What My Wedding Taught Me About Beauty Culture

I’m not shy about my anti-diet message.

I’m a strong advocate of body acceptance and encourage my clients to derive self-worth from inner values rather than outer appearance. It’s not always easy to practice what I preach, but I’m committed to trying my best.

Last month, I got married. It was an incredible milestone that I will remember with joy forever. However, in the months leading up to our big day, I found my inner Anti-Diet Warrior was challenged in some new ways. Today I want to share how my experience as a bride challenged my resolve and offer some guidance for those of you preparing for your wedding or any other big life event.

In our beauty-obsessed culture, the message (particularly for women) is that those who fit the standards of beauty (thin, tanned, clear complexioned, young, white, and confident but not too confident) are most worthy of love and admiration. Everywhere we turn, there are products and services geared towards “fixing” various aspects of our natural appearance to achieve this worthy ideal. Apparently, there is not just an ideal woman, there’s also an ideal bride: thin, tanned, clear complexioned, bright eyed, effortless. Basically, she’s just a lace-covered, amped up version of the same beauty standard that’s promoted in everyday life. But she is special because all eyes are on her.

Weddings are one-time events, so even if most of us can’t achieve the ideal in everyday life, we’re taught that we can still make ourselves the ideal bride, by temporarily pouring money, time, and energy into pre-wedding diet and beauty regimens and achieving perfection for that one magical day. In fact, it’s so common for brides to aggressively diet in advance of the wedding that there’s a term for the practice: Brideorexia.

I’m grateful I get to work with clients who bravely recover from eating disorders every day. My job protected me from Brideorexia and motivated me to stay balanced. I didn’t want to compromise my professional integrity, and I wanted to treat my body with compassion. So I made a pledge to myself when we got engaged. I swore that I would not alter my eating habits or physical activities in preparation for the wedding.

Turned out, keeping my promise was harder than I expected. A few months before the wedding, a back injury forced me to step back from my usual physical activities. I knew I had to respect my body’s need for rest, but my brain was suddenly telling me to compensate. The inner critic said I should probably “just diet a little” since the wedding was coming up. What the heck, brain?

Every day, I held tight to this mantra: My body is the least interesting thing about me.  When I saw anything that tried to convince me otherwise, I was quick to hit “unfollow” or change the channel. When my own thoughts tried to convince me otherwise, I sought support or did some journaling. When people wanted to discuss their diets, I would change the subject. When the girl doing my bridal alterations suggested that we wait to finish “in case I wanted to lose any weight,” I politely assured her that wasn’t in the plans.

It’s important to note that I have the privilege of living in a naturally smaller body. While this doesn’t make me immune from bad body image days (nobody is), it means I was not really hit with judgments or stigma from the outside world for choosing not to shrink my body before the wedding.

A sad truth in our weight-biased culture is that many brides (and non-brides) in larger bodies are subjected to more overt pressures and messaging to change themselves. My experience, while challenging thanks to my inner critic and a lifetime of absorbing social messages, was just a fraction of what many people face on a daily basis.

The paradigm overall needs to change.  We need to stop reinforcing women for their appearance and promoting an unrealistic “ideal” that hardly anybody fits into naturally. While this seems like a long journey (and it is!) it starts with each of us at the individual level. Read on for some tips to get you started.

Rejecting Unhelpful Ideals of Beauty

My advice to anyone struggling with appearance-based insecurities (pre-wedding or otherwise) is to consider the messages surrounding you.

  • Become a critical consumer of media. Are the TV shows, movies, commercials, podcasts, and blogs you frequent promoting things to alter your appearance? Are they insinuating you’ll be happier as a result of “fixing” something (body hair, acne, body fat, wrinkles, under-eye circles, or any of the millions of nuances of being a human)? Are they emphasizing what you look like as a reflection of how you’re doing in life?
  • Notice how social media makes you feel. When you’re consuming social media, how are you feeling? Do you feel negatively towards yourself? Do you compare yourself to the accounts you follow? If someone you loved saw this same account, how do you think it would make them feel about themselves? Also, remember that you cannot tell how healthy, successful, or satisfied a person is based on their appearance.
  • Messages also come from the people around us. Do your friends, family members, and coworkers make you feel insecure about how you look? Do they talk about themselves in negative or self-critical ways? Often, body shaming can feel like a bonding activity, especially among groups of women. Notice if you find yourself joining in just because it’s an easy way to connect.
  • Catch yourself judging others based on appearance, whether praise (I wish I had her thighs!) or criticism (that haircut is horrible on her). Ask yourself, what would I say if I didn’t comment on appearance right now? What else would I notice and appreciate? If you’ve been taught to value being beautiful and to take pride in your appearance, this exercise is tough. It’s eye-opening to learn how instinctively we comment on someone’s looks.

While we can’t completely avoid the pressure to “fix” the parts of ourselves that society has deemed to need fixing, we can be critical consumers. We can get angry when faced with this messaging, and speak up when people around us are spewing these messages (however well-intentioned they might be). None of us owes the world an altered version of ourselves.

In conclusion, this stuff is complicated.

 It would be a flat-out lie to say that I didn’t get pleasure out of having fancy hair and makeup, a gorgeous dress, and sparkly shoes at my wedding. It was really fun. In our human brains that love to categorize things as “right” or “wrong,” it’s tough to let there be a middle ground. In some ways, reveling in how pretty I looked made me feel like a hypocrite and a failure as an anti-diet clinician. My brain told me I’m supposed to give the middle finger to the mirror, but in my heart, I admitted I wanted to feel beautiful. I decided to give myself permission to participate in the beauty traditions, without judging myself either way.

Listening to what I felt I “should” do to reject beauty standards would have diminished my enjoyment of this once-in-a-lifetime experience. Each of us has to figure out what’s most authentic to ourselves.  If you derive pleasure from the primping, good for you! If you hate it, don’t do it! For me, the key was remembering that there’s no right or wrong. It’s okay to invest energy in how you look, and it’s also okay not to.

Remember that the wedding, beauty, and diet industries are each raking in billions of dollars every year by convincing you that you need to look a certain way. Think about whether buying a service or product will truly lead to a happier experience. If you want to amp up your workouts or whiten your teeth or get a spray tan, you do you, girl. Choosing to alter your appearance is not the problem; the problem is believing that youneed to alter your appearance to be worthy of validation.

When you stop acting like appearance is the most interesting thing about yourself or other people, you start to see more. You start to recognize the emotion on someone’s face, without giving attention to the wrinkles or spots. You start to appreciate the deeper, more meaningful things. And when you look at photos from one of the happiest days of your life, you’ll see the joy and love, regardless of how your face and body looked.

The researchers at Beauty Redefined said it best: your body is an instrument, not an ornament. If you need some help navigating this stuff, I’m here for you. You deserve freedom from looks-based judgments on your wedding day and every day.

The “Inner Detective” inside of each woman

The other morning, I decided to cut through a nearby park on my way home from a workout. As I was strolling along, a man approached, clearly staring me up and down. When we crossed paths, he said to me, “You’ve got the face of an angel!” I smiled politely and he continued on, “Do you know that you’ve been kissed by God?” I responded with another smile and kept walking. I felt myself exhale as I saw that he continued walking in the opposite direction. It wasn’t until the interaction ended that I even realized that my subconscious had been hard at work for the duration of the 15-second exchange, evaluating threats and calculating the most “appropriate” ways to react. I took in his appearance, body language, tone of voice, and physical size.  There was an automatic analysis of his likely intention (to hit on me? to be friendly? to give me his input on my identity as an angel?) and my wisest response (to laugh? to nod? to ignore him?) and never once did I consider what I felt like doing because the focus was on keeping him non-threatening and getting on with my day.

Someone recently shared with me a piece in the Huffington Post by Gretchen Kelly, titled “The Thing All Women Do That You Don’t Know About.” She points out the various ways that women de-escalate and shrink our everyday experiences to avoid confrontation. As soon as I read it, I felt validated and shared it with several of my female friends, colleagues, and clients. It resonated with each of them. I realize as I write this that I conveniently “didn’t think about” sending it to any men. Perhaps on some level, I assumed they wouldn’t be interested, or wouldn’t find it as powerful as I did (which would feel invalidating and make me question whether my reaction was “right”). As social creatures, we naturally look to others for external validation, and when we don’t get it, we naturally question whether our perceptions were accurate. That’s why groupthink is a thing. We like to “belong,” to feel like people agree with us and believe that what we bring to the table is important.  So I guess I played it safe by sharing the article with people I could count on for validation– fellow women.

I share Kelly’s worries when it comes to discussing women’s issues. I worry that I’ll be accused of exaggerating or overreacting, or being “sensitive.” In another part of my brain, though, there’s a voice that says “It doesn’t matter. I’m a person, and dammit, all human experience is valid!” It’s a newer voice, probably fueled by my training as a psychologist, but I sure am grateful it chimed in. The fact that this voice is not the most familiar message my brain gives me tells me that as human beings, we need to talk about what’s happening, so that we can stop invalidating each other and start connecting more authentically.

As a woman, I’ve been programmed to do the type of split-second assessment I did at the park the other morning everywhere. It’s something that happens as automatically as blinking. Nobody ever sat me down and taught me to dissect the environmental, social, physical, and emotional elements of my daily interactions with men, but I still learned how to do it. I learned the necessity of de-escalating, as Kelly calls it, to keep myself functioning in the world.

I know that regardless of gender, anyone can commit or become a victim of sexual assault and other forms of violating interpersonal behavior. I also know from experience that when we feel attacked or accused of something that feels “icky,” we become defensive. You could ask me about the race of the man who approached me in the park, and argue that had something to do with my fear. I can already feel my defenses gearing up to “prove” that my fear response was not based on the man’s race, because “Oh my gosh, what if I seem racist?” You could tell me I should have been flattered by his compliment, and I feel myself start to question down another self-doubting road, “Oh my gosh, what if I’m overreacting to something harmless and he was just being friendly?” Those reactions are there because there’s some truth underneath.

Here’s the thing, though. As I mentioned in my post last Thanksgiving, I know that I have biases. I make implicit associations based on race, gender, age, appearance. We all do.  We can’t possibly know about all of them, but when we discover them, we can try our best to acknowledge and own them instead of denying them. It’s an uncomfortable process that nobody is ever truly “done” figuring out. But here’s the other thing. I don’t think it helps anyone to pin this womanly “detective work” on racial or any other type of bias. I have had this feeling in response to looks, gestures, and comments from a diverse range of men. Maybe race plays a role, maybe age plays a role, maybe my mood that day plays a role in how I perceive someone… but these are not even close to being the only factors at play. I learned to assess and respond to men to keep myself safe, to prevent a scoff and a muttering of “bitch” under a stranger’s breath, to avoid angering or provoking.

I’ve worked with many clients who struggle to heal from trauma. What I find hardest about treating people who have been abused, assaulted, and raped is that there is this larger-scale minimizing that works against them. We can sit together and validate like there’s no tomorrow, but it often feels like just a drop in the bucket. We still live in a world where de-escalation is the norm. At the society level, we are denying, distorting, and invalidating people’s experiences. I get it; this type of stuff isn’t exactly fun to acknowledge. It’s much easier to say to someone (or to yourself) that “he was just joking around” than to say to someone (or to yourself) that what he just said was inappropriate. It’s much easier to blame the recipient of unwanted advancements (“if you don’t want to get hit on, don’t dress in a tight shirt”) than to turn inward and acknowledge that we said or did something that made someone uncomfortable. Plus, these exchanges often happen so automatically that it isn’t always possible to recognize them before they’re over.

Peel back one more layer of the onion and it’s clear that many of us choose not to bother speaking up, often until things “cross the line” and get dangerous. The shaming/ blaming/ dismissing responses that tend to come from calling out inappropriate and intrusive behavior makes it easier sometimes to just shame/ blame/ dismiss it within ourselves before even acknowledging that something bothered us. We’ve done it a billion times. It often ends up being seen as “overreacting” if we say that someone’s behavior felt scary, creepy, or hurtful. And who wants to be labeled as “dramatic” or “blowing things out of proportion” or “playing the victim?”

Here’s my challenge to all of us: speak up, let yourself speak up, and let others speak up without dismissing.  If you’re a woman, admit that something didn’t feel okay to you and let yourself get pissed off. Teach your children that their experiences are always valid, and that if something feels threatening, they aren’t overreacting. If you’re a man, let yourself consider that what I’m saying might be accurate. Notice if you become defensive and think, “it’s not fair to blame us for your reactions,” or, “I’m a nice guy/ social worker/ philanthropist/ feminist/ mensch, don’t try to make me feel guilty about this stuff,” or “men can be victimized, too.” Then, see if you can get to something else, below your automatic reaction. I’m not saying men can’t be victimized, and I’m not saying all men have done this type of thing. I’m just asking for everyone to listen and take it seriously.

I’m not pointing fingers at anyone; this isn’t about casting certain people as villains based on their gender or any other demographics. It’s about getting one another to start listening openly and without defenses. Asking yourself if you’ve invalidated someone is not an easy thing to do. I hate having to admit when I have minimized someone else’s experience, because I feel guilty and ashamed, but I also know it’s the only way to change things. And I know from the number of people I see, day in and day out, who bravely share the pain of their experiences, that we need to make this change.