Meet, Catch, and Keep

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Fighting the Unhealthy Cultural Push for Wedding Weight Loss

Pre-wedding weight loss is not all that it's cracked up to be

For heterosexual couples, wedding preparations are often “all about the bride” (Sobal, Bove, & Rauschenback, 1999).  From every angle, wedding media is largely marketed towards women, and while these outlets certainly offer helpful ideas and suggestions for the wedding stuff (e.g., flowers, caterers, and music), they also offer potentially harmful ideas and suggestions about brides’ bodies. 

Diets, cleanses, bridal boot camps, wedding-dress workouts…losing weight for a wedding can become an obsession, a distraction, and a source for stress during an already stressful time. 

Why do women, who are no more weight-conscious than the average person (Prichard & Tiggemann, 2011), turn into brides-to-be who are so motivated to lose weight for their weddings and what can we do to help them?  

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1. Don't suggest a bride lose weight for her wedding.  This one should be obvious, but brides-to-be aren’t inventing the idea of pre-wedding weight loss. It’s estimated that 33% of women are advised by someone important in their lives (e.g., parents, friends, even fiancés) to lose weight before walking down the aisle (Prichard & Tiggemann, 2009), with heavier women hearing these comments more often. Stranges (e.g., sales assistants and dressmakers) also are known to offer these "suggestions." This pressure is dangerous: experiencing pressure to be thinner predicts body dissatisfaction and negative affect (Stice, 2002). It is also potentially counterproductive:  pressured brides-to-be on average did not lose weight before their wedding and gained more after it (Prichard & Tiggemann, 2014).

2. Help brides-to-be resist goals to change their bodies. Many brides-to-be are no more fixated on their appearance than the average woman (Prichard & Tiggemann, 2011) yet they are often contemplating serious body changes as they approach their wedding days.  Brides-to-be are often interested in altering their bodies considerably before their weddings.  Recent research found that approximately half of brides-to-be recruited from a wedding expo (46%) were targeting an ideal wedding weight that was on average 20 pounds less than their current weight (Prichard & Tiggemann, 2014).

3. Talk about the wedding as more than pictures. A recent study showed that for heterosexual couples, brides-to-be seem to compare their bodies with their fiancés’, and those who have larger or similar BMIs (body mass index) as their fiancés, are more likely to try to lose weight before their wedding (Prichard et al., 2014).  Meanwhile, women who have significantly lower BMIs than their partners (i.e., are clearly smaller than their partners) are less apt to pursue pre-wedding weight loss goals.  In other words, having a visibly larger partner appears to be a defense against pre-wedding weight loss agendas.  The researchers suggest that concern over the wedding photos and cultural norms regarding size of men and women may fuel a compulsion to change one’s body.  Further, pressure to lose weight seems to warp impressions of what matters during the wedding day, with greater weight-related pressure predicting more belief that appearance and beauty are the most important aspects of the day (Prichard & Tiggemann, 2009).

4.  Support brides-to-be when they try but don’t lose weight.  Many women establish significant pre-wedding weight loss goals but fail to meet them.  In a recent study (Prichard & Tiggemann, 2014), only half of the sample of brides-to-be who reported a desire to lose weight actually did lose weight (on average just shy of 7 lbs) before their weddings.  About 20% had no weight change, while approximately one third of the sample (32.2%) gained weight (on average 7lbs).  In another study, a third of brides-to-be experienced no weight change, one third lost weight, and another third gained weight, whereas 50% of grooms-to-be experienced no weight change, with 30% gaining weight, and just shy of 20% losing weight (Prichard et al., 2014).

5. Normalize post-wedding weight gain.  It’s often the case that dieting results in a weight-gaining rebound, and this is true for wedding weight loss as well.  Women typically gain weight during the six month period after a wedding (Prichard & Tiggemann, 2014), with newly-weds who felt pressure to lose weight before the wedding experiencing a heightened weight gain (about 10 lbs) relative to those who were not pressured to lose weight (about 3 pounds).

6. Emphasize a healthy approach to weight management. The evidence suggests that brides-to-be are taking on dramatic goals that may or may not be met, followed by weight gain post-marriage (Prichard & Tiggemann, 2014).  Fluctuations in weight may be challenging for women’s body satisfaction.   Women who take on more dieting attempts tend to have lower self-esteem and a more negative evaluation of their own bodies, whereas actual weight is not linked to these constructs (McAllister & Caltabiano, 1994).  This suggests that long-term health plans that are not linked to a wedding date are potentially approaches to weight management that may support not only fitness, but also psychological health and well-being.

Perhaps people view weddings as the impetus for a long-time-desired-but-never-actually-pursued change in fitness.  In many ways, weddings can be a helpful external push for individuals who might need a tipping point to begin the hard journey of getting back into shape.  Using a wedding, or any event (e.g., losing weight for a high school reunion) to kickstart a life style change is not a bad plan, provided the health and fitness goals are pursued for the long-run, and not just for the event itself.

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References

McAllister, R., & Caltabiano, M. L. (1994). Self-esteem, body-image and weight in noneating-disordered women. Psychological Reports, 75, 1339-1343.

Prichard, I., Polivy, J., Provencher, V., Herman, C. P., Tiggemann, M., & Cloutier, K. (2014). Brides and young couples Partners’ weight, weight change, and perceptions of attractiveness. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, Advanced online publication.

Prichard, I., & Tiggemann, M. (2009). Unveiled: Pre-wedding weight concerns and health and beauty plans of Australian brides. Journal of Health Psychology, 14, 1027-1035.

Prichard, I., & Tiggemann, M. (2011). Appearance investment in Australian brides-to-be. Body image, 8(3), 282-286.

Prichard, I., & Tiggemann, M. (2014). Wedding-related weight change: The ups and downs of love. Body Image, 11, 179-182.

Sobal, J., Bove, C. F., & Rauschenbach, B. (1999). Weight and weddings: The social construction of beautiful brides. In J. Sobal & D. Maurer (Eds.), Interpreting weight: The social management of fatness and thinness. (pp. 113–135). Hawthorne, NY: Aldine de Gruyter.

Stice, E. (2002). Risk and maintenance factors for eating pathology: a meta-analytic review. Psychological Bulletin, 128, 825-848.

Theresa DiDonato, Ph.D. is a social psychologist and assistant professor at Loyola University Maryland.

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