NEW YORK (WOMENSENEWS)--Sure, brides-to-be dream of orchids, fluffy cakes and love everlasting, but the singular thought of many in the months leading up to their weddings is, "How am I going to look in that dress?"
The growth and sophistication of the wedding industry, from the local florist and caterer to wedding media--TV shows, magazines and Web sites like TheKnot.com--is giving brides more options than ever before and more channels through which to receive marketing messages. They are selling perfection and many brides are buying.
This rise of the large extravagant weddings--today's average affair costs $28,704 with 161 guests in attendance--has been accompanied by an increasingly conspicuous concern with pre-wedding fitness.
Elizabeth Sussman, a 25-year-old account executive at CGI Group in Atlanta, took a 30-day "Fitness Boot Camp" program where she was one of six engaged women. She now works with a trainer to prepare for her May 2009 nuptials.
"The pictures are going to be around forever," she said. "I don't want to scrutinize a roll because I could've worked out."
Some grooms prepare physically for their weddings, but the pressure to do so seems much stronger on women.
A study from Cornell University published in the March-May 2008 edition of the journal Appetite found that 70 percent of women want to lose weight before they wed. Fitness magazine reported in their June issue that 83 percent do, and one-third of them, like Sussman, hope to drop 30 pounds or more. Neither study targeted a specific demographic or looked at men.
More than half of the 272 women in the Cornell study said they would be willing to use extreme dieting methods to meet their weight goals. Most frequently, women skipped meals or took dieting supplements.
"Everybody's going to be looking at them from head to toe when they walk down that aisle and they have a vision in their minds of what they want to look like," said Pam O'Brien, Fitness executive editor.
The Fitness survey of 1,000 brides found that 1 in 5 would postpone their wedding if they didn't meet a weight goal, while 29 percent would move in with their mother-in-law if it meant reaching their ideal weight. Their report was called "Bridezilla Confessions."
"She's not just obsessed. She's monstrously obsessed," said Rebecca Mead, author of "One Perfect Day: The Selling of the American Wedding," a 2007 book that investigates the sociological side effects of a wedding industry, which began in the early- to mid-20th century and is now worth $161 billion annually to the U.S. economy.
"We think that the way we can best express ourselves is through what we buy," said Mead, a staff writer at The New Yorker.
The average wedding cost for 2008 has dropped slightly, to $28,704 from $28,732 in 2007, possibly reflecting a tighter credit market and rising prices at the pump that are making travelers more reluctant to burn gasoline. But the dip is minor, and big spending is hanging around for now.
Reinforcing Marital Transition
Mead writes that the transition into marriage is, in many ways, less significant than it once was. Many couples choose to live together, engage in premarital sex and become a part of one another's families before they consider making a marital commitment. Some brides force a dramatic transition.
"This need for there to be some sense of difference is very profound," said Mead. "Reshaping your body for the event could certainly be part of that wish to make it feel as if you're passing a milestone."
Women's rights activist Gloria Feldt, the former president of Planned Parenthood Federation of America, links women's fixation on their bridal appearance to the residue of such traditional practices as the bride price or dowry system. She says there remains a cultural question surrounding marriage, even if it's a subconscious one: What are women bringing to the table?
"Today what she's bringing is herself. It is terrifying to think that women can interpret that to literally mean their physical beings having to be perfected in a way that's not really them."
A 2006 survey by the Conde Nast Bridal Group found that 30 percent of brides' parents are paying for the entire wedding and 32 percent of couples foot the bill themselves.
Went Dress Shopping Together
Same-sex couples are not immune from the pressures. Allison and Lindsey Piper went dress shopping together before their ceremony in Franklin, Maine. Allison, a 31-year-old dental student at Tufts University in Boston, described having body image issues since she was "knee high to a bullfrog."
"Lindsey is very thin and trim," said Allison, who was conscious that her partner would be wearing a dress in a smaller size, but added that they share the same values of healthy eating and exercise.
The wedding industry has spawned its own therapeutic service sector. Bridal counselor, Sheryl Paul, of Denver, who authored "The Conscious Bride" in 2000, shields her clients from the worst of the production pressures.
Paul coaches her clients to avoid bridal magazines and other wedding pop culture peddling the external fantasy.
Paul says brides can feel vulnerable while preparing for the lifestyle changes that may lie ahead in marriage. "Whether she's focusing on the perfect place settings or the perfect body she's still trying to have control in an external way instead of recognizing that she feels out of control. That's normal, that's part of transitioning."
Ann Valenti, 31, did not want to use her real name for the story, because it would upset her husband and family to learn that she had taken drugs prior to her October 2007 wedding.
Valenti thrust herself into what she calls "wedding mode." She exercised strenuously, yet restricted her diet to a meager 1,200 calories a day. Valenti also experimented with the stimulant and appetite suppressant phentermine until it gave her headaches and heart palpitations.
Valenti, who was treated for an eating disorder years earlier, dropped so much weight that she needed a guard for her engagement ring. On the big day, she promised herself not to step on the scale.
"I felt so much love that day," she says. "Not because of my weight or what I looked like. People were so happy for us."
She was pleased with her pictures, but is quick to point out flaws.
"I'm looking at this one right now and my arm is fat," she said.
Allison Gaudet Yarrow is a writer, journalist and producer living in Brooklyn, N.Y. Her book reviews have appeared in Publishers Weekly.
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