Eleven months ago, I picked out my perfect wedding dress — a simple white, beautifully constructed, architectural and unconventional dress from my dream designer, Monique Lhuillier. I was drawn to the structured lines and simplicity of the dress — it stood out in a room full of lace, beads and princess cuts. After months of searching, I had found it. I looked and felt amazing in it, and was relieved to check this important item off my to-do list.
At the same time, 11 months ago, I was — what I believed — fully recovered from an eating disorder. For the first time in nearly 17 years, I was no longer tormented by the disease that had viciously ruled my childhood, adolescence and adulthood. At age 29, after more than a decade and a half of anguish, starvation, a never-ending cycle of binging and purging and self-hate, I finally felt I had conquered my bulimia nervosa and exerciseaddiction once and for all. I was confident in my body, at peace with food, and living a life in Hong Kong that filled me with joy, challenges, hope and love. Not to mention, I was wildly in love and engaged to the man of my dreams.
From the moment I said “yes” to my perfect dress, everything changed. All of a sudden, my weight and my appearance on my wedding day became the only thing that mattered to other people.
Surrounded by negative body talk and the notion (or, as many people made it seem, fact) that I would not look good in my dress at my current size, I was enveloped by an overwhelming pressure to make my body different.
“Don’t worry,” numerous people told me. “Most brides lose a lot of weight before their wedding.”
“Get ready for the ‘salad phase’ of your life,” one woman remarked to me. “Your dress doesn’t look very forgiving — wouldn’t want a pooch in that gorgeous gown you bought!”
“When is your wedding? Oh, don’t worry, you’ll have plenty of time to lose weight before then.”
These implicit (and explicit) messages tell you that, on your wedding day, you must display how hard you worked to “fit” into your perfect dress. That you must have toned arms, a tiny waist, perfect abs, defined jawline and protruding collar bones in order to show the world just how strong your self-control is. How “hard you’ve been working out” or how “strict” of a meal plan you followed just to make it to this day. How “ready” you are for the next chapter of your life.
It was hard not to internalize these comments, which seemed to be coming from every corner of my world. I couldn’t pick up a magazine, scroll through Instagram or even have a conversation with a wedding vendor where the topic of losing weight and fitting into my dress didn’t come up.
And so, my inner critic reappeared — the negative voice I’d fought so hard to quiet in my recovery.
How much weight would I lose? Would I still look good in the dress if I only lost a small amount? What about a bit more? How much weight, really, did I need to lose to look perfect in this dress? To look radiant? To feel and look like myself? To be the most beautiful version of myself — the most radiant bride?
I bought the dress in April 2018. Six months later — in October of that same year — faced with a barrage of life events and changes including moving countries, leaving my job, moving in with my fiancé, planning a wedding and my upcoming marriage, I relapsed into an eating disorder. An eating disorder I’ve battled since my pre-teenage years.
Suddenly, behaviors I thought I had conquered years before returned with a vengeance. I began to restrict my diet, to exercise compulsively, to purge every meal I ate and to abuse any substance or medication I could get my hands on. I did everything in my power to avoid my feelings of loneliness and hopelessness, and that nagging fear I was just “too much.” I sought refuge in my old sickness and behaviors, all founded in an urgent desire to escape myself.
I relapsed because life happened. Everything happened. My head was filled an endless barrage of self-hate, perpetuated by the culture I was embedded in. In November and December, as I was in New York celebrating my 30th birthday and bachelorette parties, people began to express their concerns. My labs were highly abnormal, my primary care physician told me, warning me that my kidneys were beginning to shut down. An endoscopy revealed I had torn my esophagus from the constant and acute purging, and my heart rate was so unstable that, at the rate I was going, I wouldn’t make it to my wedding day. My psychiatrist told me if I didn’t seek a higher level of treatment, she’d have to stop seeing me for ethical reasons.
So yet, despite the messages around me telling me to be thinner — and despite my terror and hesitation in losing control — I surrendered. I chose a different path.
I didn’t lose weight for my wedding.
Instead of “shredding for the wedding,” I chose my health because my life and my marriage depended on it. In December 2018, I admitted myself into a treatment facility for my eating disorder. I attended a partial hospitalization program (PHP) nine hours a day, seven days a week for six weeks, before “stepping down” into a lower level of care — an intensive outpatient program (IOP), which met only five times a week for four hours each session. Admitting to treatment meant many things, but one obvious one in particular: I had to give up all hopes of getting my “dream wedding body.”
For the three months before my wedding, I followed a strict meal plan of 3 meals and 3 snacks per day (no exceptions). I didn’t exercise, cut all substances from my life (alcohol included) and focused nearly exclusively on my mental and physical health. I relinquished myself to blind weights, and to not letting the number on the scale, the inches of my waist or the calories I ate define me.
Quite simply, I chose eating disorder recovery over my wedding body.
I decided I wanted to look back at my wedding day — both in photos and in my own memory — and feel, more than anything, like myself. I don’t want to look at photos and remember a girl who starved herself for weeks on end, who spent the weeks leading up to her wedding on an endless cycle of exercise and juice cleanses.
I told myself I didn’t need to reach a magic number in order to be happy on my wedding day. I don’t need the validation of a thin-obsessed society to have permission to enjoy myself that day or any day. I don’t need the satisfaction of some saleswoman telling me that my dress needs to be taken in again, congratulating me in some fucked up way for shrinking. I didn’t want praise from strangers for “getting my dream body,” or congratulations and admiration from well-intentioned but ill-informed friends and family members for being “so tiny!”
I didn’t need to change myself or shrink myself or have clavicle bones as sharp as razor blades to celebrate my husband-to-be and declare my undying love from him.
I chose to be praised for the way the dress fits my body, not for how my body fits the dress.
I chose to be celebrated for finding love, for triumphing in a world where I was told — and where I believed for so long — that love was conditional upon the size of my jeans or the circumference of my waist.
I chose to dance and eat cake and jump up in my dress and be present and alive. I chose to feel the love surrounding me, the authenticity of my friends and family, and knew that love was real, that I’m worth it and that what’s being celebrated isn’t some fucked up ideal of beauty, but the beauty of love and vulnerability in the flesh. Even if it meant having a little arm fat or stomach fat or a less-than-perfect angular jawline.
I’m not saying it’s perfect. Looking back, at my pictures, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t have doubts. To wish my arm was a little thinner, my waist a little smaller. I do miss the compliments of “tiny” or “so small” that would ordinarily adorn my social media posts.
But for everything I miss about that life, I’m infinitely more grateful for the decision I made to be present at my own wedding.
The pictures may show me in a different body — a body that’s bigger than the one I’m used to — but they also show the happiness and love I felt that day. Perhaps one day I’ll look at the photos without focusing on the fat on my arm or the flab around my waist. Until then, I’m trying my best to be happy with my decision to focus on love, and not the size of my waist, for my wedding.
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Follow this journey on the author’s blog.