As a first-generation Indian American, I grew up watching Bollywood rom-coms like “Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge” and “Kuch Kuch Hota Hai,” which inevitably ended in a grand wedding scene. The weddings in the movies were bold, elaborate affairs, and I pined for the intricate dance numbers and the colorful decor. But most importantly, I wanted the perfect wedding sari. I wanted the heavily embroidered and bedecked lehenga that would make me feel empowered, confident and regal the minute I put it on. When I imagined my wedding day, it was always a flurry of deep reds, royal golds and outfit changes. More than anything, I wanted to be the bride I saw onscreen — in clothes that embodied the pride I feel about my life and culture.
One month after getting engaged in May 2018, I started searching for my bridal wear. I thought wedding shopping would be one of the few fun aspects of planning. I would walk into a boutique, know exactly what I wanted and have this moment I could look back on fondly — one where my mom and I looked at my reflection and we just knew that was the moment I became a bride. Researching places that sold Indian wedding clothes, my maid-of-honor SriVani and I found several private home boutiques in San Jose. We called, emailed and told owners my size — which is, depending on the retailer, a 16 or 18. I was so excited to try things on.
I’ll always remember the day we made the drive from San Francisco to a large house in the South Bay. The basement showroom was a sea of yellows, greens, sequins and embroidery. Brides who fit the thin Bollywood stereotype pulled out heavily embroidered lehengas, wide palazzo pant mehendi outfits and rhinestone-bedazzled gowns to try on in the fitting rooms. They came out to show their moms. They put on jewelry to visualize the finished look. They twirled and walked in heels to try to get a sense of how they’d feel on their wedding day. But every beautiful piece I pulled out was so small, it wouldn’t even fit medium-size Sri.
I was told to hold the outfit up from the hanger, look in the mirror and picture how it would fit without being able to try it on. From rack to rack, house to house, it was the same story. There was no twirling skirt for me. I was given lookbooks, and told to make selections from catalog pages of hyper-skinny models showing off clothes that I’d pay at least $500 for, and not have any idea if the shape would fit me.
Over the course of 13 months, I visited nearly 100 stores. I traveled from San Francisco to San Jose, Fremont to Berkeley, to Los Angeles and D.C., to New Delhi and to Nagercoil, India. With every Indian boutique I entered, I was constantly reminded that I shouldn’t be a bride at my size.
So I tried a different route: On the internet, I spent weeks browsing online boutiques that catered to plus-size women, as well as “straight-size” retailers that said they could accommodate me but would have to charge me more. I eventually settled on a New York company that did everything custom, from helping me create the design to dyeing the fabric. I spent hours on the phone with designers, expressing the difficulties I’d had as a plus-size bride and describing the silhouettes I wanted, and they reassured me that they understood. I found a tailor in Oakland to measure me, sent hundreds of emails back and forth. It was an eight-month process. I paid $1,320 to get outfits for my mehendi (pre-wedding ceremony), sangeet (pre-wedding party) and ceremony.
But when they finally came, the clothes looked nothing like what I was promised. Instead of a flattering A-line, the skirts fell flat and made me look wider than I was. The blouse wouldn’t go past my shoulders, even after giving measurements three times. With less than two months before my wedding, it was time for a full-on panic.
Let’s back up: Indian weddings are a big business. In India, the middle class — i.e., people who spend money on weddings — is growing. Meanwhile, diaspora kids like me are taking inspiration from celeb weddings like Deepika Padukone and Priyanka Chopra. It’s a $50 billion industry. And it’s one that’s ignoring a lot of people.
“As soon as I walked into a shop and said it was for a wedding, they were like ‘Really? A fat bride?’” says Chetana Guliani, who is South Asian American, and has been a San Francisco resident for three years. “Stores just carry sample sizes,” she says. “You’d walk in after seeing these designs on Instagram, and they say ‘Oh, we don’t have that for you.’ You just have to stick your arms through this rayon material that constricts your circulation because it’s too tight, and then catch the salespeople smirking or laughing."
Then there are “normal-size” women like Niki Sheth, who is a U.S. size 6/8. “It actually felt like I was plus-size between being petite and having a large chest, and then the unrealistic expectations set by designers and Bollywood,” Sheth said. “All my outfits had to be made from scratch or altered significantly because I didn’t fit into any of the store samples, even at size 6.”
I want to be clear: As a curly-haired, dark-skinned, size 16/18 Indian woman, I love every inch of me. But the Indian wedding industry wants to put me on a diet. Designers and retailers seem stuck in a delusion that the average woman is a size 2 without breasts, hips or a butt. It’s about time the industry got a wake-up call.
Unlike a plus-size Indian bride, a woman planning a Western, white-dress wedding might have more options than a size 2. The plus-size clothing industry in the U.S. is a $21 billion industry. More than half of women in America wear a size 14 or larger, according to a 2018 CNN business report. There are white-dress boutiques dedicated specifically to sizes larger than 12, and designers like Alexandra Grecco have begun carrying sizes from 00 to 20 with custom options.
And while there’s clearly still a way to go, the conversation around body diversity in the U.S. is finally starting to catch up as well: Terms like body positivity have joined the vernacular, and pop stars like Lizzo advocate for acceptance of all sizes. This leaves Indian American women in a weird middle space, where our Western “I deserve” attitude clashes with an Indian attitude that every woman should be counting calories.
“Websites have started to carry sizes that go up to 6X, but the assumption is that we want to hide our bodies, wear loose clothing, dark colors,” says San Francisco resident Guliani, of her experiences shopping for Indian bridal wear. “We were spending all this money to find the perfect venue, (but) I realized I couldn’t feel my best with such a small number of clothes to choose from. Your wedding is a time where you’re supposed to feel your best, and I’m left out. It made me feel like an outsider.”
Guliani adds that fat people (a term she says she owns because it’s factual and not an insult) are constantly straddling a line between being hyper-visible and invisible in both public and private spaces. “People see us: They see our thighs spreading over to the next seat on BART or Muni, they see us looking at shelves in grocery stores, they see us on sidewalks. But they brush past us, push us as if we don't deserve to take up the space that we do.”
In the end, 40 days before my wedding, I did eventually find outfits from someone who understood what I wanted. But my experiences left me feeling mistrustful, to say the least. Then there’s the financial aspect: all told, I spent more than $5,500 on flights, transportation and hotel costs just to find shops that would make things for me that would fit and be flattering. That was before buying the outfits themselves.
So consider this an open letter to the industry: Instead of slapping me in a shapeless auntie saree that hides my figure and makes me feel like I’m wearing a scarlet-F potato sack; instead of designers telling plus-size people to go on a diet and come back later; instead of following me into the dressing room to make sure I don’t rip the clothes; instead of trying to put a blouse on me when I’m saying it won’t fit; instead of commenting on the size of my breasts; make it easy for me to spend my money on something I’ll love. It really isn’t that hard.
At the end of the day, it’s about my self-worth. To borrow from Guliani, I will continue to take up space. I will own the way I look, and I will not pay 15% more for “extra fabric costs.” (This was a phrase that I heard constantly from the bridal boutiques in Artesia, Los Angeles County, to nearly every full-custom wedding boutique in Delhi. Fabric doesn’t cost 15% more on top of a gown you’re already paying a minimum of $800 for. That culture of up-charging women needs to stop.)
I will not let the defining memory of my wedding planning be shopping in Delhi, where I visited more than 75 shops. In a city of 18.9 million people, I found only one plus-size store, where a size 12 was a 3XL. I walked in excited to find something I could actually wear, only to find a middle-aged man looking me up and down and saying all variations of “not possible.” I ended up silently letting hot tears fall into my dupatta in the dressing room because, according to them, I’m an XXXXXXXL. No woman should be made to feel that way. No industry should belittle a person’s value based on the number of inches on his or her waist.
At this point, I know I’ll look beautiful on my wedding day, but I don’t know if I’ll feel it. The Indian fashion industry robbed me of the moment I longed for — to feel like a Bollywood leading lady. I hope the industry wakes up soon. In the meantime, I hope this piece makes women like me feel less alone. For those of you who can relate: Check out companies like Fremont-based The Culture Room, where I got one of my outfits; the online retailer Curve Cult; or the size-inclusive WellGroomed Design in Fremont. Businesses like theirs should become more mainstream and celebrated, and less difficult to find.
In the end, women like me will choose where to put our money, and size-inclusive companies deserve to be raking in the currency — because we all deserve to feel like leading ladies on our wedding day.
Urmila Ramakrishnan is the San Francisco Chronicle’s features producer. Email: [email protected] Twitter: @U_Ramakrishnan Instagram: @urmilamakes