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 color 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 spiraled 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 L. 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 Ms. Goldberg, who has worked in private practice for the last 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 behavioral 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, though 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 behaviors hidden, eliminating any chances for the people in my life to intervene.
An Inward Pandemic
Covid made us postpone our wedding. We ended up marrying on Sept. 19, 2020, but postponed our large reception to Sept. 11, 2021, which meant more time to ensure my body was “dress ready.”
This lengthened my wedding-planning period to two and a 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 like, “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 fueled 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,” she said.
Eating disorders have become more common during the pandemic, especially among young women. The number of women under 30 with eating disorders rose 15.3 percent, according to a 2021 study published in The British Journal of Psychiatry. And since the start of the pandemic, the National Eating Disorder Association help line has reported a 107 percent jump in people seeking help.
Some probable factors in the increase in disordered eating are isolation, difficulty in coping with emotions and a desire to control something in a highly unpredictable environment.
The rise in virtual meetings may have also played a role, Ms. Clegg said, as people began looking at themselves far more often than they normally would have. “This has caused an uptick in fixation, dysregulation with anxiety and going back into dieting behaviors,” she said.
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.”
Ms. 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 percent in the first year of the pandemic alone. Ms. Goldberg believes that this growing mental health crisis is why many treatment centers 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 Mr. 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 favor 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:
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.
No one warned me that dieting would be a slippery slope. Instead, I was left with a chronic disorder I’ll have to be conscious of the rest of my life.
“It’s an individual thing of how long eating disorders last, but they can last decades and lifetimes, sadly,” Ms. Clegg said. According to a report published by Striped, a public health initiative, one death occurs every 52 minutes as a direct result of an eating disorder in the U.S., making them among the deadliest psychiatric illnesses.
Full recovery is also possible. Ms. Clegg says she has been recovered for more than 20 years. And through patience and grace, I, too, can see a way out.
Kelsey Herbers is a freelance writer and mental health advocate based in Charleston, S.C.