My Story of Shopping for a Wedding Dress and Getting Married While Recovering From An Eating Disorder
Yes, I am a wedding, elopement, and family photographer. But I also produce a podcast called "TheDownThere". The podcast is a space to share personal stories. Where candid conversations about all types of bodies are normalized, in order to remove the stigma from talking about what we keep "down there".
Our host Caitlin asked me to tell my story for our December episode. And as part of telling my story, she encouraged me to publish this little essay that I wrote shortly after I got married in 2019.
So here you go. Maybe my story will help you.
The Internet Failed Me But I Know I’m Not Alone
Type “wedding dress does not fit two days before wedding” into Google and you will find a plethora of articles and chatboards about brides who lost so much weight that their dress no longer fit as well as it did at their final fitting. But what about the bride who is too big to fit in their wedding dress?There are fewer of those articles. And most of those articles recommend crash diets and liquid fasts to “lose the water weight” and magically fit in your dress come wedding day.
This advice was not for me. My experience was different.
Two days before my wedding, I picked up my dress from the dry cleaners where it was steamed and stored, tried it on, and couldn’t zip it up. My mother and my sister clasped the edges of either side of the dress, attempting to force the two sides together, yet a 4-inch gap persisted. There was no way that I was going to fit into my dress in its current state, and my wedding was in 36 hours.
Before "The Dress"
As it is for many brides, the wedding dress-buying process was a fraught experience. Here you are trying to find something beautiful to wrap yourself in on that most-special day as you vow with your partner to create a life together—all good and messy bits included.
That’s one big promise. And that big promise usually comes with a big wedding dress purchase. And that big wedding dress purchase comes with the expectation to look the best you ever have. In the world of diet culture, “best” translates to “the skinniest, fittest self you can be.” But what to do if you have a long history of eating disorders and disordered eating?
I have battled with my food, my instincts, and my body for 24 years. My first memory of engaging in disordered eating behavior was in fourth grade at 9 or 10 years old. Recent studies indicate that 1.4% of children aged 9 and 10 are diagnosed with an eating disorder and that there is no statistical difference between boys and girls. I am sure that many more children go undiagnosed.
Throughout the years, I might have brief periods of “recovery”, once lasting over two years. Looking back though, even in a “recovered” status, I still obsessively participated in and followed diet culture, arguably still engaging in disordered eating and exercise behaviors. As I grew older, I tried to actively embrace my body and its changing shape and put the disordered thoughts to rest. I craved peace. I craved stability. But still, in times of stress, thoughts and old behaviors would resurface.
Around the time I got engaged, I began to really focus on changing the perception I had of myself. I worked to embrace the health at every size concept that I preached to those around me. And I began to get angry.
I got angry at diet culture. I got angry at those companies who prey on people by telling them they aren’t good enough. I got angry at all the lies. I got angry at the health care system that prioritizes weight as the bottom line on health, which despite having my eating disorder history on file still recommended (and continues to recommend to this day) a severely restrictive diet to manage my chronic illness. And I got angry at a potential future me who would not make a change and would live a “I’m never good enough” life until death. I needed to change.
Shopping for “The Dress”*
*But also, why does it have to be a dress? Or have a “The” assigned to it? Is it really so special?
After we announced our engagement, my parents came to Upstate NY to visit with us. On this weekend, my mother and I visited a single bridal boutique with the hope of finding a dress. I do not enjoy shopping for myself one bit and knew that I did not want to try on more than a few dresses. If I didn’t find something, well, to heck with it! I’d find something else. I knew it would be a difficult day looking at myself in the mirror. I was adamant that I would be kind to myself and structured the day as such. We planned to go to breakfast before the appointment and on a walk afterwards. I told my mother that we were only going to try on dresses off the rack that fit my body as it was. I did not want to order something and be tempted to change my size due to a perceived moral value that I placed on a number. I asked my mother to support me in saying “thanks but no thanks” if the associate made any comments about my body or working out for the wedding.
To my surprise, the wedding dress shopping experience was okay! The woman who assisted us was in her fifties, kind, and really knew her stuff. She respected my desire to buy something off the rack that did not need extensive alterations. Of the dresses I tried on, one really drew me in - the lace on the skirt was beautiful. And although I had not wanted a strapless dress, this dress looked quite nice! And for the cost of a single mortgage payment it could be mine. It was expensive. But I knew that Todd dreamed of seeing me walk toward him in a beautiful wedding dress and I wanted him to experience that.
Here is the thing I did not consider: I was at the beginning of my new life of accepting my body, which was in constant flux, in all of its shapes and sizes. How would this dress work with those changing shapes? It had a corseted top and no straps. And it was expensive. How was I to maintain my body specifically for this piece of clothing knowing that my last alteration would be 5 months before my wedding?
Fitting “The Dress”
A few months later, I was stressed at work, falling into old behaviors, and then beating myself up about it, which was making my struggle much more struggle-y. With the support of my boyfriend-turned fiancé-now husband, I found a therapist shortly before my first fitting because, surprise surprise, we could all use a little help sometimes in meeting our goals.
My initial dress fitting was to take place a month after we began working with each other, and the therapist gave me the best advice I ever got: Ask the tailor to cover the mirror. At first I thought she was crazy - that would be so embarrassing! The tailor will know that I am insecure! Upon reflection (haha) though, I realized, hey, maybe this is a good thing. I already know what I look like in the dress. With the mirror covered,we could focus on making the dress feel right.
So I asked for the mirror to be covered up - great! Not so great? I had lost weight, and the dress needed to be taken in. I told the tailor that I was not sure about taking the dress in as I thought I might gain weight again, but the tailor insisted that most brides lose weight for the wedding and that taking it in was the best decision. So we did. At my second fitting, I had grown a bit in size, but the dress still zipped. The tailor said that perhaps because I was close to my cycle my body and breasts were a bit bloated, but that on the day of the wedding, the dress would be perfect. My mother- and sister-in-law very graciously attended the second and final fitting and enthusiastically told me that I looked beautiful. I was torn. Should I let it out? Should I trust that I will fit in it on the day of the wedding? This was the first inkling that perhaps a corseted strapless dress had not been the best choice for me, but gosh, it really was beautiful.
A Forced Separation
Shortly thereafter, my mother flew the precious dress cargo across the Atlantic to Austria where my fiancé and I would exchange vows in front of our parents and siblings. The wedding was still months away and I had a busy summer of work and travel to contend with. My priorities were on maintaining my sanity while working 18-20 hour days and spending nights in dorm rooms and hotels away from my partner.
I ate to fuel my body and give me energy throughout the day. I moved in a way that felt good. And I sensed that I was continuing to grow because half way through the summer I had to buy new pants (with an elastic waist for the win!) because my old work clothing no longer fit me.
From time to time, I would worry about the dress and whether it would fit, but then a phone call would come in or I would need to hop in the car to travel across the state and there was no longer a moment to think about it. It was taking enough effort to focus on managing my stress and not engaging in disordered eating behaviors as a coping mechanism or distraction. I could not add the dress to the list without causing a downward spiral of anxiety. I decided to order a second dress just in case. I found one online for $70 and clicked “Buy Now”.
The second dress arrived three weeks later. It was not a good look. There was no way I would wear it on my wedding day, but we were leaving for Austria in two weeks and I did not have time to try again. I crossed my fingers and just hoped that my original dress would fit me. I was nervous, but I didn’t think that I could possibly have gained so much weight that the dress would not zip. Perhaps it would be uncomfortable, but I could survive discomfort.
Skip ahead to two days before the wedding: The dress did not fit. That was hard. Really hard. Yes, realizing that my money had not been well spent was hard, but the harder battle was that, while I was proud of myself for not engaging in harmful behavior, I was also furious at myself for gaining weight. I held my tears back while my mother and sister tried their hardest to see if we could force the zipper to do its job. Because we were in a very small village, there was no tailor that we could take the dress to for emergency alterations. When my mother left the room, I broke down and my sister suggested that we go to the fabric store in a neighboring city the next morning to buy lace and bits of white fabric and alter the dress ourselves. We figured out how we could zip the dress to a certain point, fold in the sides of the dress and tie a belt around the dress if the alterations did not work. Or perhaps I could install a lace up back to the dress without a panel. My brother and sister listened to me as I tried to smile through my tears saying “But I didn’t binge and purge all summer so that’s good!”
That evening were the bachelor/bachelorette parties and I was grateful to be surrounded by my sisters. I felt so lucky to have three sisters in my life and to celebrate the joining of two families. I had my sister who I grew up with, my brother’s wife, and my husband’s sister all with me that evening. We drank gin and ate dried meats and stinky cheese, and we forgot about the dress.
The next morning, my sister and I got up early to go to the fabric store. We took longer than planned because we decided to enjoy our time walking around, talking, and relaxing together. Laughing was important. Laughing about the fact that my dress did not fit was important. And also talking about things other than the dress was important. When we got home, we returned to the dress and set about figuring out what to do.
I was grateful for all the clothing I made growing up and the costuming/draping classes I took in college. I found the stitches that the tailor had made and ripped them open. I destroyed the lining and made V cuts under my armpits. As luck would have it, the top lace layer on my bodice was stretchy so the same lace could go around the whole bodice. And when all was said and done, we were able to zip the dress, and it looked pretty good!
The Day of the Wedding
And here’s the thing. I survived. And the best part: I could even laugh about it as the day went on. At one point during photos, a button popped off. When we arrived at the restaurant for dinner, I sat down and my dress burst open at the base of the zipper. But hey, no more pictures needed to be taken and I was ready to EAT and enjoy all the Tyrolean food that we were about to be served! I was excited to laugh with my family and talk about how fun the day was.
I wish I had understood at the beginning of this process that no one cared what I looked like at my wedding. I was here for my spouse, who would have married me in a Winnie the Pooh onesie. What I did know was that other victories matter more (like not engaging in disordered eating - that’s a way more important victory than zipping a f***ing dress).
I turned to the left and told Todd that my dress just popped open and to “please unzip the rest of my dress”. And that is how the story ends. I spent the rest of the night eating dinner in a fully unzipped dress. And as my stomach grew, the bodice of my dress, resting on my stomach, rose towards my face. And I laughed because I really did look quite ridiculous. And really, everything was fine.