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Here comes the (dieting) bride

Why weight-loss regimens and the wedding industry are a match made in heaven

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By Beth Teitell
Globe Staff / April 28, 2011

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It would be wrong to say that Bonnie Simmons was happy about it, and yet, when her fiancé’s back injury forced the postponement of their wedding last September, she did find herself feeling just the tiniest bit relieved: She could break her diet. “I definitely started eating carbs again,’’ said Simmons, a dental administrator from Hyannis.

The good news: Her fiancé recovered, and the wedding is back on. The not-so-good news: It’s next month, and despite the bonus time, Simmons, 30, still has 10 pounds to go toward her 25-pound weight loss goal. “I should have started earlier,’’ she said.

There are no statistics on how many pounds of bridal flab are shed annually. But with more than 2 million weddings per year, according to the Centers for Disease Control, and 84 percent of brides eager to get in better shape, as reported in a 2009 Health & Fitness Study conducted by TheKnot.com and WeddingChannel.com, that’s about 1.7 million betrothed trying to slim down.

The majority of brides say they want to lose between 10 and 20 pounds, according to the study, putting the desired bridal weight loss at about 25 million pounds nationwide, give or take a few thousand pounds.

But with no less a celebrity bride than the already-slender Kate Middleton reportedly trying to shed weight on the controversial, high-protein, low-fat Dukan Diet, and spring and summer weddings looming, the weight-loss panic is on.

Brides have always wanted to look good. But with Facebook and other social media sites widely broadcasting wedding pictures, the pressure has been ramped up, said Stephanie Coontz, author of “A Strange Stirring: The Feminine Mystique and American Women at the Dawn of the 1960s’’ and director of research and public education at the Chicago-based Council on Contemporary Families. “They feel they should look their best, no matter how fleetingly.’’

Only in recent years have marketers begun targeting brides, according to Cornell University researchers. In the 1990s, “overt entrepreneurial activity promoting wedding weight loss was rare,’’ they wrote in a 2008 issue of Appetite, a scholarly journal. “Most weight-related articles in bridal magazines were about obtaining bridal wear for larger women and ordering the appropriate gown for a particular body type.’’ In other words: getting married with the body you have, not the body you want. As evidence of the new wedding-specific diet campaigns, the researchers pointed to bride-targeted exercise programs such as “FIT to be WED,’’ and books like “The Wedding Dress Diet.’’

Jeffery Sobal, a professor in the Division of Nutritional Sciences at Cornell University, pointed out that many aspects of weddings became commercialized in the 20th century. But, he wrote in an e-mail, “entrepreneurial efforts to sell bridal dieting services were uncommon until the early Twenty-first century and now have grown into an active portion of the bridal industry.’’

Mike D’Angelo, a trainer at Equinox in the Back Bay, is part of that bridal industry and sees firsthand the pressure brides feel to lose weight, particularly if they wait too long to get started. “They’re pretty much willing to do whatever it takes,’’ he said, adding that it takes about 12 weeks to tone the arms, a top area of interest. As the big day nears, he said, some brides vow to starve themselves, others double-up on their exercise routines.

Of course, nothing concentrates the mind like the specter of a wedding dress that won’t zip. The Cornell University researchers found that 14 percent of brides purposely bought a dress in a size smaller than their current body size. In Boston, veteran Newbury Street tailor Jordan Tsavalakoglou regularly sees the result of that optimism. “Often we have to put a panel in,’’ he said, to make dresses larger.

Brides staring down a deadline sometimes insist they’ll be able to lose enough weight to make the dress fit a week hence, he said, but losing five pounds in seven days can be tough, even for the highly motivated. “We try to make it work so they can be happy on their wedding day,’’ he said.

Perhaps no one is better positioned to see the weight-related wedding stress than Sarah Jenks, a New York-based bridal nutrition coach who started her business, the Breathtaking Bride, after getting engaged about 18 months ago and realizing the pressure women face the moment they get that ring on their finger.

“You have this population of women who are either losing weight for the first time in their lives, or who have been trying to lose weight their whole lives and have never been able to,’’ she said. “It’s sad. You have all these women who are not really enjoying their engagements because they were on these awful diets.’’

Energy that could be put into relationships or spirituality or the joy they have in their lives, she said, is instead focused on the bathroom scale. “All these things are so important to think about when you’re getting married, but people are missing out because they are on the treadmill the whole time.’’

But who can blame a bride-to-be? The number on the scale on a her wedding day is one of a few numbers, along with her Social Security number and loved ones’ birth dates, she’ll remember her whole life.

“I’m trying to get down to 120,’’ said Caitlin Bologna, 29, of Charlestown, “although I’ll be happy anywhere between 120 and 125.’’ Bologna, an account manager at Cisco Systems, has been working out, changed her diet, and cut back to exactly 1,560 calories per day.

“It’s not just the wedding,’’ she said. “I want to look hot on my honeymoon.’’

A recent poll of newlywed women on TheNest.com found that 51 percent of brides did not reach their goal weight, 40 percent did reach their goal weight, and 9 percent lost more than their goal weight.

Brides having trouble losing weight can console themselves with this thought. A 2009 study done by University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill researchers found a so-called marriage penalty: Married women (and men) were twice as likely to become obese over five years as those in romantic relationships who are not living together. In other words, the better a bride looks in wedding photos, the worse the comparison will be five years hence.

Beth Teitell can be reached at teitell@globe.com.

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