The comments started the day I became engaged in December 2018: “You’re going to be such a beautiful bride.” “I can’t wait to see you in your dress.” “Everything is going to be perfect.”
Before my fiancé and I even booked our wedding date, originally April 25, 2020, or saved a colour scheme on Pinterest, I felt an intensifying pressure to live up to the high expectations that I thought my friends and family already had for my wedding day. I was determined to meet those expectations.
But the innocent, wedding-driven diet that commenced shortly after my engagement ultimately spiralled into a full-fledged eating disorder. I was shocked by how quickly I fell ill and how deep that illness was.
There was nothing about my journey, however, that surprised Robyn Goldberg, a registered dietitian and author of “The Eating Disorder Trap.”
“The research shows one out of three people who diet develop an eating disorder – it’s very, very common,” said Goldberg, who has worked in private practice for the past 25 years with clients who have eating disorders, including many future brides. Some have ended up in residential treatment, she said. “You get so consumed that to pull yourself out of that dark hole seems impossible.”
In the early days of wedding planning, my lifestyle changes were subtle. I bought an elliptical machine, took note of my calorie intake and found healthier meal options. But when the pandemic hit and kept me at home with my gym equipment, measuring cups and extra time on my hands, the opportunities to try new weight-loss methods and obsess over my progress grew. It also forced us to postpone our wedding date.
In just a few months, I was severely limiting my calorie intake, weighing myself several times a day and adhering to strict, self-proclaimed exercise rules. This included 45 minutes of running on a treadmill and 120 minutes of walking (180 minutes on weekends) daily.
Before my engagement, I had never heard of intermittent fasting, but it didn’t take long for me to master it.
These behavioural changes happened so gradually that I didn’t even recognize something was wrong until nearly two years later. By then I had lost 50 pounds, although initially I had wanted to shed only 25.
My emotions became closely intertwined with my diet agenda. If my morning weigh-in was 0.2 pounds higher than the previous day, my entire day was ruined. And if the scale read 0.2 pounds less, I spent the day cautiously choosing a meal plan that would ensure that the fifth of a pound wouldn’t return the next day. I went so far as not to allow myself to drink water in the late evening or overnight, so that it wouldn’t affect the scale the next morning.
My personality also changed. I began arguing with my fiancé for the first time. I panicked if I couldn’t eat alone. I cried when friends asked if I wanted to meet over ice cream or pancakes. I went to bed whenever I started to feel hungry so I wouldn’t have to worry about it.
Worst of all, I was careful to keep all of these behaviours hidden, eliminating any chances for the people in my life to intervene.
An Inward Pandemic
COVID-19 made us postpone our wedding. We ended up marrying Sep 19, 2020, but postponed our large reception to Sep 11, 2021, which meant more time to ensure my body was “dress ready.”
This lengthened my wedding-planning period to two-and-half years, giving my newly developed disordered eating habits ample time to solidify and making them harder to break.
I quickly became acclimated to new, even higher perceived expectations from comments from family and friends such as “When your wedding day does arrive, it’ll be even more worth the wait.” Consistently earning praise from those around me for my weight loss only fuelled that line of thinking further.
I felt as if I were the only one going through this, but clinical experts say the situation is more common than you’d think.
“If you’re dieting and then have an extension of dieting caused by a global pandemic, it’s like throwing gasoline on an already-lit fire,” said Becca Clegg, an eating-disorder specialist and author of “Ending the Diet Mindset.” “Someone can think they’re trying to lose weight for a wedding, and before you know it, they’re in this compulsive relationship with regulating their food”
Thom Rutledge, a psychotherapist with more than 40 years of clinical experience and co-author of “Life Without Ed,” thinks we are living in a “diet culture.”
“So much eating-disorder thinking is so normalized in our world,” he said. “People don’t even question you when you say, ‘I need to lose weight to fit into that dress.’ Nobody flinches, and that’s a very negative view of yourself.”
Goldberg has seen wedding postponements affect eating disorders in her clients. She also feels that eating-disorder symptoms have become more severe in the pandemic, leading to an increased demand for treatment.
Eating disorders aren’t the only mental illnesses to become more widespread in the pandemic. According to the World Health Organization, the global incidence of anxiety and depression increased by 25 per cent in the first year of the pandemic alone. Goldberg believes that this growing mental health crisis is why many treatment centres are full and people are on waiting lists.
The Pendulum Effect
After my official wedding, I decided to take a break from restricting my food intake until closer to my reception. Food freedom, I told myself, would begin with my wedding cake.
It took less than two months for me to become trapped in a cycle of bingeing and restricting that I fastened to my self-worth, which is one of the characteristics of bulimia. I would binge because I could, restrict because I felt ashamed, then binge out of starvation before I even realized it was happening.
It wasn’t until I binged an entire loaf of bread straight from the package in under 15 minutes that I realized I needed help. My husband found me on the kitchen floor, sobbing and doubled over in pain from being so full.
According to Rutledge, wedding-related eating disorders almost always grow worse after the event. “People don’t usually show up in therapy around the time of the wedding – they show up afterward,” he said. “And soon after that, some of them end up dealing with the same stuff when they’re having babies. Don’t be too quick to assume that it’s just a momentary thing. Do yourself, your marriage and your family a favour and pay attention afterward.”
The National Eating Disorder Association helped me connect with a therapist in my area, who then referred me to a psychiatrist to discuss whether medication might help. (It did.) It took a while to develop an effective treatment plan with the right balance of medication and psychotherapy. But once we did, it made a world of difference.
Alternatives to Dieting
Instead of dieting before a wedding, here’s some advice from experts on what to do instead:
— Focus on what you can eat more of instead of what you can eat less of. This could include fruit, leafy greens or other healthy foods.
— Learn to be more conscious and present when eating.
— Explore foods you find to be both physically and emotionally satisfying.
— Avoid pre-set diets if you’re at risk for an eating disorder or have had one in the past. Instead, let hunger be your compass.
— If you’re struggling with your body image, talk to someone or seek professional help.
Knowing that eating disorders don’t go away on their own has been hard for me to accept. I find myself frustrated that even though I had previously spent nine years in therapy, I was never once told that my history of anxiety and depression predisposed me to developing an eating disorder.
Full recovery is also possible. Clegg says she has been recovered for more than 20 years. And through patience and grace, I, too, can see a way out.
By Kelsey Herbers © 2023 The New York Times
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.