or emotionally. I’m sharing this because the vast majority of folks don’t know about this organization and how it can be helpful for for people that experience find obsessing over food & weight. I mention this particularly in this post because it focuses on the common theme of women going to great lengths to lose weight, only to gain it back after the wedding – this yo-yo trend is common among people (like me) that identify as compulsive overeaters and/or food addicts.

    Again, if you feel completely healthy and are not at all concerned about your weight or body image, great. But if you feel like this is a constant struggle and you aren’t sure where to find a long-term solution that isn’t just a weight-loss gimmick, please check out OA and see if it is right for your situation.

    I’m also happy to discuss the program with anyone: (this is my “anonymous” email address)