Five days a week, soon-to-be-bride Elizabeth Neeland is at the gym, gliding on the elliptical. Twice a week she also does strength training. Six months before her February 21 nuptials, she committed to a weight-loss program and cut back on alcohol, from twice a week to every other weekend. A former college tennis player, Elizabeth, 27, who works at an Atlanta law firm, usually feels confident about her body—and at 5'9" and 135 pounds, she should. But a funny thing happened on the way to the altar. Instead of reveling in her trim size-6 frame, she decided she needed to slim down. "A wedding is the ultimate time to change your looks—way worse than bikini season," she says.
It's supposed to be one of the happiest moments in your life, but in reality, getting married is often stressful, especially when it comes to your appearance. Forget choosing the right flowers, band and hors d'oeuvres. For some women, the number-one objective becomes being a waiflike vision in white wafting down the aisle, with matchstick arms and clavicles that protrude like hangers.
Indeed, the simple act of getting engaged seems to signal that it's time to start losing weight—even if you're a healthy size. Brides-to-be are bombarded with books on the topics of fitness and dieting, tempted by promotions for "bachelorette boot camps" and pre-wedding "shape-cations." List yourself as engaged on Facebook, and ads for Web sites promising secrets to shedding pounds before the big day will start appearing on your home page. Reality shows like Bulging Brides, in which a "Dream Team" of experts helps women slim down in less than two months, also play into the frenzy. One recent bride recalls the disapproving look on her future mother-in-law's face as she reached for a second slice of pizza. "Aren't you getting ready for your wedding?'" she asked.
Even celebrities who've resisted the rail-thin trend cave when their wedding's on the horizon. Take actress Jennifer Love Hewitt, who defended her curvy figure after paparazzi snapped shots of her in a bikini. But then she got engaged and reportedly knocked off 18 pounds.
It's worth noting that none of these messages target grooms—not that men are oblivious to them. "My fiancée has always been thin," says Lewis Finn, 32, a Manhattan-based banker who married in December. "I know she felt pressure to lose weight when she went to her dress fittings. It was upsetting to watch."
The evidence that these collective influences take a serious toll on women is more than anecdotal. In a recent poll on Brides.com, 74 percent of respondents said they were trying to lose more than 10 pounds for their wedding. More than a third of the 272 brides-to-be who took part in a research study published in the March-May 2008 issue of the journal Appetite reported using extreme tactics, like skipping meals and taking unprescribed diet pills. The real clincher: More than half of them were of normal weight to begin with.
So why do brides become obsessed with numbers on the scale and the size of their gown? Vanity plays a part, especially when it comes to photo albums. "You're going to have those pictures forever; you want to be your ideal self, and everyone wants to look thin and pretty," says Paige Barr, 35, an actress and casting director in Los Angeles who wore a strapless gown to her September 2006 wedding—and briefly worried about her upper-arm fat in advance. "There's the pressure that this is your big day; this is it,'" she says. "Every bride I know starved for her wedding."
Simply shopping for what you'll wear can cloud your psychology. As one reader noted on NYTimes.com, "The problem lies in the absolutely ridiculous sizing. My sister selected [designer] bridesmaids gowns. My normal, size 10–12 behind is being stuffed' into a size 18. If any of us actually were plus-sized, there is no way we would be able to wear one of these gowns." Stephanie Lentini, a project coordinator for a real estate developer in Philadelphia, is 5'4" and weighs 113 pounds—down from 133. She felt pressure to lose weight for her wedding, thanks to her mother and a salesgirl in the bridal shop. "My mom would never tell me I looked fat, but when I tried on the dress, I was like, I could stand to lose a couple pounds,' and her response was, Well…'" she says. "My bridal consultant was a double zero! That made me want to be smaller, too."
And then there is the very real fact that, with so many wedding uncertainties (how the centerpieces will turn out, if family members will get along or what the best man will say in his toast), a bride's weight is often the only thing she can control. "With any kind of eating problem—excessive dieting or more disordered—we talk in terms of control mechanisms," says Stacey Rosenfeld, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist specializing in eating disorders at Columbia University Medical Center, in NYC. "You focus on your body and food to the exclusion of other things. At a stressful time like a wedding, when you're trying to get everything together, it might be easier to focus on how many calories you're eating."
Stacy Berman, an NYC-based personal trainer and founder of Stacy's Boot Camp, agrees. She estimates about 30 percent of her clients are brides, most of whom have waited until the last month to shape up and slim down. She believes many of these women are transferring anxiety about their big day onto their bodies. Of course, in the long run, focusing obsessively on your figure only increases anxiety. And brides' crazy dieting behaviors often wreak havoc on their physical health as well. "I've had girls come in two weeks before their wedding and pass out in the middle of a fitting," says Marianne Shearer, who owns a bridal salon in Fullerton, CA. And what takes place a few months into the marriage? "Most people put the weight back on—maybe more," she says. "It's like the Freshman 15."
That is precisely what happened to Jan Johnson, who runs a grant-writing and consulting firm in Houston. For 10 weeks leading up to her wedding, she drank only four shakes a day, totaling 800 calories. By the time her November 2007 ceremony rolled around, she had lost 27 pounds—which she has since gained back. She says her wedding photos constantly remind her of her postnuptial weight gain.
Wedding coordinators are also privy to drastic measures. Robyn Bomar, a planner in Destin, FL, recalls one "perfect" size-6 bride who lost so much weight, she says, "we had to have the seamstress onsite to sew her into her dress." Another client ordered her couture gown two sizes too small. "She was nervous to eat at the wedding for fear she'd pop a button," Bomar recalls. "At one point she said to me, I guess I could have just ordered the dress one size too small so I could actually have tasted all the food we paid for.'"
"This whole lose weight before your wedding even if you're already at a healthy weight' business has to stop," says MeMe Roth, a nutrition counselor in Manhattan. "It spurs a lifetime of yo-yo dieting." While Roth concedes she's not opposed to overweight women using a wedding as motivation to improve their health, she stresses that "losing weight for the big day never works because it doesn't stick. It's a lifestyle change, as in cradle-to-grave behaviors."
Happily, some average-weight women refuse to get stick-thin for their weddings. After all, they reason, why drive myself crazy to look good for one day? It might take a while to reach that point, though. Before her wedding last June, Heidi Cohen, a marketing strategist in NYC, felt self-conscious about her silk satin dress&mash;"it showed every surface of my body," she says—despite the fact that she was 5'8" and 139 pounds. But she stopped dieting when she realized it was adding stress to her life. "It was one more thing to deal with," she says. So she bought body-shaping undergarments and let it go.
Jessica Setnick, R.D., the Dallas-based author of The Eating Disorders Clinical Pocket Guide, says, "Even I was not immune to the idea that I should try to lose weight before my wedding last year. But I did withstand the pressure—by talking with a friend who is also an eating disorders dietitian, to get a reality check." Another good idea, says Dr. Rosenfeld, if you feel driven to lose unnecessary weight: Remind yourself what your wedding is really about (hint: It's not on a scale). As Heidi says, "In looking at the wedding photos, what shows is the happiness and joy."