Not-so-bulging brides

Has pre-wedding dieting gotten out of control?

Published July 15, 2008 7:00PM (EDT)

I'll admit that my only encounter so far with the WE channel's show "Bulging Brides" has been through the Sarah Haskins video that Kate Harding linked to a few weeks ago. In it, a woman who would usually be considered normal -- thin, even -- is told that if she wants to look good before her wedding, she has "tons of work to do." Get it?

Anyway, we just stumbled on a related article from Alternet (which got it from Women's eNews) that asks why brides-to-be are "starving themselves skinny."

"The growth and sophistication of the wedding industry, from the local florist and caterer to the wedding media ... is giving brides more options than ever before and more channels through which to receive marketing messages," says the article. "They are selling perfection and many brides are buying."

It then references a study from Cornell University, published in the March-May 2008 edition of the journal Appetite, that found that 70 percent of women want to lose weight before their weddings. In June, Fitness Magazine put the figure at 83 percent, with one-third of women hoping to drop at least 30 pounds. According to the Cornell study, more than half of its 272 respondents said that they would be willing to "use extreme dieting methods" to drop the weight.

I think the most surprising part of the article is that it really doesn't seem that surprising. Ever since we read our first fairy tale or watched our first Disney movie, women in America are exposed to wedding mythology -- and while that mythology does involve a Prince Charming, it also puts an inordinate amount of pressure on that one perfect day. (Why the hell else would anyone entertain the notion of spending thousands of dollars on a dress she'll never wear again?) Talk about body acceptance in other areas of your life all you want, but when it comes down to what you want to look like on the most heavily photographed day of your life, in an outfit that cost more than a month's rent, trust me: Nobody wants fat elbows.

All this is to say that I can understand where this desire for perfection is coming from. After all, weddings are just a microcosm of the fantasies we all have about our lives -- they're a lifetime of stereotypical female aspirations boiled down into one day. You want to be beautiful; you want to be loved. Rebecca Mead, a staff writer for the New Yorker and author of "One Perfect Day: The Selling of the American Wedding," points out that "the need for there to be some sense of difference is very profound. Reshaping your body for the event could certainly be part of that wish to make it feel as if you're passing a milestone." And, of course, when it comes to dieting, weddings also provide a really convenient deadline.

The crazy thing, I think, is how far this obsession has gone. According to the Fitness survey, one-fifth of brides said they'd postpone their weddings if they hadn't met their weight goals by their planned nuptial date. There are plenty of options on how to do so, like pills, of course (the stimulant/appetite suppressant phentermine is always possible, despite side effects like heart palpitations and headaches), and fitness programs -- even before I myself was engaged, I remember checking out pamphlets in my gym about its "Buff Brides" program. (I often look for arbitrary sources of motivation when it comes to increasing shoulder definition.) Considering that the American wedding industry is currently worth $168 billion a year, it makes sense that there are programs and products that take advantage of the heightened body image insecurity many women feel about the big day.

So what's to be done about it? Well, one ramification of wedding-related body-image disorder (as I've just now decided to call it) is that it creates another wedding-related business opportunity: bridal counseling! Sheryl Paul, author of "The Conscious Bride" helps shield her clients from the pressures of wedding planning by recommending they avoid bridal magazines and other wedding pop culture. (What! No bridal porn?) She thinks that some of the drive for wedding day perfection is a reflection of other insecurities. "Whether she's focusing on the perfect place settings or the perfect body, she's still trying to have control in an external way instead of recognizing that she feels out of control," she says about brides. "That's normal; that's part of transitioning."

Perhaps she's right, but I think most people would agree that obsessing over placemats is, in the long run, less destructive than extreme dieting or popping pills. It'd be nice if we could drop the hoopla all together and concentrate on creating weddings that focused less on externalities and more on what they're supposed to be about -- love and commitment -- but as someone who is having an ongoing argument with her mother about whether our guests will be upset if the aisle doesn't have a runner (really? do people care about such things?), I concede that this may be wishful thinking.

By Catherine Price

Catherine Price is an award-winning journalist and author of Vitamania: How Vitamins Revolutionized the Way We Think About Food. Her written and multimedia work has appeared in publications including The Best American Science Writing, The New York Times, Popular Science, O: The Oprah Magazine, the Los Angeles Times, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Washington Post Magazine, Salon, Slate, Men’s Journal, Mother Jones, PARADE, Health Magazine, and Outside. Price lives in Philadelphia.

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