Alison was the third bride-to-be I had met at Curves & Couture, and the story of how she was treated prior to arriving at Jo and Alison’s boutique will undoubtedly stay with me forever. The way Alison was treated whilst shopping on the high street was particularly disgraceful, and it highlights the degree of ignorance that bigger brides routinely encounter.
Alison is forty-six years old, and was a bus driver before she became unwell some years ago. She met fiancé Mike when they arranged to go on a blind date together in 2014, and they will be getting married later this year. Complications following surgery mean that Alison now lives with a stoma bag. This simply means that an opening was surgically created in Alison’s abdomen to divert the flow of faeces or urine out of her body and into a purpose-built pouch, or stoma bag, that sits outside her body. It is a very common procedure, and modern medical advancements mean that stoma bags can be easily concealed under clothing. Alison’s weight and her stoma bag may be parts of who she is, but they should not be used to define her. They should not have detracted from the fact that she was a bride-to-be searching for her wedding dress – an activity that should be a positive, exciting experience. Nevertheless, one high street store made sure that this was not the case at all.
Alison plucked up the courage to go into a well-known bridal store on the high street with her bridesmaid. The retailer’s website boasted that they had “hundreds of gowns to choose from” in store. But there was in fact very little for Alison, a size 22/24, to try on at all. And by very little, I mean two dresses. And by two dresses, I really mean one dress, as the other gown Alison had no choice but to squeeze herself into. “There was one dress I really liked,” Alison recounted to me “and I managed to squeeze into it, I just needed a bigger size. But when I asked for help, the girl just said ‘Oh we don’t do that dress anymore’. She wouldn’t even ring around to other stores to enquire for me”.
The biggest humiliation was yet to come. The sales assistants’ attitudes towards Alison’s stoma made her feel embarrassed and extremely unwelcome. “The girls there were quite young and didn’t seem to understand what a stoma bag was” Alison explained. They acted like her stoma was unhygienic, like it could quite literally explode at any minute, and were openly reluctant to help her try on the two dresses she managed to find. Maturity and subtly were clearly not these girls’ strong points. But hey, at least they allowed her to enter their store, right? Another retailer that Alison rang before visiting turned her away because of her size and her stoma. Alison told me they seemed to think that the stoma had the potential to soil the dresses, which is completely ludicrous and does nothing but reinforce the stigma surrounding those with stomas. “The amount of women with a stoma who are fearful of trying on wedding dresses is ridiculous” said Alison. “But having a stoma doesn’t mean you are different to any other bride-to-be”
Throughout the appointment at this store, Alison was made to feel more like a burden than a bride. “They were just tutting and sighing the whole way through. There was no buzz, no excitement, no thrill, not like with Jo and Alison”. After a friend recommended paying a visit paying a visit to Curves & Couture Bridal Boutique, Alison bravely gave wedding dress shopping another chance. This was the best thing she could have done. Thanks to Jo and Alison, the Fairy Fatmothers of Essex, she ultimately found the perfect dress. When I asked Alison to describe her gown, she gleamed. “It’s the dream dress that any bride would want, and I’ve got it!”. This time around, Alison could try on multiple dresses without feeling judged for her weight or her stoma. Jo and Alison are in no way judgemental of any of their curvy brides – they say they have seen it all before. “We’re like midwives, just less messy” they joke.
The day I spent getting to know Alison was invaluable. I was only just beginning to fully comprehend the challenges faced by the plus size community, and I had not expected to learn so much about brides with stomas as well. What is becoming clear to me is that at Curves & Couture plus-size women are considered beautiful, not burdensome.