It happened to me just a few weeks before the big day this summer. The panic attack that hits many the bride-to-be shortly before the wedding.
Some hearts might start palpitating over whether they’re choosing the right partner, other brides might lose sleep over the right shade of napkins.
But the reason behind my sweaty anxiety now seems so silly in hindsight. As I lay in bed, wrapped in blankets and sobbing on the phone to my bewildered fiancé, I was completely overwhelmed by one simple, panicked realization: time was up and I had failed to lose any weight for the wedding.
I had let myself down, but I felt even worse about what others would think. Because ever since I got engaged last winter, there had been one seemingly innocuous question from well-meaning friends and family that I had heard way too many times and that was starting to wreak havoc on my mental health: “So, are you trying to lose weight for the wedding?”
It was as simple as that, but the underlying implication that my current body was not bride-worthy stirred feelings of profound inadequacy.
That a bride-to-be must strive for physical perfection ahead of the big day seems to be an unspoken rule. I’d been fielding tips and questions on everything from hair treatments to skin care routines to — ahem — intimate hair removal techniques. Eager as I was to look my best, I welcomed most of it — that is, aside from this one question, which hit a sore spot.
My July wedding is now over and I’m happy to report that the significance (and stress) surrounding that day shoved concerns about my weight out of my mind completely. But as someone just thin enough to cover up most imperfections in a big layered dress, I still worry about the hurt these types of comments might cause other brides, especially those even further outside society’s tiny window of what’s good enough.
Because I’m not the only one consistently facing this question.
Pickering resident Arooba Syed was sick with the stomach flu when older “aunties” visiting her said, hey, at least this way she’ll lose a few pounds for her November wedding.
“That was the point where I was like, ‘These people are sick,’” Syed says. “Don’t get me wrong, I also thought that myself when I wasn’t eating. But I felt violated when other people said that to me.”
Syed, 26, got engaged last fall and expected to feel the glow and excitement she always dreamed of and saw in Instagram posts. Instead, her pre-wedding experience was ruined by women hammering her with questions about what her diet and workout plan was like.
“It doesn’t make you feel good,” Syed said. “You have these insecurities but you think that it’s in your head. But as I was getting married, all those insecurities I had about myself, people were actually saying it to me.”
The comments had an impact. Until the big wake-up call during her illness, Syed said she internalized a desperate need to lose weight.
“But because I was changing my diet so drastically, I would last two days, then I would eat something, I would hate myself, then back at it,” she said. “It was really, really bad for my mental health.”
It also posed an ethical dilemma when it came to her job.
“I’m a child and family therapist so I work very closely with young girls,” Syed said. “So I’m talking to them about body image, about loving themselves, and yet I felt like such a hypocrite because I can’t follow that myself.”
There isn’t much research on weight loss goals of brides specifically, but a 2007 Cornell University study found that 70 per cent of brides-to-be wanted to lose weight before their weddings and more than a third took extreme measures to do so, such as using diet pills or skipping meals. A 2009 study of Australian brides in the Journal of Health Psychology found that 33 per cent of women were advised to lose weight before the wedding by someone close to them.
A decade later, with countless photos of Instagram-perfect bodies at our fingertips, it’s a fair question whether the pressure to drop pounds is even greater.
“The pressure comes from a variety of places in society,” University of Toronto psychology professor Janet Polivy said, including in large part the media. “And then of course friends can add to the pressure, family can add to the pressure, depending on how much they have bought into the societal ideal.”
That ideal also reinforces the idea that women must be much smaller than their male partners, according to results of two Australian studies Polivy co-published in 2014 in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships.
Get some good advice in your inbox
Get expert advice on life and relationships with the Star’s Advice newsletter.
Sign Up Now
The studies surveyed engaged Australian couples and found that brides closer in weight to their male partners were more likely to lose weight, while those visibly smaller didn’t lose weight at all.
“Interestingly, women were rated to be more attractive when they were thinner. Men were rated to be more attractive by their wives-to-be if they weighed more,” Polivy said. “Because that lets you weigh more. You don’t want some skinny guy who’s going to make you look fat. That is also ridiculous but unfortunately, that seems to be how people view the world.”
So with all this existing pressure, friends and family aren’t doing any favours by commenting on a bride’s weight, Polivy said.
In fact, she said it’s hardly ever a good idea to comment on anyone’s weight even to commend them for losing it, because the implication is that they didn’t look good before.
“Unless it’s a close friend and you know that she’s been trying to lose weight and it’s important to her. That’s the only circumstance under which I would say something,” Polivy said.
Her advice to brides fielding questions about weight loss is this:
“Turn it around on them, make them see what it is they’re saying. You have to make them see that what they’re saying is offensive. Because this has become sort of common of the realm in our society to comment on people’s weight as a way of complimenting them or a way of giving them advice — unwanted advice.”
It’s a coping technique Syed has already been using in response to people’s questions about her body.
“Now when someone asks me how the wedding diet is going, I will say I just had an ice cream,” she said. “I ask them, ‘Do you think there’s something wrong with me?’ and they’ll say, ‘No, no, no, it’s just for toning.’ So they’ll honestly cover it up and feel stupid.”
That’s the kind of confidence I wish I’d had earlier on. No matter how many times — and it was a lot of times — my now-husband had to insist he loves me the way I am, I struggled to shake off the fear of being too big a bride.
Hearing questions about whether and how I was trying to lose weight only reinforced that. I hope people realize that the next time they want to ask a bride-to-be about supposed weight-loss goals just to make conversation or because it’s apparently the thing all brides do.
Still, looking back at how much precious time and energy I wasted worrying about something so insignificant, I also want brides to know it isn’t worth it.
As Polivy puts it, “You have enough to worry about, stop worrying about your weight. You’re going to look fabulous no matter what.”
Sahar Fatima is a reporter based in Toronto. Follow her on Twitter: @sahar_fatima