Why the Term "Bridal Body" Is Harmful: A Personal Essay

Updated 08/01/18
Vogue Mexico via Fashion Gone Rogue

Just over 11 weeks ago, I got married. Overall, it was a magical experience—mainly because I walked away hitched to my favourite person in the world for life. The look on his face as I walked down the aisle will remain in my mind's eye forever. (Also in the video we paid approximately ten zillion dollars for.) That said, my experience as a bride-to-be was marred by a couple of things. One: A sister-in-law so batty she could pass for a Disney villain. (Another tale for another time.) Two: Unrealistic "bridal body" expectations.

Call me naive, but I never thought the process of getting married would spark a preoccupation in me (however temporary) with thinness. Not because I'm immune (possibly the opposite—I dealt with disordered eating in my late teens), but because I now have what I consider to be a healthy relationship with my body. I thought I had moved beyond obsessing over my weight... I was wrong. One of the first things I did post-engagement was Google "bridal body workouts". Unsurprising really, when you consider that a study out of Flinders University found that of a sample of 879 brides-to-be, close to 75% intended on exercising more and following a "healthy eating plan" in the lead up to their big day.

While that doesn't sound totally terrible (what's wrong with healthy eating, right?), ponder this—over 35% planned to cut fat and carbs from their diets completely. Sadly, a third of the participants had also been told to lose weight before their big day by a friend, family member or stranger. 

According to the National Eating Disorders Collaboration approximately 9% of Australians will experience an eating disorder at some point in their lifetime. While eating disorders are most common in young people, they can affect all ages and are particularly associated with major life transitions and stress. Know what fits into both those categories? Saying 'I do'.

The second I started talking about wedding dresses all anyone wanted to know was, "Are you on a diet yet?" Or: "Have you started working out?" Despite the fact I was already thinking about my body, the first time I was asked I was taken aback. Since when was it normal to ask a casual acquaintance about their weight? Instead of saying what I probably should have, ("No, why?"), I kept quiet. Mostly because *polite*, but also because the voice in my head was asking the same things. With time, these intrusive queries became normal.

I expected them. It didn't take long before I realised I had become hyper-aware of my body. Not only was it going to be on display in a white dress for photos, but also for judgement. And that felt alarming. The thought of not fitting into my gown or looking "bad" was terrifying. "These are the photos you'll show your kids!" a friend told me. "You'll never look better!" said another. 'But what if I don't?' I thought. I didn't know how to answer that question.

Every time I made a joke about "shredding for the wedding", my inner feminist shook her head. Yes, I knew that submitting to a cultural norm that says brides must look the slimmest they can on their wedding day was ludicrous. But you know what? I still wanted to be that bride. Although I didn't go as far as some women I know (one of whom was hospitalised due to a fad diet), I was still fixated on whittling my arms down as much as possible. I refused to lift heavy weights in the gym, and declined when my PT asked me to hit the pull up bar.

With every dress fitting, the hang-up became even greater. "Do my arms look like sausages in these sleeves?" I asked my seamstress. "You've got to stop doing anything upper body in the gym!" she told me.

It was on my mind 90% of the time. The thing is, it's hard to spot when things go from reasonable to unhealthy. According to The Butterfly Foundation, body obsession can develop when a person suffers from extreme body dissatisfaction: "People with body obsession can be fanatically preoccupied with their physical appearance, going to great lengths to change and preserve a particular body shape, weight or size; including dieting, excessive exercise, steroids and/or plastic surgery." How a person feels about their appearance can be influenced by family, friends and the media, and individuals who receive negative feedback on their looks are at an increased risk.

All this might sound a bit OTT, but  body obsession is a precursor for both Body Dysmorphia Disorder and eating disorders. 

As I got closer to the big day, I felt growing pressure to make everything PERFECT. Because I have a history of dealing with perceived body image failure by sabotaging my own health, I found the stress associated with fitting into my very expensive dress paralysing. I didn't want any element of the day to be a disappointment, including my appearance, which meant I was facing long-buried body image issues for the first time in a decade. If the idea that wedding stress and body obsession can be interrelated even for someone who's never lived with an eating disorder sounds shaky to you, mull on this—studies suggest that negative comments about body shape can increase focus on weight loss and appearance as integral to the success of the wedding day.

These "negative comments" can also include any media which infers that the perfect bride is thin and toned. So unless you live under a rock (with no Pinterest), reading bridal mags alone can place you at risk for eating disturbances—THAT is why the term "bridal body" is so harmful. 

While there are no concrete stats on the number of women who develop an eating disorder via bridal body obsession, it's reasonable to assume the ones that do require professional help to recover from both the the emotional and physical effects. Now two months post-nuptials, I'm glad I no longer have to stress about fitting into a wedding dress. For the record, it did fit on the day. Still, the relief I felt when I put it on doesn't justify the panic and anxiety I dealt with for months in the lead up.

While I'm all for using your upcoming wedding day as a prompt for adopting a healthier lifestyle, I have a problem with the idea that to be a "perfect" bride you must be thin/tanned/have long hair/jab away your wrinkles. (The irony is that all this happens around a ceremony in which your significant other promises to love you—warts and all—forever.) The truth is, there's no such thing as a perfect bride or a perfect bridal body. And if we want to minimise the risk in brides-to-be of developing disordered thinking and eating, it's time we stopped treating extreme diets and grueling workout regimes as par for the course.

My suggestion? Ask your engaged mates about their wedding day playlists instead. Because IMHO the only time bridal bodies are worth talking about, is in relation to the D floor.

If you or someone you know is suffering from an eating disorder, contact The Butterfly Foundation on 1800 33 4673 or visit their website.

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