Let’s be real.
It’s DAMN hard to be a woman this day in age.
From the moment we wake up in the morning to the moment we lay our heads down at night, it can seem like a constant struggle to look the best, feel the best, parent the best, work the best, workout the best, and in general, BE the very best we can be. The thing is, we all know these expectations we feel pressured to live up to are (excuse my French) batsh*t crazy. We’re also smart as hell, and we know these expectations are unrealistic, social media isn’t real, and this whole ideology of the “perfect woman” is something we can choose to denounce. So, for a moment we say “f*ck it!”, channel our inner Beyoncé, embrace our flaws, and hold our heads high. We adjust our metaphorical crowns, post some deep “girl-power” inspired quote on Instagram, and go about our day– only to be torn down the moment we see someone living what is perceived to be their best (i.e. better than yours) life, leaving us questioning ours. Sound familiar? Suddenly we aren’t so sure that we’re thin enough, successful enough, beautiful enough, in love enough, rich enough, or (sadly), lovable enough. We couldn’t possibly be HAPPY enough until these other “enoughs” are fulfilled….right?? And so the cycle of self-questioning, self-loathing, self-esteem building, self-realizing, and once again, self-analysis starts all over again.
Okay, so this is just an idea of what goes on in a typical woman’s mind every day. Now, let’s throw the word BRIDE into the mix. Talk about a whole new level of pressure to battle.
My husband Robbie (the love of my life!) and I got engaged in the summer of 2016, and this past September we tied the knot (woo hoo!). Like many women, (I’d venture to say) I dreamed about my wedding day since I was a little girl. I can still remember picking out my favorite Halloween costume from a catalog with a neighborhood friend when I was about five years old. It was a bride outfit. The catalog outfit wasn’t nearly fancy or “bridal” enough so my mom and aunt jacked me up with pretty makeup and extra accessories— complete with lipstick, a lacy skirt, a bouquet of flowers, and a fluffy veil—I felt like a princess. I couldn’t WAIT until I was a real bride one day. (Side note: looking back the whole child bride thing is a tad creepy, but I digress). For as long as I can remember, I was always mesmerized by family wedding photos, bridal magazines, and bride shows on TV (thank you TLC). But as I got older, and my relationships became more serious (i.e. marriage wasn’t so far off in the distance anymore), the idea of becoming a bride started to bring about more fear and anxiety than excitement and anticipation—and it wasn’t the whole “I’m committing to one person for the rest of my life” thing that scared me. It was the whole “OH MY GOD. Everyone is going to be looking at ME -slash- I’m going to have to fit into a wedding dress and look the best I’ve ever looked in my entire life” thing that REALLY freaked me out.
The wedding industry is a pretty precarious entity—and I’m not just talking about the price tag of anything that has the word “wedding” attached to it (seriously, it’s nauseating). I’m talking about the bridal weight loss industry. Just check out this matter of fact article in the New York Times about a bride who walked around with a feeding tube up her nose to shed some pounds before her big day. Reading this article was equally triggering and infuriating to me. Those of you who know me personally or follow me on social media are aware of my past struggles with anorexia and exercise addiction – both of which developed and flourished in college. Even though I’ve been in recovery for the better part of a decade, the mental scars and internal battles that come along with recovering from an eating disorder are something that I live with and must actively work through every single day—some days more so than others.
While I am beyond blessed to say that most areas of my life are safe from my eating disordered past, there was one major life event that I feared deep down might not make it out of anorexia’s cruel arms unscathed—and that was my wedding day.
My husband and I were together for nine years before we said “I do,” but we both knew marriage was in our future not long after we moved in together post-college. Of course at that time we were still young and figuring out our lives. The wedding would wait, but we knew it would happen someday. Over the next few years I found myself going back and forth between desperately wanting to get engaged, and desperately NOT wanting to get engaged. Keep in mind– this had 100% nothing to do with wanting or not wanting to commit myself to Robbie. This had EVERYTHING to do with me not feeling pretty enough or thin enough to earn the title “bride to be.” There were many times I’d plead with Robbie, “Don’t you dare propose to me. I’m not ready to be engaged yet.” And sadly, he knew exactly what that meant. I didn’t feel good enough, skinny enough, beautiful enough, or worthy enough to be a bride. I wanted a fairy-tale engagement and a fairy-tale wedding. And how on earth could I have that if I didn’t like the size of my pants or the number on a scale? How could I possibly be happy on such a special day if eating disordered thoughts clogged my mind throughout the whole process? Eating disordered thoughts are just that—all-consuming regardless of the moment or the incredible world around you. So, instead of confronting it, I was willing to put off starting a future with the man I loved because of it. Pretty sad and twisted (albeit kind of embarrassing to admit after the fact), if you ask me.
Everyone else around us was getting married, and once we were on the edge of 30, I knew it would soon be my turn to walk down the aisle. On August 11th, 2016 we took off for a romantic weekend in Newport, R.I. On our way, we made a quick pit stop to visit our old stomping grounds where we first met. It was there in beautiful Bristol, R.I. that Robbie popped the question, at our alma mater, Roger Williams University. Don’t get me wrong. This was the HAPPIEST moment of my life (aside from actually saying “I do” on September 17th!). I felt like the luckiest girl in the world, and was head over heels in love. But not too long after saying yes “YES!” and kissing my honey, two nasty little thoughts consumed my mind…
The first? “Oh my god. Is there a photographer hiding in the bushes capturing this moment? Ashley suck in your tummy, move your arm, stand like this, you look so fat in this dress!”
The second? “That’s it. I’m going to have to lose SO much weight before the wedding if I want to look good in my dream gown. I can’t handle this pressure!”
For the record, there was no photographer hiding in the bushes because my husband knew how anxious photos make me. The sad part is, in my heart of hearts I truly DID want this moment captured, but he was torn—and I know exactly why. He was trying to protect me and keep me happy on what was supposed to be a very happy day. I can’t blame him. I’m not sure how I actually would have reacted in the moment.
Excuse my French but… what the hell is THAT about?! This huge, magical life event JUST happened. The moment I’d been dreaming about forever was finally my reality and I was busy worrying about how thin I had to be for the big day? Sure I can blame my eating disordered past for the majority of this rationale, but I also blame our society and modern day media for these unrealistic expectations of the modern woman. More particularly, I blame the pressure placed on brides-to-be to look their absolute BEST (whatever that means) on their wedding day– as if this is the only day that matters for the rest of their lives, eating disordered past or not. The sad thing is, in the wedding world it’s normal to obsess over this. Disordered eating, unhealthy workout habits, and being miserable is socially acceptable in the name of wedding day bliss. These unhealthy behaviors get a free pass and are (dare I say) encouraged as “normal” as long as you’re “doing it for the wedding.” Want some proof? Let’s talk a little bit about how some of these “normal” conversations went during my engagement:
1.) A male family member asked me if I was a size “negative two” yet, because all brides starve themselves before their wedding. (Thank you for being so inappropriate!).
2.) A friend noticed my gaunt (i.e. freaking exhausted) face and slightly more defined cheekbones and excitedly remarked “Looking good girl! Someone’s on a wedding workout plan!” (In reality I had been basically living in the hospital after my mom had a serious health scare and I was not taking proper care to eat and sleep as I should have been—here I was feeling unhealthy and awful but my friend thought I looked awesome. Miserable and nutrient deprived = pretty? Confusing AF).
3.) A colleague sees me eating a salad (which I enjoyed eating on the regular even before I was labeled as a bride-to-be) after a workout and immediately makes a comment about my wedding diet discipline (update: not a diet, just eating what I love and maintaining a healthy exercise schedule but thanks for jumping to conclusions).
4.) Countless fitness friends instantaneously reach out to me about being able to help get me in shape for the big day (Okay. I’m sorry. Just because I don’t have rock hard abs means I’m not in shape RIGHT NOW?!).
5.) Don’t even get me started on the #sweatingforthewedding social media posts and all the crazy ads and emails about wedding weight loss that show up on your screen or inbox once you register on any sort of wedding website. I even found myself tagging #sweatingforthewedding a few times before I realized “Hey Ashley, your fitness routine hasn’t changed. You’re not sweating for the wedding– you’re sweating because you already like to workout!” (#prettyfitlife!)
So what did I do? Well to be honest, at first I gave in to this idea that I had to be a “perfect bride.” The first few months of my engagement felt like a roller coaster inside and not because I was stressed when it came to planning the actual day (I am an event planner after all), but once we set a date it was as if a digital countdown clock was installed inside my mind. Every single day that passed meant I was one day closer to “judgement day” (i.e. my wedding day)– the day that everyone would look me up and down, ooh and ahh, and critique how I looked on the day that I was “supposed” to look the most beautiful I ever have, and ever will. The day that everyone would remember me for (for better or worse). The day that would live in photos for the rest of my life, my children’s lives, my grandchildren’s lives…
Tick, tick, tick….
IT. WOULDN’T. STOP.
To make matter worse, I was petrified to go dress shopping– I feared I’d end up hurling myself into a pre-wedding depression. I didn’t want to try on wedding dresses, so I put it off as long as I could. When time finally caught up to me and I finally did make that first appointment, I didn’t allow myself to try on certain styles because I was afraid it would send me into a downward spiral. Even when I found that perfect dress with my amazing Mom by my side to share this special moment, I looked in the mirror and smiled like I was supposed to, but I still couldn’t help but wonder how much better it would look if I was just a little bit thinner. “Be happy Ashley, be happy.” I remember thinking to myself. “Your Mom is here. This is a special moment. WHY CAN’T YOU STOP THINKING THESE NEGATIVE THOUGHTS?! Enjoy this moment RIGHT NOW!”
And that’s when I decided I’d had enough.
It was winter now. I’d been engaged for almost six months. I wasn’t enjoying this blissful time and I wasn’t fully present. I certainly wasn’t focusing on my husband to be. This wasn’t at all that fairy tale phase I had imagined. After years of fighting these thoughts and focusing on a healthy recovery, I was back to focusing on my waistline and worrying about what everyone else thought of me. I HATED IT. I’d worked relentlessly for years and years to conquer these thoughts and here I was letting them rule me again. Now let me be VERY clear– while my mind was consumed with negative thoughts, my actions indicated differently. I DID NOT starve myself or over exercise because I cannot and WILL NOT go down that destructive path again. I also think this was where some of my anxiety was coming about—I knew what to do and how I could do it if I really wanted to lose weight, but something inside was stopping me (RE: My healthy mind!). I knew these negative thoughts were being driven by disordered beliefs, but action or no action, I wasn’t going to have a second chance to enjoy this stage in life or relive these memories. Even if I wasn’t putting my body through physical anguish, the metal anguish was just as bad.
So, what did I do?
I rolled up my sleeves (err… took them off?) and decided to show my eating disorder AND society who was boss.
Soon after purchasing my wedding gown I had and inner revelation. “Robbie proposed to ME as I am RIGHT NOW. That means he loves ME as I am NOW. Why would I change the person he CHOSE to marry, for the day he ACTUALLY marries me? THIS is the body and the mind and the HEART he fell in love with, and this is what he wants to see walk down the aisle. So, THIS was exactly what he (and I!) deserved to get.” It might seem simple in writing, but this was a big “Ah Ha” moment for me. So what did I do next? Well, I decided to show him how much I loved and appreciated him, by showing him (and me!) once and for all how much I loved and appreciated myself—something he’s always wanted to see come true. I’d put my body through hell and back, and it was time to show it some healthy attention and love. After all, what better wedding gift could I possibly give him as we started the next chapter of our lives?
So, exactly HOW was I going to show him I was learning to be proud of body? By doing the thing that scares me the most—having my photo taken. And I’m not talking about just any photos. I’m talking about BOUDOIR PHOTOS. Eek! Go big or go home, am I right?! Luckily, my incredible wedding photographer Nelly specializes in boudoir photography. All I had to do was bite the bullet and schedule a session, so I did (and I only chickened out and rescheduled my session once!). When I finally showed up to Nelly’s home studio on a beautiful summer Sunday morning, there was another woman ahead of me doing her photo shoot. As I sat in an adjacent room having my hair and makeup done, I could hear upbeat, dance-y music playing behind the studio door. I could also hear LOTS of laughing and Nelly’s friendly voice giving posing directions—“Tilt your head just a bit gorgeous. Right there, just like that. Beautiful!” Huh…it actually sounded FUN in there! The make-up artist told me there was a spunky middle-aged woman having her first boudoir shoot done. I thought that was pretty damn cool. If she was confident enough to do a shoot after 50, I certainly could do it too.
When I finally walked through the studio doors—bag of sexy little outfits and stilettos in hand—I may have had no idea what to expect, but I certainly knew I was ready to flaunt what I got! Sure, the first few photos I spent a decent amount of time quieting that negative little voice inside but with Nelly’s help, I was able to warm up to the camera, let loose, get a little risqué (err… A LOT risqué?), and channel my inner diva. And you know what? I had a FREAKING BLAST. AN ABSOLUTE BLAST! I didn’t want the session to end! I left that shoot feeling more confident and empowered than ever before. I was so damn proud of myself and couldn’t wait to see the surprise on Robbie’s face when opened his secret gift on our wedding day.
A few weeks later, I pulled into work a few minutes earlier than usual and decided to catch up on some personal emails. I logged in and there it was. A message from Nelly that my boudoir photos were ready. As I sat there alone in my car in the dark parking garage a small wave of panic began to rush over my body. A lump formed in my throat as I debated whether or not I wanted to open the images for review. “Maybe I’ll wait until I’m home…just in case I hate them” I thought to myself. I mean, I couldn’t sit here in my car fighting back tears, only to walk into work looking like a puffy-eyed hot mess at nine o’clock in the morning. But before I could talk myself out of it, I was clicking the link…
“SCREW IT ASHLEY. JUST OPEN IT!” I said. And I began to scroll. And you know the first thing that came to my mind was? “DAMN GIRL. YOU LOOK…HOT!” Um…WHAT?? I actually LIKED the way I looked? I was shocked. And you know WHY I liked the way I looked? Because for the first time EVER I was owning my body for what it was—and there is NO hiding in a boudoir shoot. (EEK! Take a peek at couple of my tamer pictures below — don’t worry, the hubby doesn’t mind. The rest, however, are for his eyes only! ).
For the first time EVER I saw my body as beautiful—muscles, curves and all. THIS was what my fiancé saw when he looked at me. This was what he loved. How could I not love this too? After all, this was ME.
Flash forward to my wedding day in my VERY fitted dress. Was I apprehensive about how I looked? Yes. Is that normal? Also yes. Did I enjoy dinner and cake and champagne all night long? Abso-FREAKING-lutely, YES. Was my dress a liiiiittle bit tighter by the end of the night? You betcha. But did I starve myself in the weeks leading up to my wedding and make myself a miserable, fainty, unhealthy human before the big day? NO WAY.
Maybe this shift in mindset had something to do with turning 30. Maybe it had to do with the fact that I already FELT healthy and amazing and fit and that’s all that really mattered, regardless of my dress size. Maybe it’s because I unleashed my inner Victoria’s Secret supermodel/inner-badass self and was feeling fly AF and owning what my momma gave me. Maybe it’s in part because I have a supportive husband who makes me feel beautiful and perfect as I am every damn day. Or maybe it’s just because I worked hard to actively see past the “bridal blinders” so to speak, and deep down I knew I was lovable and worthy just the way I was. Maybe it’s little bit of all those things. The important thing is that I was able to separate myself from who I “thought” I was supposed to be, and embrace who I really was (and am!) as a strong, sexy, powerful woman.
So to all my brides-to-be out there. It’s natural to feel stressed out about how you’re going to look on your big day. But just remember– this this one day does NOT define you—no matter WHAT media, society, or anyone else says. And if someone tries to tell you otherwise—forget em’! You don’t need that kind of negativity in your life, and certainly not at your wedding (on the plus side you could save some dolla dolla bills when you CAX their wedding meal– I mean, that *ish* is expensive !). And if you’re already in the throes of a crash diet or crazy wedding workout regimen, or if you’re unsure whether or not your negative thoughts or habits are healthy, I encourage you to stop and take a breath, and really consider these things:
1.) Are you treating your body with LOVE and RESPECT, or are you punishing your body for not looking a certain way?
2.) Are you pushing your friends, fiancé, or loved ones away?
3.) Is your new nutrition and exercise plan getting in the way of your day to day life? Is it becoming obsessive?
4.) Are you having trouble planning your wedding until you’re “happy” with how you look? Or, have you seriously considered cancelling or postponing because you’re fearful you won’t like how you body looks on the big day?
5.) Does your wedding day bring about a sense of fear, rather than excitement? Is that fear focused on you physical appearance rather than the actual commitment of marriage?
Now don’t get me wrong– as a fitness instructor as well as a Health Coach and NASM personal trainer in training, I am ALL FOR eating well, working out and finding balance in your life if you’re doing it for the right reasons– most importantly, if you’re doing it for YOU. But if you answered “YES” to any of those questions above, something needs to be addressed. Perhaps the most important question to ask yourself before you take that fitness class, talk to that toxic friend/family member, read that latest wedding diet article, or decide to eat/skip that certain meal is this– will it make you truly HAPPY? And by happy I mean, will it enhance, uphold, or negatively affect this special moment in your life? You have the choice, just like I had the choice, to stand up (or, in my case strike a pose!) and denounce these ridiculous ideals surrounding body image– whether you’re a bride, or not.
Remember– you are already perfectly imperfect just the way you are. And honestly, what’s more beautiful than that?
P.S.– As you all know, I am clearly very passionate about eating disorder recovery, positive body image, and rejecting societal stereotypes placed on women and their bodies this day in age. I am also passionate about working with people to find a healthy food and fitness balance so they can best achieve their desired health goals. If you are struggling, know someone who is struggling, need someone to talk to, or just want to expand your #girlboss network– I am always ALWAYS here. Feel free to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org or message me on Instagram @prettyfitlife.