weddings, marriage, & divorce

Striving for thinness, and the toll it can take

Last week, I saw lots of uproar over news about brides-to-be taking on extreme measures to lose weight, the most recent of which includes putting a feeding tube through one’s nose for 10 days while refraining from eating anything through one’s mouth.

Ridiculous, right? Crazy, like, who would do that, besides the most vain, shallow people looking to throw money down the tube (no pun intended)?

To avoid blaming the victims, let’s look at the culture and at the industry. The wedding industry is set up under the assumption that brides will want to lose weight for their wedding—no matter what their present weight actually is. I had one friend who told me that a salesperson had actually encouraged her to purchase a dress that was too small because “obviously” she would be losing weight before her wedding day.

A few months after I got engaged, I was visiting an old friend of mine at her parents’ house. They were ordering pizza and her mom offered me a slice. When I turned it down she said immediately, “Oh! Of course! You have a dress you need to fit into.” Wait, what?

When I started looking for wedding dresses, I very quickly recognized the game of “does this dress make me look fat” and “does this one emphasize my small parts in all the right ways.” Personally, I was more interested in “does this dress make me look like myself” and “does this dress let me hug and dance and jump in all the right ways,” but such questions seemed secondary to those trying to sell me their products.

What does this industry-wide focus on bridal thinness teach young girls about love and romance?

The industry of bridal thinness is part of a culture conflating thinness with goodness and desirability. Young girls are taught to dream of the perfect marriage as the height of their personal accomplishments—and in a culture in which weight is a sign of a woman’s success or failure, weight becomes a key aspect of her success or failure at being a bride. Furthermore, as the wedding industry—and the brides themselves—play into the idea that a bride’s weight is of utter relevance on her wedding day, the sexualization of women becomes reinforced. By “sexualization” here I mean the reduction of a woman to the value of her body as a sexual object. Another meaning of sexualization includes reducing a body to specific body parts, and in many of the articles I see references to a stomach that is flat enough, thighs that aren’t too wide, and biceps that aren’t too flabby. It’s not just about the size of the body, but the “perfection” of the pieces. Women are taught to pick themselves apart. Aren’t there so many other ways in which women could eagerly prepare for marriage?

How do dieting and sexualization set up a bride to participate as an equal partner in a healthy relationship?

Um, that might be a trick question. Well, I will offer five brief thoughts on how it hurts her and holds her back from her partnership and her other close relationships:

1. Sexualization—Being sexy for someone else is different from being sexy with someone else. Does she need to feel thin enough in order to feel worthy of receiving and enjoying sexual pleasure? Studies have found a connection between self-objectification (which includes dieting behaviors) and lower sexual agency and sexual assertion. If her focus is being diverted towards being sexy for someone else, is that diverting or otherwise compromising her focus on her desires and what she deserves?

2. Inauthenticity—How does this pressure to diet and be thin affect her ability to advocate for her own needs and desires not just in her sexual relationship, but in all her relationships? Planning a wedding is a complex process of negotiating a lot of different people’s values and opinions. A bride being pressured to turn away from her natural appetites and instincts may also learn to turn away from her needs and instincts in other contexts, thus compromising her ability to be present and genuine in already tense relationships, including with her partner and with close friends and family.

3. Energy drain—Food provides energy. Calories=energy. A person needs calories to think, to get things done, to move around and make decisions and be assertive. Reduced calories means reduced energy means reduced action. Not to mention the spiritual drain that guilt and shame around weight and eating can take on a person.

4. Performance—I didn’t like to think about how many people would be looking at me throughout my wedding day. Seeing me; viewing me; thinking about how I appeared. I made an intentional decision that I didn’t want my wedding day to be about performing for others. Instead, I wanted it to be about my experience of my own life, joy, friends and family. And I think this choice needs to be made every day, and it starts at home before we leave the door. Do I consider myself and my body as something that performs for others and is viewed by others, or do I get to embody myself through my own experiences throughout the day?

5. Beauty as power—the princess/queen for a day fantasy. In the wedding industry it’s about looking like a princess. In Jewish tradition, brides are to be treated as queens for the day. So if the bride’s job is to be thin, what does this say about women entering positions of power? Is power only earned through the achievement of thinness? Are only thin women worthy of power? Or maybe it’s simpler. Maybe it’s thin=powerful. Except that directly contradicts #4, above, reduced calories=reduced energy. So what is it? Maybe women are pressured to be thin in order to divert their power from that of a true leader to that of a figurehead. A bride may be the face of the wedding, the body front-and-center in all the photo opportunities, but where is her true power? And for what can she use her power, on that day and in the future?

I would love to hear your thoughts on these questions and tensions.

Published by Mimi Arbeit

applied developmental scientist, antifascist community organizer, sexuality educator

3 thoughts on “Striving for thinness, and the toll it can take”

  1. Casey says:

    Thanks for this post. Feeding tubes? It should shock me, but the obsession with thinness in this country seems to only be getting worse. I'm currently reading The Beauty Myth after years of meaning to, and despite its age, the issues it brings up have not changed much from the 1980s to the 2010s. The beauty myth keeps women concentrated on their appearance, spending hard-earned money on products and dieting obsessively, which keeps them from having the energy to become powerful in the workplace, political sphere, world, etc. I would argue that most of the women in the higher echelons of power are either figureheads or token women with little support who face an uphill battle every day just to stay where they are.

    And the beauty myth definitely thrives on our few remaining cultural events like weddings. I recently had a dress altered, and to make most dresses look "good", you have to have them so tight on your body it's hard to breathe. They are designed to show off the ideal hour-glass shape or else they look baggy. It's ridiculous. And then women are always freezing in them while men are sweating in their layers of suits. I certainly don't like the stranglehold the fashion industry and beauty propaganda machine make human bodies miserable in a lot of the clothing and accessories that get put on the market.

  2. JoJo says:

    I think capitalism plays into dieting and sexualization in a huge way–people make billions of dollars from women freaking out about their appearances (both on a daily basis and for weddings). It's important to keep in mind the people who benefit from this nonsense.

  3. Eliana says:

    I know I'm late to this post, but I think you make good points. Just one more thing that I don't think you talked about:
    Pictures. Videos.
    I think they're a huge motivator to "look perfect" on one's wedding day. This is likely the most photographed moment of one's life, so people try to look their best!
    I'm not putting positive or negative judgment on that; I just think it's another lens (HA!) through which people view their wedding days.

Comments are closed.