Here's Why Finding A Dream Dress Is A Nightmare For A Lot Of Plus Size Brides

Courtesy Olivia Muenter

The first time I went to try on wedding dresses, I was terrified. I arrived at the store, sat on a pink velvet couch, and immediately texted my friend, "This feels like I'm waiting to go get a pap smear." I watched other brides come and go for a few minutes, marveling at how they all seemed so calm — excited, even. Meanwhile, I felt like I was about to projectile vomit into a shelf of assorted canvas tote bags with "wifey" scrawled across the front. And then it clicked: None of those other, excited brides were over a size 8. And there I was at a size 14/16, stomach in knots, utterly convinced that I was about to face the reality that a dream wedding dress just didn't exist for people who aren't thin.

If you're not over a size 10 or 12, then you probably don't know this, but here's the truth: Plus size wedding dress shopping is a total nightmare. I've known for a while now that plus size clothing shopping isn't exactly a walk in the park, but there are certainly options — options for everything from vacations to formal events. And none of those options involved me stripping down to my Spanx-encased body and trying on gowns that don't fit with a consultant, a.k.a. complete stranger, who says not to "sell myself short" when I tell her that I won't fit into a size 10 dress. Clearly, knowing the literal measurements of my body instead of fooling myself into thinking I am smaller (because, as we all know by now, smaller is always better) somehow meant I lacked self-confidence.

And none of those options involved me stripping down to my Spanx-encased body and trying on gowns that don't fit with a consultant, a.k.a. complete stranger, who says not to "sell myself short" when I tell her that I won't fit into a size 10 dress

As someone who prides herself on being fully prepared for the absolute worst case scenario at all times, I'll be damned if I was going to be anything less than 100 percent ready for everything trying on wedding gowns could throw at me. If plus size wedding dress shopping was an icy expanse of wilderness and peril, then I was Bear Grylls. I had done research for months, so I knew to expect that even if I was a size 14 street size, I'd be a size 18 or 20 in bridal. I had called the store ahead of time, so I knew that there would be options that would fit me — though I didn't know that these options made up maybe 15% of the store's inventory. I knew that I would have to possibly try on options that weren't my dream dress, just to get a feel for things.

But I didn't know that I would walk through the store with the consultant and be completely aware of the dresses, dresses that I loved, that she was steering me away from because there was no way in hell they were fitting on my body — not with clips or extra fabric or witchcraft or anything else. And I didn't know that even though there were a few options that I was able to fit into, instead of feeling annoyed or frustrated that I couldn't try on the dresses I actually wanted to, I would leave feeling ashamed and embarrassed.

I left that first appointment, and almost immediately, every past impulse I've ever had to diet or starve myself or go run 10 miles — to punish myself for not being small enough — hit me like a truck. And then something else hit me: The realization that I had done my research, I had set my expectations low, I had gone by myself so as not to add any extra pressure, I was on the small end of plus size, and I had still felt completely defeated by the entire experience. And then I thought: If this is what the experience was like for me, what on earth is it like for other plus size brides? And then, soon after, I thought: How can it be better?

I started talking to dozens of plus size brides about their experiences with dress shopping and heard stories ranging from cringe-worthy to downright infuriating. I talked to brides who had been shamed by consultants, brides who had given up entirely on shopping in stores, and so, so many brides who left their appointments crying. But I also talked to brides who are using surprising tools to find community with other plus size or fat positive brides, and brides who had the dress shopping experience totally change how they felt about their body — for the better. I also spoke with countless brides who were willing to give advice to future plus size brides about how to make their dress shopping experience better.

"Finding the one" is a phrase thrown around loosely when people talk about trying on and choosing the perfect wedding dress — an experience often described as magical or once-in-a-lifetime. But for plus size brides, finding the perfect wedding dress can be anything but magic. In fact, it can be miserable. And having no resources to see yourself, your experience, or your feelings represented can feel even worse. This is why I wanted this package of stories to exist — to collect stories, advice, and perspective from other plus size brides and give every bride a better shot at "finding the one" in the easiest way possible. Magic and all.

And, along the way, I also ended up giving some more bridal shops a chance, letting myself experience stores from a different perspective. I stopped telling myself that my body was the problem and instead looked at stores objectively. Some I left thinking of a dozen ways that the experience could be better for plus size people, and some I left pleasantly surprised. And I also talked to people who are changing the industry positively and creating tools, dresses, and shopping experiences with all bodies in mind, reminding me that my qualms with the bridal industry weren't limited to just me.

"It's crazy to me how broken the wedding dress industry still is, and how many women feel left out of the process," Leslie Voorhees Means, founder of custom dress company Anomalie, tells Bustle. "The average bridal boutique doesn't carry the average American women's size, which is shocking. ... We've heard horror stories from many of our plus size brides about salespeople steering them away from, or in some cases not even letting them try on, fitted styles since it wouldn't be 'flattering.'"

The average bridal boutique doesn't carry the average American women's size...

While Vorhees Means mentions that she has noticed an uptick in the industry's overall size inclusivity recently, for Anomalie, which makes wedding dresses in literally any size, size inclusivity isn't just a trend — it's about actually listening to customers.

This idea of listening to customers seems simple, but it may be the key to making real change in the bridal industry. Lovely Bride, a popular, nationwide bridal shop chain, is known for carrying indie designers and having super Instagrammable in-store decor. It was when Lovely Bride's founder Lanie List started hearing feedback from plus size brides who weren't able to find their sizes at Lovely that the brand made real changes.

"Our mission at Lovely has always been to be totally inclusive," List tells Bustle. "We are the shop you come to if you don’t want to feel judged. So it was disheartening to us to have some brides shop us and not feel comfortable with the sample sizes we offered." Now, List says, depending on the store, Lovely carries 30 size-inclusive brands and offers up to 20 samples at any given store.

While only 20 samples and 30 brands isn't perfection by any means, it's progress. And List makes sure to mention that Lovely has never claimed to have as many plus size samples as plus size-specific boutiques. But the idea of listening to customer feedback and acting accordingly — which both she and Voorhees Means emphasize — is something the entire bridal industry can learn from.

And it's also a reminder of this: Every plus size bride deserves to have a positive dress shopping experience. Going to a store and being disappointed is never a sign you should change yourself, or your body, or feel like you have failed. It's a sign that the bridal industry needs to do better. My first instinct after dress shopping was to be quiet, to sit with my embarrassment about not being a smaller sample size and deal with it by making myself smaller. But who does that help? What does that change? The bridal industry doesn't deserve my silence or an easy pass if it refuses to serve me — and it doesn't deserve yours, either.