Seven years ago, shopping for my wedding dress was a fraught experience for me. No matter how much I enjoyed poring over gorgeous gowns in magazines, I was always acutely aware that my 5’4,” size 16 frame looked nothing like the models. If someone told me I could have fun with fashion without worrying about archaic rules while wedding dress shopping, I would have never believed them. Instead, I was very serious about the process from the beginning, because it seemed like that was the only way I could ever be successful.
I started with research. As I read every post I could find and listened to friend-of-a-friend horror stories, it became abundantly clear that I wasn’t going to be getting the same experience as a straight size bride. Just learning about the idiosyncrasies of wedding gown sizing was enough to sharply lower my expectations: I discovered that bridal sizes ran two to four sizes small, and that most salons would only have samples in a bridal size 10 or below. Even salons that carried plus options stuck to that sample size for the majority of styles, with only a few plus size samples in a bridal size 20.
... it became abundantly clear that I wasn’t going to be getting the same experience as a straight size bride.
I understood that I wouldn't be stepping into a perfectly fitted dream dress at my appointments. I accepted that extensive clipping and pinning would be necessary to help me get an idea of how the dress would look on me. I tried to take all these limitations with a grain of salt and keep some enthusiasm about the process. “At least I’m in New York City,” I thought. “There have to be options here.”
From the minute I arrived at my first appointment, my little remaining hope for a happy dress shopping experience was quashed. The woman who checked us in gave me a very unsubtle look up and down and apparently decided I was worthy of only the dregs of their team, swapping out my initial consultant right in front of me (with no reason given). My new consultant was rude from the outset, sneering at my healthy budget and promptly leading my group to a windowless upstairs room, speeding past all the gorgeous flowy styles that brought me to the store in the first place.
With every step, the sinking feeling in my stomach got worse. But I was determined to make the best of it. I smiled at my friends and tried to keep things cheerful as I described the aesthetic I was looking for to my consultant.
"I absolutely love your flowy chiffon styles,” I said. “I know the collab with [designer] is out of my budget, but that’s my ideal aesthetic, to give you an idea: Just something flowy and not overly embell-"
"Those styles aren't in your budget!" she snapped at me, interrupting me mid-word.
"I know," I replied, channeling all the patience I could into my voice, "I'm just saying I love that aesthetic. You have so many beautiful styles like that in your main range, and I'm excited to try them on!" I said, trying to steer us back on track.
"Okay, I'm going to pull some styles,” she responded with a long-suffering sigh.
As she stomped away without bothering to finish my consultation, I called "just nothing shiny or taffeta please!" at her fast-disappearing back. My friends and I exchanged incredulous looks at her behavior, and my maid of honor motioned a "do you want to go?" gesture, seeing how awful the experience was making me feel.
I shook my head and sat down in the fitting room to collect myself, trying to paste a smile on before the woman came back with the dresses. I've worked retail before and know how hard it can be, so I always try to give sales associates the benefit of the doubt.
"Maybe she's just having a bad day," I thought, and decided to focus on how excited I was about trying on my first wedding gown — until the consultant shoved her way through the curtain with two shiny taffeta monstrosities.
I felt my smile becoming more of a grimace as I looked at the embodiment of my "do not want" list being thrust at me. "Oh, I'm looking for something more along the lines of your signature flowy styles," I said.
"We don't have those in your size," she huffed in response.
"Look, I've been doing this for decades. I know what I'm doing, and what works on your size. Just try this on."
The disdain in her words hit my body insecurities hard, and I felt myself caving. She yanked the dress onto my body with far more force than was necessary, sighing dramatically the whole time. When she marched me out to the pedestal and giant mirrors, my friends said nice things, but we all knew it wasn't the dress. I left empty-handed after trying another ugly style, and the consultant sneered at me as if she expected nothing less. What a start.
When we got outside, my friends started cracking jokes to cheer me up, and I decided that after starting off so badly, things could only get better.
I had no idea how wrong I was. Though none of my other consultants were as overtly aggressive, their attitudes were anything but pleasant. As I was confronted at each appointment with bridal weight loss expectations and thinly veiled disgust at my size, the body shaming started to be an expected part of the process.
Eventually, I didn’t just lose hope that I’d find my flowy dream dress; I also started shifting the blame for the horrible experiences to myself. I’d already been crash dieting and calorie restricting for months at that point to get down to a size 14, but apparently I still wasn’t thin enough to be respected as a customer ready to drop thousands of dollars on a dress.
Eventually, I didn’t just lose hope that I’d find my flowy dream dress; I also started shifting the blame for the horrible experiences to myself.
When another particularly rude attendant told me to “Just hold it up in front of you!” after bringing out a too-small dress, I did. Without realizing it, I stopped protesting as much when my clearly defined preferences were ignored, and let myself get herded into ugly stiff taffeta when all I wanted was an ethereal flowy gown.
But ethereal is a code word for thin in fashion, and almost every salon I went to informed me, in a very matter of fact way, that what I wanted wouldn’t be flattering on me. David’s Bridal was the one exception, which I really appreciated, but their plus style selection very limited back in 2012.
Much has changed since then, though, both within the industry and personally. Now, shopping is my happy place — so much so that I’ve managed to make it part of my career. As a brand consultant, I work behind the scenes to make sure plus size customers get the same type of shopping experience as their thinner counterparts; and as a plus size fashion blogger, my #InTheFittingRoom Instagram series aims to demystify the dressing room experience and help my readers find the fit and style that works for them, all while helping them navigate the mental and emotional minefield that clothing shopping can be.
Confident, body positive Sarah of 2019 would have handled almost every step of my wedding dress shopping experience differently. To start, I wouldn't have stuck around long enough to get fat-shamed in the first place: I would have been out at the first sign of budget sneering that so often preceded it.
Confident, body positive Sarah of 2019 would have handled almost every step of my wedding dress shopping experience differently.
If I made it into a dress at any of those places and they then fixed their lips to tell me I should change my body to fit a dress, or if they refused to pull a dress for me because it wouldn't "work" on my body type, I would have called them out on their discriminatory behavior (not to mention atrocious customer service).
I certainly wouldn't let myself be pressured into dresses I hated just because they fit. But having the self-assurance to stand up for myself in the face of body shaming is not something that happened overnight.
This happier version of me took a lot of emotional work and critical thinking to get to, and I am still a work in progress, but I can honestly say that every bit of effort has been worth it. If you are feeling apprehensive about wedding dress shopping, it is definitely time to start on your own journey towards body positivity and self-love (no matter your size). And luckily, there are some concrete steps that you can take to get moving.
Look At Where You’re Getting Your Wedding Inspiration From With A Critical Eye
Are the brides and couples shown diverse? Are people of different sizes and shapes represented equally (or at all)? If the answer is no, it is time to change what media you are consuming. This goes beyond wedding content too — fill your feed with gorgeous women of all shapes and sizes and let yourself see the beauty in bodies you don’t usually see represented. Following hashtags like #PlusSizeBlogger or #PlusSizeBride may be a good start.
Vote With Your Money (And Your Voice)
In any other area of fashion, spending thousands of dollars on one dress is squarely within the luxury market, one known for its solicitous and attentive customer service. If you find yourself getting body shamed at a bridal salon, don’t internalize their rudeness. Instead, pull a Vivienne from Pretty Woman (“Big mistake. Huge!”) and take your coin elsewhere. If you are up for it, call out the bridal salons directly. I recommend doing it on social, as collective pressure is more likely to achieve results. I created the #PlusSizePlease movement five years ago for moments just like this as a way for me (and, now, for other plus size people, too) to call brands out when they needed to expand their size range.
Be Conscious & Critical Of The Weight Loss Pressure That Surrounds Weddings
Each time you see or hear something promoting pre-wedding weight loss, whether it is in an ad, at the bridal salon, or from a family member, ask yourself who is benefiting from that pressure. (Hint: The answer is almost never you.) There are entire industries set up around exploiting women’s insecurities about their “big day,” and those toxic messages can (and do) seep into our brains subconsciously. If it’s a loved one who is chiming in, try to remember that they’ve likely internalized this type of messaging too, and gently remind them that you got engaged in this body, and you don’t need or want to change it to get married.
This may seem like a lot of extra mental work during an already stressful time, but trust me, it’s worth it. When I finally found a salon that actually listened (shoutout to RK Bridal in New York City) and didn’t try to steer me to a style “better suited to [my] frame,” I found the flowy dream dress I had all but given up on.
Fortunately, there more gorgeous plus size options available now than ever, so never feel like you have to settle for being treated like a second class customer. As I tell my consulting clients, companies that continue to ignore the most populous market do so at their own peril. If you find yourself being treated poorly, don’t hesitate to leave and take your money to a company that actually values you.