I knew the proposal was coming. Even if I hadn’t accidentally already found the engagement ring receipt, the Cheshire Cat grin on the waiter as my future husband fumbled with the ring under the table would have given him away. Nearly immediately after he popped the question, I began browsing for the perfect wedding gown. Almost as immediately, I set limitations, even in my fantasy. It would need to have sleeves of some kind to hide my chubby arms. It couldn’t be too form-fitting. It was 2005 and mermaid-style dresses were all the rage — the dresses had thin, body-hugging material to the mid-calf area, where the skirt would suddenly flow out, away from the body. The silhouette made brides look almost statuesque, enhancing every curve. Yet, I was positive that choice would make me look more like a manatee than a mermaid.
I hoarded bridal magazines handed down to me from newly married friends. As I thumbed through pages and pages of picture-perfect brides with “enviable” bodies, I had difficulty imagining my 235-pound body being shoe-horned into any of the gowns laid out before me. There were very few examples of plus size brides in plus size dresses, and the few that did exist were only slightly larger models. And even then, they were relegated to the back of the magazine like an afterthought. A coworker had informed me that I “didn’t look like a bride” — and judging by these magazines, she was right.
I carried around my copy of The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Wedding Planning like a Bible for the next month and a half. I reached the wedding dress section while sitting on a hard carpeted floor outside a blood lab, waiting to make sure the Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS) that causes me to gain weight hadn’t yet given me diabetes. If the universe wanted to remind me I was fat, this was an effective way to do it.
The guide offered great tips for dress shopping on a budget, which was what I was looking for. The first and most obvious piece of advice was to buy your dress off-the-rack, meaning to choose one that was in-stock — usually one that had been used as an example for brides to try on, and often last season’s design.
I decided off-the-rack was the way to go. And then I read on. It seemed off-the-rack was mostly a luxury for “typical” sized people, and that if you deviated from the smaller sizes, you might be out of luck. Wedding dresses are expensive, and, according to this book, boutiques tended to carry mostly mid-range sizes for brides to try on and then order in their size. At a size 22, I was not in that category. Once again crest-fallen, I focused on keeping costs down everywhere else in case I needed to spend thousands on an ordered-to-fit gown. On the plus side, I didn’t have diabetes.
Wrestling with my social anxiety, fear of the phone, and internalized body shame, I called dress shops to ask if they carried plus size wedding dresses and sold off-the-rack. I found two. There was hope.
My mom and I pulled up to one of the shops which was located in a generic strip mall. The boutique was unremarkable from the outside. Aside from a few wedding-related items in the front window that looked as though they had made their home there in the early ‘80s, there was nothing that signified this was a bridal boutique and not a bank or a vitamins store. It was a stark contrast to the champagne-serving, expertly lit retail havens every rom-com bride seems to experience.
Inside was no different. It looked like Sears, but stocked entirely with wedding dresses. It did not sparkle and dazzle, and Julia Roberts was nowhere to be found. Nonetheless, it was intimidating. The racks were stuffed to capacity, organized in a way that dumbfounded me. How was I going to find my dress, the dress meant for me alone, in this chaos?
“Hello, welcome!” the sales clerk greeted us warmly. With some trepidation, I informed her I was looking to buy off-the-rack — and that I was a size 22. I felt as though I had asked her to help me find a unicorn, and a dress to fit it.
I waited for the backlash. I waited to hear that they don’t carry that size, as so many on the phone had informed me, or to look put-out by having to watch me parade this big body around for the next hour. It never came.
“No problem, follow me!” she said, leading to me to a surprisingly large section in the rack of endless gowns. “Have a look through these, pull out some you like, and I’ll show you where to try them on.”
I stood for a moment, exhaling. I was not an inconvenience or an anomaly to this salesperson. I was a bride.
According to everyone who had ever worn a wedding dress, I would know mine when I saw it. I slid the heavy gowns along the metal bar, looking for it. I didn’t see it. Determined not to leave empty-handed, I started pulling anything off the rack that remotely met my criteria: sleeves, no train, nothing form-fitting.
Standing on the pedestal in the brightly-lit room, looking at the full length, wall-sized mirror, I started to convince myself that I had found the dress. I looked nice in it. It fit, which was not something I had taken as a given when I began this dress hunt. “It’s good, right?” I asked my mom, mostly trying to sell myself on it. She nodded, but I knew what she was really thinking.
As I had been trying on dresses, the sales representative had asked me what I was looking for in a dress, and scurried around pulling gowns that met those parameters. I had tried them all on, and the one I was desperately trying to love was the closest I had come to finding my dream dress. It wasn’t it, but I had found a dress that fit me off-the-rack, and for that I was grateful.
“I know this isn’t what you were looking for, but I have this dress that I think would look great on you,” the saleswoman spoke up softly. What did I have to lose?
I returned from the fitting room after putting on the dress she had in mind and, with the support of the consultant, I climbed back up on that pedestal to see myself in full view. I stared in total silence for more than a moment. I turned to look at my mom, who simply smiled and asked, “It’s the one, isn’t it?”
I began to cry. This dress was nothing like the ones I had pictured for myself — or rather, limited myself to. It had spaghetti straps and a low-cut neckline that showed off my entire upper body. It had a corset back that accentuated my waist. It had a train that begged for attention. It didn’t hide my body — it announced it. And I loved it.
I stood in front of the mirror, tears streaming, staring at my full-length exposed body, and all I could do was nod. I was beautiful. I was a bride — not a plus size bride, but a bride, full-stop. The sales rep beamed as she slipped a veil onto my head to complete the look.
The day of my wedding, I walked around with my head held high, knowing how stunning I was. The smiles — teeth and all! — in my wedding photos were genuine. There was no sign of that young woman who had shamefully called around, apologetically asking for a dress to fit her body. On that day, I shone.
In the moment, I thought that newfound respect for my body had come from the dress itself. Fourteen years later, I see that it came from the sales rep. She was thin, and she worked in an industry that catered primarily to thin people. Yet, when I walked in, she saw me as a whole person, not a clothing size.
While I was looking for dresses to cover my body and hide everything I felt ashamed of, she was busy looking through all of the gowns I had passed over because I thought I had no right to wear them. I saw a dress that would expose my arms. She saw a beautiful gown that would make me look like the princess I deserved to be on my wedding day.
The dress she encouraged me to try on (the one that became the dress) was significantly cheaper than the one I had been trying to convince myself to buy. She hadn’t shown it to me to up her commission. She simply saw something in me that I couldn’t see in myself.
The lesson she taught me lasted well past my wedding day. Because of her, I push myself to do things and wear things and be things that I catch myself thinking aren’t for people with bodies like mine. I remind myself that the self-doubt I feel about my body colors my view in the mirror — but other people see me for who I really am. I am less afraid to claim my own worth.
To any plus size brides-to-be reading this: Try on the dress. You deserve to wear anything you like, and feel good wearing it. To any plus size people reading this: You deserve to be anywhere you want to be. There are no thin-people-places. There is no thin-people-clothing. Lack of options for plus size people is a commentary on the industry, not us.
And if one day you find yourself hiding your beautiful self, picture yourself on a pedestal, in front of a brightly lit, wall-sized mirror, with a sales rep by your side reminding you to shine.
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