Saturday, May 14, 2011

Does This Fat Make Me Look Fat?


I'm going to see the new movie Bridesmaids this weekend, and that prompted me to type the word "bridesmaids" into Web of Science to see what popped up. Surprisingly, only one article came up that wasn't related to electronics, poetry, aristocratic history, or used the "always a bridesmaid never a bride" line as a clever segway. It is a study out of Australia that was published in Body Image in 2008, and it takes a look at pre-wedding body image concerns in both brides and bridesmaids.

If you've ever been a bride, know a bride, been a bridesmaid, or just plain been associated with a wedding at all then you know that it is all about the dress. All right, it is all about looking fabulous in a fabulous dress. The bride's appearance is an extremely important component of the wedding day. There is an entire industry built around the event. That industry includes all kinds of advice for women on how to look great for their big day, including popular articles on getting that perfect gorgeous body. Pre-wedding weight loss has become expected by dressmakers, bridal store assistants, and the bride's family and friends. On average brides loose approximately 9 pounds (4.1 kg) for their weddings. Some women are so pressured for the perfect wedding that their need for weight loss becomes extreme and maladaptive in terms of body image. There's even a term for it: bride-orexia. And it isn't only the bride that feels the pressure. Other members of the bridal party way also feel pressed to improve their appearance for the wedding day, namely bridesmaids.

This study surveyed 347 brides and 122 bridesmaids recruited from bridal expos in Adelaide, South Australia. They gave the participants a short questionnaire that asked them to identify whether they were a bride or bridesmaid, give the wedding date, and record body measurements (current height and weight for BMI calculations). They they were presented with a list of possible pre-wedding beauty practices based on popular bridal magazine content and asked to check off what they planned to do (or had done). Next they were asked whether they had an ideal wedding weight, whether they would be unhappy if they did not reach their ideal weight, and whether anyone had told them to lose weight for the wedding (and if so who). Next, the participant was asked to rate on a scale of 1 (not at all important) to 7 (extremely important) the importance of looking good on the wedding day. Finally, this question was immediately followed by an open-ended question inviting comments on why looking good on the wedding day was important, for which four major themes (photos/memories, big/important day, center of attention, looking/feeling beautiful) were identified and categorized.

It was found that brides and bridesmaids had similar current weight means and a BMI within the upper range of normal. Over 50% of the participants stated that they intended to exercise more, lose weight, and have their hair colored for the wedding. Around 40% intended to diet and tan their bodies for the big day. Brides were also significantly more likely to have their teeth whitened and join a gym than were bridesmaids. A total of 46% of the brides and 42% of bridesmaids had an ideal wedding weight but, of these, 45% of brides and 51% of bridesmaids said that they would be unhappy if they didn't reach their personal ideal weight. Though, note that women who gave an ideal weight tended to be heavier than women who did not.

Now let's pack on the pressure. Approximately 13% of brides reported that someone had told them to lose weight for the wedding, and, of those, 65% of brides had been told so by their families and 12% by their friends. The bride herself is not innocent here. Out of the 11% of bridesmaids that had been told to lose weight, 38% had been told to do so by the bride. Note here too that women who were told to lose weight for the wedding were significantly heavier than those who were not.

All of this is directly related to the importance of looking good on the wedding day. Brides rated the importance of looking good on the wedding day significantly higher than did bridesmaids. The most common reason for brides was because of the wedding photos followed by the overall importance of the event. Surprisingly, one of the less frequent responses was looking good for the groom. The bridesmaids responded that they mostly wanted to look good for the bride or to feel beautiful.

Admittedly, this isn't one of those huge groundbreaking studies. It's one of those that really just quantifies what we already know. We would all like to think that the bride (and her bridesmaids) will look beautiful for the groom and because of the happiness she is feeling on the day. Studies like this show that large numbers of brides put an extreme importance on their appearance for their weddings. This raises concerns about disordered eating and low body esteem as women suffer from dissatisfaction with their bodies and themselves. Add to that the pressure from others, particularly pressure for heavier women, and you've got a problem. Perhaps we need to rethink if there should be a perfect bridal body.

Read the article:
Prichard, Ivanka and Marika Tiggemann (2008) An examination of pre-wedding body image concers in brides and bridesmaids. Body Image: 5(4), 395-398. (DOI: 10.1016/j.bodyim.2008.05.001)

(image from sofiesfavors.com)
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