The bridal industry is a kind of bubble. After getting engaged late last year, I stepped into it and quickly discovered that reality in here is a little different. In the bubble, color coordination is of the utmost importance and $3,000 is a great price for a dress. Everything is more extreme, more expensive, but somehow less advanced. In actual reality, for example, the world “diet” is considered passé. People still do it, of course, often under the guise of another term (in 2010 we “cleansed,” and by 2015 we were “eating clean”). But by now we also know that dieting generally does more harm than good, and if you are trying to lose weight you’re at least supposed to act as if you’re not. But in the Bridal Bubble, it’s different — maybe more honest. In there, dieting is mandatory and stripped of rosy euphemisms:
This just a sample of the headlines I found in less than one minute of Googling. The Knot, Brides, and all major wedding publications run scads of stories on quickie weight loss. Then there are books like Skinny Sexy Bride and The Bride Diet. “Did you know that over 70% of women are TOO LARGE to fit into the dresses they chose on the day of their wedding?” reads the back cover of The Bride Diet. “Can you imagine how humiliated and desperate those thousands of women must feel as they frantically pace and pray that the last second alterations can be done in time?”
The message is obvious: Lose weight — as much and as quickly as you can. (And if you can’t, here’s a guide on how to appear 10 pounds thinner by wearing corsets and standing with your hands on your hips for every second of your wedding day.) But let’s be clear: A diet is still a diet, even if you call it a cleanse. And a wedding diet is a crash diet. As with everything in the Bridal Bubble, it can become even more extreme.
In 2008, Cornell University released perhaps the most comprehensive look at bridal weight-loss habits. “Most women engaged-to-be-married idealize a wedding weight much lighter than their current weight,” commented co-author Lori Neighbors, PhD. 70% of women in the study said they wanted to lose weight (ideally, 23 pounds, on average), while 21% said they wanted to prevent weight gain. Comparing these numbers to national data, they found that brides-to-be were more concerned with weight loss than average American women (53% of which wanted to lose weight). No surprises here. “Shedding for the wedding” is a relatively new phrase, but the concept is nearly as traditional as tossing the bouquet.
Drinking water was the most commonly reported weight-loss technique among women in the study. It is unfortunate that the researchers both failed to report both how much more water the subjects were drinking and their rationale behind using this method. Co-author Jeffery Sobal simply stated that, “it is not clear whether women are using this particular strategy to increase feelings of fullness, avoid the consumption of other foods, or displace higher calorie beverages.” It’s notable, however, that drinking excessive amounts of water (or “fluid loading”) is a common symptom of eating disorders. Subjects in the Cornell study listed aerobic exercise and eating less as the second and third most reported weight-loss techniques — though again, how much exercise and food restriction is unclear. They did note that 40% of the women used at least one “extreme weight-control behavior” while 25% used two or more.
Crash dieting, of course, is widely considered unhealthy, ineffective, and simply outdated (it’s up there with the Grapefruit Diet in terms of old-school diet lore). But in the bridal world, it’s gained new ground. Sobal himself noted that, while researching bridal magazines from the 1990s, he and Neighbors found only one weight-loss ad. Now, they’re omnipresent. He told Time, “There’s a little more pressure from profit-making groups and competition emphasis on thinness in the bridal world.” It’s become a cornerstone — a mandatory item on your wedding planning to-do list. The Knot alone lists hundreds of weight-loss services and products (including diet pills, dubious weight-loss clinics, and even the known pyramid scheme Herbalife) all under the category of “Fitness.”
It’s galling enough to see this promoted on the most trafficked and trusted wedding resource on the internet. Then again, this is the Bridal Bubble, where day-to-day reality gets shoved aside in favor of The Most Important Day Of Your Life. Still, sometimes that “emphasis on thinness in the bridal world” slips into the mainstream, and the reaction is both appalling and not a bit surprising.
One such glaring example happened in 2012, when none other than The New York Times reported on a hot new wedding weight-loss plan: The K-E Diet — otherwise known as a feeding tube. The story followed bride-to-be Jessica Schnaider, who spent eight (of the recommended 10) days on a nasal feeding tube, during which she subsisted only on the carbohydrate-free, 800-calorie K-E Diet powder, mixed with water and passed through the tube down her esophagus and into her stomach. It was an outpatient procedure, administered by Dr. Oliver Di Pietro, the first doctor to bring The K-E Diet to the US. Using this method, Dr. Di Pietro says patients can lose up to 20 pounds in 10 days. “I get a lot of brides,” he told the Times.
The response was huge, and telling. The Times ran a follow-up piece the next week, addressing the outraged response from readers, many of whom were “disturbed” not only by the trend, but by the fact that the paper had reported on it with an evident lack of criticism. They failed to note, for example, the fact that feeding tubes were designed as a life-saving medical device, not a diet tool. Furthermore, they’re typically administered to patients under consistent medical supervision because there are indeed risks: infection, vomiting, ulcers, and pulmonary aspiration (inhaling stomach contents into the lungs) which can cause pneumonia. Finally, the Times didn’t point out the most obvious and crucial fact about this trend. “If they didn’t have the tube and just stopped eating they’d be considered anorexic,” one reader commented. “But under a doctor’s care and with a tube in their nose, it’s a crash diet.” The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics agrees, noting that The K-E Diet will almost inevitably lead to quick weight regain, and also puts patients at risk for bingeing or developing an eating disorder. Furthermore, one doctor told the Academy, “...nobody really knows what's in that [K-E Diet] formula.”
This would seem the natural response both to this worrying trend and to such worrying coverage. But, while many outlets picked up the feature, few actually critiqued it. Some seemed to treat it as a kind of success story. ABC World News ran a segment featuring Schnaider, saying, “she was desperate for a quick fix,” then essentially congratulating her for finding one. They referred to The K-E Diet as “somewhat controversial” and suggested that losing so much weight so rapidly “may not be healthy.” But segment ended on a decidedly chipper note. “I’m happy because those 10 pounds went off, fast,” Schnaider said. Anchor George Stephanopoulos concluded, “We’re happy for her too!”
It’s stories like this and reactions like that which reveal the big-picture problem with wedding diets — and more importantly, our societal attitude about them. Crash dieting, in general, is frowned upon. But anything for the big day. Shouldn’t a bride look her best, and doesn’t that mean her thinnest? If she resorted to water bingeing or went on a feeding tube after the wedding, that might be concerning. But where’s the harm in a little “brideorexia?” In the Bridal Bubble, disordered eating isn’t just accepted. It’s encouraged and facilitated, and sometimes, quite literally, prescribed.
The Anti-Diet Project is an ongoing series about intuitive eating, sustainable fitness, and body positivity. You can follow Kelsey's journey on Twitter and Instagram at @mskelseymiller, or right here on Facebook. Curious about how it all got started? Check out the whole column, right here.