Meet the woman who has opened Northern Ireland's first boutique for plus-size brides
East Belfast woman Rebecca Bryson is proud of her curves... and dismayed so few bridal stores here cater for larger ladies. She tells Lee Henry how being on the receiving end of cruel remarks inspired her new business venture.
From the pages of glossy bridal magazines to the mannequins of wedding gown shops, brides-to-be all have one thing in common - they are slim.
Now, though, Rebecca Bryson, who was born here but grew up in New Zealand, wants to redress the balance and has opened the first designer bridal boutique in Northern Ireland, Curvy Chic Bridal, to cater exclusively for the plus-size bride.
"The wedding industry today just can't seem to accept that some people are happy with their bodies and don't want to lose weight," she says.
Describing herself as plus-size, 30-year-old Rebecca is very much of the 'large and in charge' mould of modern women who embrace their curves, adore their busy, fulfilling lifestyles and refuse to bow to society's increasingly unrealistic size zero ideals.
A successful bridal and fashion make-up artist, she has experienced first-hand the prejudices shown to women above size 12 within the wedding industry and is determined to do all she can to smash the discriminatory fat-shaming that she sees in her everyday working life.
"As a community, we need to get rid of the idea that 'fat' is a bad thing," she says. "Why is someone's weight more important than their compassion, their talent, their kindness, their mind? Slim does not, and never will, equate to better."
Born in Northern Ireland, Rebecca relocated to Auckland in New Zealand as a young girl with her mother Lyn, father Glenn and brother Grant in search of "adventure". There she studied at the Samala Robinson Academy, graduating in fashion make-up and design.
She quickly rose through the ranks as a freelancer, designing make-up for countless brides and on various television productions with MTV Australia, Juice TV and on many short films.
She returned to Belfast in her early 20s after her grandmother passed away, and set up her own business.
"I had always been on the chubbier side," she says, "but became plus-size in the last 10 years, after struggling to adjust to a totally different lifestyle here in Northern Ireland and rebuild my entire life. Like most people, I turned to food for comfort.
"In all reality, my weight never really bothered me. I have an incredibly loving and supportive family who has always told me that I'm much more than my appearance, but when I started dating my current boyfriend Colum (25), who I would describe as slim, I suddenly realised that people looked at me differently because of my size.
"I would get comments like, 'You have such a pretty face for a plus-size girl', and 'It's so nice you've found someone', like there was something wrong with me. People frequently comment on how good-looking Colum is, like they're surprised I could be with an attractive, slim man.
"We even had a yoga instructor pull us aside after a class once to tell me that I'd done 'really well, considering'. Colum is hugely supportive of me, and never once has my weight ever been an issue for us. But it is seemingly an issue for other people."
It was only when Rebecca began to find freelance work designing make-up for brides here, and her pool of local clients began to grow, that she detected an alarming trend, specifically within the bridal wear industry - a trend that so many average-sized brides here will be only too aware of.
Despite there being a wide range of bridal wear outlets doing brisk business in towns and cities across the country, only a very few, she learned, stocked wedding dresses to fit women in the size 16-44 bracket.
"It was an issue that I didn't really know existed before I began working here," she adds. "Plus-size bridal wear was incredibly hard to come by, and very unattractive. Not only that, the stories from brides who had managed to find dresses locally - about how they were treated by some of the bridal salons - were incredibly difficult to listen to.
"It became pretty clear that the plus-size bride wasn't being catered for very well and the more I looked into, the worse it got. We discovered that 57% of the population in the UK and Ireland can be categorised as 'plus-size', but out of 4,000 odd bridal stores, only seven, by our reckoning, catered specifically to plus-size brides only, meaning that the majority of brides were being overlooked in favour of those sized 10 and 12."
The nature of her day job meant that Rebecca spent much of her working week applying make-up to brides in their homes on their wedding day. In such intimate settings, conversation naturally turned to events leading up to the big day, the stresses and strains, challenges and demands faced by brides as they prepared to walk the aisle. During such sessions, she heard countless horror stories from brides who did not fit the seemingly compulsory smaller size bill when visiting bridal stores.
"It's grim," she recalls. "It is totally mad. After working in the bridal industry for nearly 11 years, I have heard countless tales of horrendous experiences in bridal stores, from brides being told to lose weight, being called fat, that they were too big for any wedding dresses.
"One bride told me that she walked out of a bridal store after she saw that they had written 'fat, difficult' next to her name in their diary.
"Another girl visited a bridal shop with her bridesmaid - both plus-size ladies - a shop that claimed it stocked plus-size dresses.
"The first thing the owner said to them was, 'Oh, we won't have anything to fit either of you'. And then there was a good friend of mine who shared a post on social media describing how a bridal store was selling weight loss products. Absolute madness.
"But these are just some of the obstacles that brides face, not only here but in many other parts of the UK and Ireland every day. It beggars belief."
In order to get a clearer picture of the landscape - to experience for herself the culture of fat-shaming that seemingly existed within the wedding industry and find out if it really was so difficult to source a suitable dress. Rebecca sought to expand her research. Determining to be as objective as possible, she set out on a trip to find a size 24 dress that would fit her.
"I made out a list of bridal stores, called in advance and asked if they would have samples to fit me and was told 'yes'. Yet, in the event, not one single store had a garment in my size. In fact, in one store the owner simply put my arms through a smaller dress, held it against me and tried to convince me to buy it - at £1,300, and with it clearly much too small. I was so disappointed, and if I had been looking for my special dress, I would have left feeling completely devastated and just awful.
"So I started looking even further, learning about plus-size brands, and found that it was nearly impossible to buy a plus-size dress in the UK for under £1,000. Our dresses are all priced between £399-£1,300 with the most popular styles between £500 and £1,000.
"It was then that the idea for Curvy Chic Bridal came to mind. I began to search for brands in the US and mainland Europe markets, and before long started to work with some fantastic suppliers that were passionate about finding bespoke solutions for the plus-size bride. Curvy Chic Bridal became a reality."
Rebecca saw fit to test the water and launched a Facebook business page without much fanfare, "thinking we would use it to drum up a bit of interest, and within hours we had women contacting us wanting to try dresses on, which just proved to us that this huge gap in the market existed was there to be filled".
"At Curvy Chic Bridal, we believe every woman deserves a joyful and fulfilling experience when shopping for her wedding dress, but the curvier bride too often faces disheartening challenges," she says.
"A lot of plus-size girls, therefore, opt to have their dresses made, often at great expense, or buy a formal dress and just accept they have to wear a coloured dress. It shouldn't be that way.
"Then there's the ridiculous sizing of wedding dresses. A normal clothing size 14 is an 18-20 size wedding dress, which doesn't make any sense. It's just a total mess.
"So with Curvy Chic Bridal, we don't deal in sizes, we just take measurements and the bride never knows what size is being ordered. We find it's a much better approach for all concerned. We try to treat everyone like family."
Rebecca currently operates Curvy Chic Bridal from her home in east Belfast, with two rooms given over to the business and another used as a make-up studio, and is in the process of sourcing a suitable retail unit somewhere in the city centre.
"Recent clients have commented that it is a really nice, relaxed atmosphere, that they feel comfortable trying dresses on here, which is just what we want, so it's important that we find the right shop going forward," she says.
Since launching, Rebecca has sold seven dresses - "Not bad for a start-up" - and is working to expand her collection of full-figured and one-of-a-kind wedding gowns from all over the world in sizes 16-44.
It is her aim to provide a welcoming, non-judgmental environment in which plus-size women can shop, chat, find the dress of their dreams and ultimately enjoy their day out.
"There seems to be a culture of fat-shaming in the wedding industry," she claims.
"A train of thought which assumes if you're overweight in any way you will obviously want to lose weight for your wedding. I don't understand that.
"Your partner is marrying you, not you as long as you lose a few stone, yet we have bridal stores selling weight loss products.
"There is nothing being done to assist plus-size brides. In fact, they're treated more as a bit of a pain, which is just horrendous. Plus-size brides aren't afforded the same experience or treatment as slim brides.
"More often than not, they're shoved into dresses that are far too small and rushed out the door."
Thankfully there now exists here a boutique outlet for the plus-size bride, and the hope is that other bridal stores will follow suit - remove the slimming group posters, discontinue to sell dietary pills, stock a selection of dresses to suit all customers. So when it comes to her own big day, she should have plenty of choice.
"Colum and I would love to get married, possibly in 2018, but all of our savings are tied up in the business at the moment and engagement rings are pricey. But our time will come," says Rebecca.
"As it is, we're both very busy people and I'm just happy to play a part in my clients' wedding days.
"Long may that continue."
- Visit Curvy Chic's Facebook page for more details