My friend Stephanie, with whom I attended high school more than 25 years ago, was unequivocally the most easygoing bride I’ve ever met, and believe me, I’ve met a few. There wasn’t an ounce of Bridezilla in her. In fact, the crazy was all mine.
Where did it come from? You may well ask. What could possibly be troubling about standing by one of my best friends on her wedding day? Apart from being almost 40, losing one of my last single friends, and the ensuing clutch of parties and other events where I would have to socialize with people I didn’t know? Apart from carrying nearly 90 extra pounds and having lost so much confidence in myself that I didn’t even have a date to bring to the wedding?
All of these were certainly elevating my anxiety level, but one factor had them all beat: the dress.
You’ve seen the pictures. That one bridesmaid—strategically positioned behind the others, or standing at the end, balancing the other five. If the dress is sleeveless, as all wedding-related dresses seem to be these days, she will be the one in a shawl with her upper arms covered, holding her bouquet in front of her more objectionable areas. She is the one you feel sorry for, because she’s the mismatched one, the one who isn’t lithe, or tall, or lovely.
She’s the fat maid. And that was me.
Stephanie, graciously, allowed us to choose our dresses—all we had to stick to was the color and the fabric. This did not come as a surprise. In addition to being an awesome, powerful woman in her own right, Stephanie is the kind of friend who can make you feel like you’re a supermodel with a genius IQ. And even if you don’t happen to possess the outer beauty that you’d like (and she definitely fell out of the supermodel with the genius IQ tree), she could make you feel as if you’re absolutely beautiful the way you are. Just being her friend endowed me with so much confidence that I kind of believed, when I picked out the dress, that I would resemble something like the pretty girl in the bridal magazine. Maybe.
This was not the first time I have encountered self-doubt in the guise of chiffon and tulle. When my sister got married in 1987, she chose six bridesmaids who were all no taller than 5’4″ and weighed no more than 110 pounds, and a bridesmaid dress that can only be described as Dynasty on steroids. A late-’80s model atrocity featuring a bouffant ballerina skirt and a plunging sweetheart neckline, a fitted waist and wide puffed sleeves right out of the Joan Collins collection.
At 17 years old, measuring in at a gawky 5’10” and well over the weight limit on bridesmaids, to say I resembled an NFL player in drag would be a kindness. What added significant insult to injury was that the dress came in a top size of 12, and in those days, I was a 14. Fully at the mercy of my mother and sister to lose at least one dress size before the wedding, I was dragged to aerobics classes three days a week, did Jane Fonda’s workout on the off days, and subsisted on a bride-imposed diet of sliced turkey, melba toast and celery.
But the Lord made my rib cage a certain size, and I ended up wearing a different dress, one that actually fit me and made the most of my height and, shall we say, delicious figure. But that didn’t matter. I was accused of sabotage, of ruining it all: the photos, the wedding—everything short of the actual marriage.
In reality, however, the photos are quite lovely. Or so my therapist has told me.
The marriage didn’t last. But the damage did.
Fast-forward 22 years and two weeks later, as I unwrapped the plastic covering the bridesmaid dress for Stephanie’s wedding, knowing that this time I’d be safe. Considering what I’d gone through back in the ’80s, I was going to outwit everyone this time—the liquid diets, the wedding workout boot camps, the entire bridal-industrial complex.
For Stephanie’s wedding, I’d ordered the dress three sizes too big. Plus, I was glowing in the knowledge that I’d shed 46 pounds since she had asked me to be in the wedding, getting ever closer to that size 14 I had once been. I could hardly wait to see what I’d look like in the slinky scarlet gown on the hanger.
I happened to be at my mother’s. So I went into my old room, wiggled out of my jeans and T-shirt, put on the gown (too big in the waist and hips! yes!), and reached around back for the zipper.
I went out into the living room. “Mom,” I asked, “can you zip this?”
She tried. Valiantly. And although the dress was roomy at the waist, and more than accountable at the hips, once the zipper got halfway up my back, my luck ran out. Try as one might, there was no way in hell this dress was getting around my chest.
Mom came around to survey me from the front. “You’re not bringing a date to this wedding, are you?” she asked, as she futzed with the pleats covering my boobs.
“Wasn’t planning to,” I mumbled.
“Good,” she said, standing back and looking at the dress from head to toe. “Because this dress really does nothing for you.”
I went back to my room and looked in the mirror. It was the first time I had seen myself in a full length gown since the 1976 Immaculate Conception School All Saints’ Day Pageant, when I had been awarded the plum role of Saint Elizabeth, the mother of John the Baptist. I’d worn an aqua-blue gown and a lace veil crowned by pink flowers. I was 6, and I’m sure I looked quite sweet and chubby and cute and holy.
This, on the other hand, was not quite the same sort of religious experience. I looked like something out of Leviticus. And not the good parts, where God comes to Sinai and the people experience divine revelation. If this vision could be described in any biblical terms, I looked like a cross between the skin diseases and the placenta and the sacrificial fat of the liver. And worst of all, the color, on pale, untanned me, could be described as “Electric Hemorrhoid.”
Leave it to me to be unable to see the porcelain complexion and still perfect skin, the not-too-shabby cleavage, or the fact that I had become somewhat lighter in the past 10 months, leaving me with a more proportioned figure and actually, not looking so bad. Instead, all I could focus on was the 16 yards of pleated chiffon covering my boobs, fourteen yards of pleated chiffon emphasizing my still-not-tiny waist and a zipper that wouldn’t close.
But that gap wasn’t even the real problem. Before I could even begin to solve the problem of yet another dress that didn’t fit, how the hell was I going to close the gap between what I really looked like and what I had learned to believe about myself all those years ago? That I was unacceptable. Hideous. The fat bridesmaid—who was now, these many years later, also an old bridesmaid.
To deal with the dress, I immediately got on Facebook and asked for help. I ended up calling a local seamstress recommended by my friend Adrienne. On the appointed day, I got in the car with my 90 yards of Electric Hemorrhoid and headed for the seamstress’ studio.
I humbly submitted to being stripped down to my skivvies, held out my arms for the tape measure (tossed around me like a lasso, may I add) and squinted my eyes shut at the reality of my un-Barbie-esque measurements. Then I put on the dress. The woman pinned and tucked, lifted and pinned again, in locations where I was not really comfortable seeing dozens of pins. I looked in the mirror and realized I’d gone from Saint Elizabeth to the martyrdom of Saint Sebastian.
At that moment, I wondered what it would be like to be a small girl, one of those women who can flit, fairy-like, through fittings, wear off-the-rack sample size clothes and never had to worry about the communal dressing room at Loehmann’s (of blessed memory).
It seemed about as bad as it could get. A flashback to those awful days in 1987 when I knew I didn’t belong among that flock of beautiful swans attending my sister. After 22 years of hating everything about myself first, so that I would get there before anyone else and save them the trip, I’d just started feeling okay about my body, like there was more that was good and beautiful about me than horrific and shameful. And now this.
The seamstress finally finished pinning, lifted the reconfigured yardage of Electric Hemorrhoid over my head, and said she’d need a few days. But in a commendably short time—in fact, less than it took for God to create the world—I picked up the dress I had once believed would transform me into a beauty. It didn’t, but it did, finally, fit me.
A week later, I stood by my friend of more than 25 years as she took her vows. Just before I walked down the aisle, Stephanie smiled proudly at me, a look that captured the years of friendship we had shared—the challenges, the joys, the sadnesses and the sweetness of this moment, as she was about to transform from bride to wife. Her smile was radiant. And I knew she didn’t see the old, fat bridesmaid. All she saw was her friend. If only, I thought, I could believe in myself as much as she believes in me.
I knew that if I had to, I would go through it all again. That I would do whatever I needed to do to honor my friend on her wedding day, even by realizing that the image in the mirror I had hated and feared might, instead, actually be the one that her eyes reflected back at me. Even, perhaps, understanding that the gift of bearing witness to this love just might help me consider learning to love myself.