‘The perceived scrutiny is immense’: how weddings can worsen eating and body image disorders

<span>For people susceptible to eating disorders, planning for a wedding presents an under-acknowledged risk.</span><span>Photograph: Irina Bortcova/Alamy</span>
For people susceptible to eating disorders, planning for a wedding presents an under-acknowledged risk.Photograph: Irina Bortcova/Alamy

It’s often expected to be the “happiest day of your life”, but the preparation for Brianna Woodward’s wedding had her crumpled on the kitchen floor, sobbing.

The 36-year-old has struggled with body image and eating disorder symptoms since her early teens, but only received targeted psychological treatment briefly several years ago, after a dentist noticed the enamel of her teeth was eroding due to purging behaviour.

Although her partner made her feel deserving of love “from the very beginning” of their relationship back in 2013, when it came to planning their wedding, Woodward became overwhelmed with fears around receiving so much attention.

“I remember being worried about meeting family and friends of my partner for the first time and that they would think I was too ugly and fat to be with him, worrying about feeling hideous and on display in a dress, and about all the photos that would be taken.”

Related: Don’t cheer the scale: doctors and dieticians untangling body size from health

Woodward did “extensive social media sleuthing” to find a dress designer who offered diverse styles and the option to try on at home.

“Still, I had one morning where I thought, ‘I am hideous’, and the thought of buying one specific dress to supposedly make me look beautiful on this one special day … it put a lot of pressure on me and I felt like there was nowhere to hide. I remember needing to take a day off work because I couldn’t compose myself.”

Body image and eating disorders can affect anyone and are thought to arise from a combination of genetic, cultural, environmental and psychological factors.

The pressure to diet

Advanced dietitian Dr Fiona Willer believes weddings present an under-acknowledged risk for people susceptible to, or living with, these disorders.

“Similarly to other social and professional situations where people know they will be visually scrutinised, a wedding provides what society says will be one of the most important days of your life, so the perceived scrutiny, particularly of the bride, is immense,” Willer says, adding that weddings are “not an uncommon reason” for people to seek out a dietitian.

Helen Bird, the education services manager at the Butterfly Foundation, says that pressure – alongside increased attention and comments on appearance – can leave anyone vulnerable to body dissatisfaction.

“And we know [body dissatisfaction] is a leading risk factor for engaging in disordered eating behaviours and developing an eating disorder.”

US researchers recently called out the “paucity” of research into disordered eating and weddings given the health risks, highlighting a 2008 study where many of the women who claimed they wanted to lose weight said they would use extreme behaviours, such as diet pills or skipping meals.

In one of the first such Australian studies, also in 2008, about half the women who reported wanting to lose weight said they would be upset if they didn’t reach their target. The same researchers, Ivanka Prichard and Marika Tiggemann, later surveyed 879 women and found one-third had been told to lose weight for their wedding by family, friends or partners.

Their research also shows a bride’s appearance is often perceived as central to the wedding’s success, regardless of their age – a finding that contrasts with broader body image research showing that body shape and weight tend to be ranked as less important the older people get.

The rise of ‘bridetox’

Clinical psychologist Dr Toni Pikoos says there’s also growing emphasis on prenuptial cosmetic procedures, such as Botox. Though it is often marketed as “bridetox”, the interest in these procedures is increasing among men.

Pikoos, who co-founded an organisation to help cosmetic practitioners with psychological assessments, says in their research encompassing 301 people across Australia in 2023, “39% reported ‘looking good for an upcoming social event’ as a key motivation for undertaking non-surgical cosmetic procedures”.

Pikoos mostly works with people with eating disorders, body dysmorphic disorder and those considering cosmetic surgery. She says social events are always a significant discussion point.

“When I speak with people wanting to undertake cosmetic surgery and ask them ‘Why now?’ it’s very common to hear they’ve got a wedding coming up in the next six to 18 months, sometimes not even their own.”

Prichard, an associate professor at Flinders University, doesn’t think the pressure has eased in the years since her 2008 study.

“Certainly, there’s more focus on body acceptance and body appreciation generally these days, which is a good thing. But whether that has made it into the wedding industry, which still thrives on focusing on appearance, it’s hard to say.”

Prichard says although their studies focused on women, the broader literature on body image reveals a range of pressures are placed on all genders.

Bird says they have heard from grooms who were encouraged to start a “wedding diet” or become more muscular, but notes different cultural beauty ideals will likely influence wedding expectations.

Recognising stressors

Added stress and disrupted routine, however, are common during wedding planning – and are known to trigger or exacerbate symptoms.

For 34-year-old Chantel Le Cross, managing their eating disorder symptoms takes constant work – though the autism and ADHD diagnoses they received two-and-a-half years ago have helped them to understand the importance of fulfilling a need for routine without tipping over into “obsessiveness”.

They first met their now-wife in 2018 at one of the bimonthly marathons of TV series Xena: Warrior Princess hosted by Le Cross, who is non-binary and uses they/them pronouns.

“Alannah had started hanging out with my circle of friends … She sat next to me on the couch and both of us were like: sweaty palms, feeling really awkward, not knowing what to do with each other.”

When they got engaged in 2022, they discussed ways to avoid external pressures or expectations for their wedding. The couple decided to hold a surprise ceremony at their “engagement party”, but the stress of planning a secret wedding in five months exacerbated Le Cross’s chronic illness.

This led to a brief hospitalisation, weight loss and needing their suit retailored. They suffered intrusive thoughts about their appearance and became hyper-aware of their behaviour.

“Going through that process of having your body measured, having to really look at yourself and thinking about all the photos … I was eating significantly less and that made me stressed because I thought, ‘Is it because I’m not hungry, or are these [eating disorder symptoms] coming out again?’”

Le Cross says while eating disorders can often feel isolating, being vulnerable with trusted people ahead of the wedding helped strengthen their relationships. “I’m always the person who’s strong and has their shit together … so having the opportunity to feel safe with my wife and my friends who were part of the wedding process really strengthened my sense of community and belonging.

“If I do have times of relapse, I know I can lean on people rather than keep it to myself.”

Experts’ advice for wedding guests

Avoid appearance-focused comments
While it’s fine to acknowledge how special the couple look, the Butterfly Foundation’s Helen Bird also suggests using words such as “full of joy, elated and glowing from the inside”.

Experts’ advice for engaged couples

Communicate expectations
Set and communicate your boundaries around unsolicited advice on weight, dieting or what to do with your body, advises Bird.

This could mean calling tailors and bridal stores in advance to make a blanket rule against comments about your body. You could also request seams that can be easily altered in case of any last-minute weight gain.

“Avoid the pressure to buy a smaller size as ‘motivation’ to lose weight,” Bird says. “Remember, you don’t need to change your body to fit into a dress – the dress should fit you, not the other way around.”

Work out what feels right for you
Bird encourages couples to question their motivations: is it to fit into a narrow beauty standard, or is it to increase your own confidence? “Remember that weight loss often isn’t the answer – many people find their feelings of self-worth and esteem don’t improve through weight loss,” she says.

Woodward says since neither she nor her husband like attention, they held a private ceremony in their favourite park, hired photographers with an “unstaged” style and had a family member do her makeup. “Not having a big event and all that pressure on that one day helped me feel I didn’t have to engage in [extreme weight-loss behaviour]. That was really important, because I could have fallen into really dangerous territory.”

Bird advises unfollowing social media accounts that portray unrealistic beauty standards. The perfect body “is a construct created by the multibillion-dollar dieting, fitness and wedding industries, designed to profit off your insecurities”, she says.

Pikoos advises seeking support from a trusted friend, family member or mental health professional to manage body image pressures. While there’s nothing wrong with a bit of pampering, notice when this shifts from feeling enjoyable into fear, anxiety or shame, she says.

Related: ‘Why would you find me attractive?’: the body disorder that needs more attention

Don’t fret the photos
Pikoos says some people put a lot of effort into their wedding day appearance only to have the photos later become a source of body image distress when they can’t maintain those pre-wedding behaviours.

“Think about how you can look and feel your best in a way that feels most authentic. Remember, your partner most likely fell in love with you not just for your physical appearance, but a range of other non-physical qualities,” she says.

Bird encourages couples to think of photos as opportunities to simply capture a moment, their happiness and the love they have for each other, rather than how they look.

Woodward says she initially found it confronting to look at photos of herself from the wedding, but has since come to display some at home. “It was a lovely day. I remember feeling a little bit stressed, but mostly happy.”

In Australia, the Butterfly Foundation is on 1800 334 673 and crisis support service Lifeline is 13 11 14. International helplines can be found at Eating Disorder Hope.