It is two weeks before my wedding and I’m cruising the dessert table at my cousin’s bat mitzvah. I’ve just finished sampling the chocolate torte when I hear the voice of my great-aunt over my shoulder. “Are you sure you should be eating that, Melissa? Remember, your dress….”
During my seven-month engagement, I felt like I heard remarks like this non-stop. From the moment the rock was on my finger, everyone from relatives to total strangers seemed to feel the need to offer incredibly intrusive comments and advice. About my body size — “You’re not eating that bagel, are you? Only four weeks to your wedding!” About my appearance — “Are you exercising?” And about whatever was moving towards my mouth — “The number of Weight Watchers points in that pizza, Melissa!” Most of the remarks came, alas, from women, not men, and they bespoke the passing on of a complicated bridal legacy: I was being inducted into an oppressed group that expressed its support — and sense of female intimacy — by handing down age-old, internalized oppressions. I was the recipient of “teachings.” This is what it means to be a bride; this is what you are supposed to say or do or look like. And since I’d never been in this exact position before, I was (I realized in hindsight) particularly vulnerable.
About six weeks prior to the wedding, things came to a head during the first fitting of my custom-made gown. With my mother, father and two younger sisters at my side to witness the iconic moment when the magnificent one-time-wear garment would be placed on my body, the unthinkable happened. The gown didn’t fit — it was too small. It couldn’t be zipped. There was shock in the room. Numbed silence. Then I started bawling, and nothing could soothe me. Not deep breaths, not hugs and Kleenex from my tremendously supportive family, not a call to my empathic fiance.
Finally my mother had a revelation: the bustier was too thick for the dress. We removed the satin undergarment and the gown zipped up like a glove. Victory! — except that the damage had already been done: the capstone moment, and there I was drowning myself in tears, feeling like a failure. How had I set myself up for this? How had we all become party to such a ridiculous moment?
The icing on the cake (as it were) had been the solution offered matter-of-factly by the upscale boutique’s seamstress when she realized we had an unzippable dress on our hands. “Just don’t eat,” she instructed me matter-of-factly.
“Don’t eat?” I said incredulously. “The wedding is six weeks away!” She reiterated the solution that I know has been offered to countless brides before and after me. “Trust me,” she said. “Just don’t eat.”
Although I have had moments of feeling critical towards aspects of my body, I was feeling very good as I embarked on the countdown to W-Day. My fiance and I had established increasingly healthy eating habits and we were becoming regular gym-goers in an attempt to enter this significant new stage of our lives in a positive way. Despite my seemingly robust attitude, however, every unsolicited comment sunk in, making me wonder if I was really “ready” to become a bride.
Does “bride” equal “thin,” I wondered at my most vulnerable? In order to get married, did I need to fit into a designated dress size? Did I need to have a perfect complexion? A uni-model brand of physical beauty? Becoming a bride clearly meant undergoing a submission ritual in which the rest of the world bizarrely and obtrusively interjected opinions on everything — not just flowers and frosting, but whether it was imperative that I wear Bobbi Brown or Chanel.
Bridal magazines hurt, too — every one of them providing yet one more urgent strategy for “losing the bump before you take the jump.” Everywhere I turned, messages bombarded me: Change the way you look! You can’t become a bride if you’re not perfect! When, I wondered, had being a bride stopped being about the fact that you were deeply in love with someone and wanted to make a witnessed and lifelong commitment to sharing with that person your values and growth and goals, your hearth and bed?
With a background in mental health counseling and family therapy, I have read enough textbook material to know how important self-esteem and positive body image are to young women today. I’ve also worked for years with young Jewish women, advising B’nai B’rith youth groups and facilitating the program “Rosh Hodesh: It’s a Girl Thing!” I know how crucial it is not only to preach positive messages, but to model, as a leader, a healthy relationship with my own body. Now more than ever, though, I felt the heavy hand of society pressuring me, and in a very culture-specific way. I wanted to scream out to every onlooker to stop harassing generation after generation of young women with destructive messages.
Much literature links these dynamics to increasing rates of eating disorders and obsessive body preoccupation. More recent data suggests that Jewish women in particular feel added pressures to be thin, as assimilation into mainstream culture urges us to leave our physically “Jewishly identifiable” ethnic traits behind — smoothing our hair down, say, or feeling critical of a body frame that’s an ancestral inheritance. If I — someone who works with these issues professionally, who knows the literature, who considers herself a feminist, and who has, or so I thought, liberated herself from this kind of tyranny — nonetheless feels menaced and susceptible, what hope is there, I wondered, for the rest of my generation?
And then, one day, it just suddenly just dawned on me: Mah nishtana ha-lilah ha-zeh? Why should this wedding night be different from all others? Why did I need to look different from my usual self on this night that would be etched for all time in photos and DVD’s? Didn’t I want to use it as a chance to proclaim that I am the size and the shape and the look that I am? “Ehyeh asher ehyeh,” as God says to Moses at the burning bush, “I am that I am.” If I am okay on all other nights, then that is good enough for THE night, and I would commit to start carrying this message to all those folks around me who were incessantly prodding me to starve and suck it in. I needed to push back for all young women, to argue that we have to stop the criticisms and flip negative observations that we thoughtlessly and reflexively lay on one another. If I’m fine with myself in general, then I’m fine with myself on the night of my wedding, and that would have to be good enough for all my unsolicited advisors.
Sure enough, after my breakthrough revelation, something happened inside of me. I was able to BE a bride, to enjoy myself, to get in there and luxuriate in my wedding. It was a four-day extravaganza — from welcome reception to farewell brunch — and I was present for every moment of it. I also understood that the pageantry of the wedding and the focus on me as a bride was part of my family’s need to heal, to celebrate after three years of anguish in the aftermath of an accident that severely injured my younger brother. I understood that young feminists like myself want the spectacle and the gender equity — we don’t want, as earlier generations of feminists did, to dispense with our femininity — and that this wish is inevitably and perhaps irreconcilably complicated.
I would be lying if I said that as the dress was pulled up over my head — by the team of carefully trained family members and party planners that it took to arrange it on my body — that I didn’t enter into a sudden panic that it simply might not zip up. But the moment passed, and the dress fit. And I looked beautiful. And I survived the monstrosity of the largest zit I’ve ever had in my life that appeared on the morning of the Big Day. And the wedding was phenomenal. And I swore to be a vigilante about this topic for brides-to-be and their “well-wishers” in the years to come.
And, oh yeah, most important, I am now happily married to that person I most deeply love.
Melissa Orshan Spann is a newlywed living in Philadelphia. She works at The Renfrew Center with women and girls struggling with eating disorders, and is a Ph.D. candidate in Couples and Family Therapy.