Read more of Slate’s “Weddings” issue.
In most ways, I did not fit the bridezilla stereotype: I did not care about the color of our tablecloths; I haphazardly filled our registry with the things my mom told me we should have (as I type this, dust collects on our Le Creuset mortar and pestle); I let my bridesmaids pick their own dresses; my on-the-cheap bachelorette party involved a stoned viewing of Clueless followed by a sleepover rather than a gaudy, overpriced, forced march through Las Vegas.
There was one area, however, in which I was a complete tyrant: my appearance on my wedding day. This was my one socially sanctioned opportunity to let my vanity run wild, and I was determined to make my body look as good as it possibly could. If you believe Rebecca Mead’s argument, in her excellent book about the wedding-industrial complex One Perfect Day, my need to look my best stemmed from a subconscious desire to create a tangible expression of my married self. Unlike our foremothers, modern women don’t experience many changes in their circumstances before and after marriage. A wedding is no longer a passage into adulthood—I got married when I was 28 and was already living with my fiancé. Mead’s theory is that I threw a ton of money at a personal trainer out of a desire to mark my transition to married life, even if that life wasn’t going to be that different day to day. Or maybe I just really, really wanted defined triceps.
Whatever the real reason behind my pre-wedding fitness regime, I was wholeheartedly committed to it. Workout regimens are now a common part of the pre-wedding rigmarole—according to a 2009 fitness survey from the wedding website theknot.com, brides spent or planned to spend an average of $300 on a weight-loss or fitness service at a spa before their weddings. That there is not one, but two reality shows about shaping up before your big day shows what a central part of the wedding ritual working out has become.
The week after I got engaged, I bought the most recent issue of New York Weddings and found a trainer who promised a two-month total body makeover. The magazine did not really explain what this conversion would involve—I imagined stepping into some fragrant Manhattan fitness studio filled with fresh flowers, doing some graceful, yogic stretches and stepping out eight weeks later with a six-pack—but I knew that I wanted to be part of it. I emailed the trainer as soon as I got to a computer.
The trainer told me to come to a gym in an unfashionable part of town for my first session. What I found when I walked into the fitness center that day—let’s call it Iron Gym—was about as far from my imaginings as possible. The floors of the bilevel open structure were made of steel. The walls were bedecked with advertisements for bodybuilding contests. The space was filled with the type of equipment I’d always been too timid to try at my local sports club. An endless supply of Lou Ferrigno lookalikes occupied each of these machines, grunting periodically. The uncha-uncha-uncha of house music pumped through wall-mounted speakers. The place smelled like jock strap with a tangy top note of metal. When I went down to the women’s locker room to change, not only was I the only person in there, but the shower curtain was held up by a bike chain.
I timidly emerged from the locker room to find my trainer. He was not as scary as the Ferrignos, but I suspect that’s only because he was wearing a polo shirt and cargo pants, which downplayed his megamuscles. He was European and retained a slight accent. He told me that before we would start training that day, he needed to weigh me and assess my body fat with a caliper. I should explain here that I wasn’t embarking on this transformation as a total sloth—I ran or attended spin class four or five times a week and my BMI was already in the low end of normal. I was already in reasonably good shape. Or so I thought.
“It’s not a complete disaster,” the trainer said after looking at the digital read-out on the caliper. “And what are your goals?” he asked. I told him I wanted to lose maybe five pounds, but mostly I just wanted to look really good in my strapless gown. “We can do,” he told me, “but you need to come three times a week, and follow the diet.” He also said that on the days that I didn’t train with him, I needed to do at least half an hour of cardio. Whoa. This was not the gentle stretching of my fitness fantasy, but I had already committed myself to idealized delts, and I wasn’t about to back out.
That day, he started me on those scary-looking machines. I followed his lead through leg extensions and lat pull-downs and the lifting of various free weights for an hour straight. As I contorted my muscles into various new positions I kept thinking: I feel really sorry for celebrities. They probably have to do this every day for the rest of their famous lives. When I limped out of Iron Gym that evening, the trainer said, “OK. So I send you the diet tonight.”
As if the workout wasn’t bad enough. My then-fiancé looked over my shoulder at the Spartan list of acceptable foods I was allowed to consume. I would come to refer to this as the “squirrel food diet,” because nuts and berries seemed to be such a crucial part of it. Otherwise, it was the standard diet that women’s magazines encourage month after month after month: Breakfast involved egg whites. Lunch and dinner were 4 ounces of fish or chicken and greens. The nuts and berries were snacks. No booze, no sugar, no fun allowed.
“This is insane,” said my fiancé. “You don’t need to lose weight.”
“It’s not about losing weight,” I told him. “We’re going to have those photos for the rest of our lives and I refuse to have dinner lady arms in them! I promise to be sane about everything else wedding-related.”
And I was, for the most part. Over the next two months, I carefully hewed to my squirrel food diet and visited Iron Gym three times a week. The place was so dank and gross that I even developed a fungus on my back that I attributed to the unwashed exercise machines. A fungus! But still, I persevered. That I was willing to keep at it made me realize that this makeover was about more than just vanity. I was getting much, much stronger. After several sessions I could lift the heavy boxes of wedding goodies that were being shipped to us on a near-daily basis without the aid of my fiancé. I could also now use all those machines I’d once found so overwhelming. I even started lifting on days off from my trainer, pushing myself to see how much I could press, like the hormonal football players I remembered competing with each other in the high-school weight room.
By the time my June wedding rolled around, my arms—and the rest of me—were as toned as they will ever be. Did I feel like a sinewy new version of my old, single self had emerged, as Rebecca Mead suggested? Had an ass-kicking butterfly taken wing from a cocoon made of nutshells and berry stems? Not really. But I didn’t feel like it had been a waste of time or money, like so many of the other products marketed to women at the moment of their greatest egotism. I now know how hard it is to maintain Michelle Obama arms—and that it’s not worth it for a regular civilian like me. And I got a taste for having the strength that comes with learning to use those medieval machines and keeping up a good fitness routine. So last week, after a year’s hiatus, I returned to Iron Gym for a few sessions. The Ferrignos barely noticed me. I was thrilled.