It’s been said that expectation is the root of all misery. We all have certain hopes of how our lives will play out as the years pass. For women, we’re fed the idea that our wedding day is the one day that all our romantic dreams come true. But, if a wedding is only one day in a string of several thousand within our lifetime, why do we have to put so much pressure on it being the “happiest day” of our lives? Because of this expectation that society has placed upon us all, we’re also likely to throw tons of cash towards the tiny details that make this one day truly special. One of these aspects is the wedding dress. It’s basically a pretty costume made from fabric and thread, which is weaved together, then marked up so incredibly high that some people spend their life savings just to wear it for a few hours as they play the role of blushing bride. Apparently, I never got this memo from the women in my life about how insanely expensive and stressful finding a dress would be. Or that if you’re not willing to fork over at least a thousand dollars, you’ll be treated like shit and kicked out of one of the most recognizable wedding dress retailers known around the country.

At 30 years old, I’d found the person that I knew was meant to be my husband. I’d always wanted, more than anything in my life, to find true love. A man who would love me unconditionally and with whom life was better with than without. As I grew up, my possible true loves ranged from members of 90’s boybands to handsome male actors and eventually real men that I knew and crushed on. I felt like I’d waited so long for him to show up that once he did, I could hardly imagine him being anyone else. We were so in love within a year of dating that we felt like we had been married for years. We considered running off to the courthouse but were afraid that my mother would most likely die of a heart attack if her only daughter had a shotgun wedding. After we were officially engaged in September, we decided to set a date for late October—of the same year. So we had one month to plan amongst the sea of rumors of pregnancy and whatever other weird theories as to our rushing to the altar. It was unusual, societally, but we didn’t care because we were ready to start our marriage. Plus, it was the middle of the 2020 COVID pandemic, which became the perfect excuse as to why we wouldn’t be having a huge wedding along with not inviting more than 20 people. We found the picture-perfect location that was filled with gorgeous gardens and that had an unbeatable price due to the lack of weddings. My mother was upset at this plan, mainly because it wasn’t what she had pictured. Like so many other women, she was trapped by this notion that all girls want a huge princess wedding and that her role as my mother required her to provide me with such a lavish wedding. We argued, gave each other the silent treatment, threatened to dissolve our relationship as mother and daughter, then eventually made amends as she came to what she called “acceptance” of my dainty little wedding. Everything was in place: sandwich platters from Publix, minimal decorations, and the music which would play softly on my stereo system via my handpicked Spotify playlist titled “Chuck and Beth’s Wedding.”

The one thing that was not set in stone was the dress. I’d no idea of where I would find a dress that was simple, comfortable, and had a decent price tag. So, like so many women before me, I set off on my wedding dress hunt in all the usual places. I scoped out every department store, every online site that advertised affordable bridal dresses (which aren’t many), and made an appointment for an early morning dress consultation with a very well-known dress company that promises you’ll fall in love with your dress. Let’s call them “Daniel’s Nuptials.” It’s a company that we’ve all heard of, whether it’s a friend who found their senior prom dress at or maybe your aunt found her wedding dress 15 years ago. I went in with low expectations, lower than low. And holy shit, somehow, I left that place with a lower opinion. Upon check in that morning, I was only allowed one person to accompany me, so my mother came along. We were still on rocky ground, but I tried to push past my resentment towards her at that moment so I could focus on tackling this dress finally. The store was absolutely packed with women of all ages, sizes, and backgrounds.

The one key trait that we all seemed to have: being lower-to-middle class. No one that shops at this store is wealthy. If you have money, you can go to specialty bridal boutiques where you don’t have to comb through racks of dresses in hopes of finding something special; it’s designed just for you. Before your appointment, you’re supposed to fill out this questionnaire online, which asks basic questions like “what kind of style do you prefer?” or “price range?” When I approached the hostess stand (which I found super weird that a bridal shop has this, as if it’s like an IHOP), the girl at the stand asked my name, typed it into her computer, and told me it would be a few minutes of waiting. She handed me a goodie bag full of advertisements and gave me a large circular sticker that had my name and my wedding date written in bold lettering. I slapped the sticker on my shirt and felt like I was being forced to attend a pyramid scheme seminar disguised as “the ultimate bridal experience.” Strangely, I watched as girl after girl, most of whom came in after me and didn’t have an appointment scheduled, were quickly placed with their consultant. I felt out of place within this sea of women as they hopped into their dresses, stood before their mirror, and shed tears of joy with their given salesgirl. There were many huge waving red flags that tried to warn me before I was handed off for service.

After a while of bride watching, I was introduced to my consultant, Debbie. From the moment I saw her lifeless eyes before her facemask, I knew this girl absolutely hated her job. She quickly and unenthusiastically showed me to a dressing room surrounded by mirrors and other women who were trying on dresses. The girl to my right had at least five different women with her, along with two children. My mother wanted me to invite my female cousins along to this dress fitting but didn’t due to the “one guest only” rule. She looked at me in disbelief before asking Debbie, “I thought we were only allowed one guest?” as she gestured to the hoard of women beside our room. Debbie mumbled something incoherent before asking me what kind of dress I wanted.

“Well, definitely something comfortable,” I began. “Can we go ahead and look through the racks over there?”

“Oh, no,” Debbie said. “Due to COVID, only I can grab the dresses for you.”

I felt reluctant but agreed to the rule as Debbie took off in search of dresses for me. I stood outside my dressing room with my mother as we watched the women around us standing in front of their mirror, gushing over how beautiful their dress was. The large group beside us were taking all kinds of photos and at one point the grandmother made a heartfelt speech about having happiness in marriage, which made them all tear up. Honestly, this was the kind of scene I wanted to avoid with my mother and a moment that I felt was a bit overdramatic. I just wanted a nice dress that I would look good in for the three hours I would be wearing it before taking it off and storing it in my closet forever.

Debbie returned with three dresses, and much like Goldilocks and her bowls of porridge, none of them were just right. Debbie had decided to disregard my size 14 and brought me three dresses that were all at least size 22 and up. All three dresses were sagging off my chest so much that I felt like I was wearing an ivory muumuu. I gave all three the benefit of the doubt and tried each one on, but not one was remotely wearable. The worst part was all three dresses were at least $600, if not more. When I finally came out of the dressing room, I asked Debbie for dresses that were closer to my size. Debbie sighed loudly, rolled her lifeless eyes, and said, “Those are all the dresses that I could find in your price range. If you want something else, we will have to go up in price and I don’t have time to do this right now. You’ll have to come back another day.”

Before I’d time to contemplate the many ways in which Debbie just insulted me, out came the general manager from the back room and who walked right up to us like a teacher about to intervene during a possible fistfight. This type of situation probably happens quite frequently at this store. “Hi!” she said with a forced phony enthusiasm. “You’re so pretty!” If I weren’t wearing my mask, it would’ve been obvious from my mouth hanging open how absolutely batshit insane this whole place was. “Thank you,” I said, and before I’d a millisecond to complain, the manager started asking all kinds of random questions like Where are you from? How long have you lived here? Is this your mom? Do you have any pets? This was an obvious scare tactic to not only get me to shut up before I had a chance to burst out with anger, but also as a cooling act to get us out of the store without me causing a scene around the customers willing to pay almost a thousand dollars or more for their wedding dress. I was in a state of shock because, though I had a volcanic eruption of anger inside me about to burst, I simply answered her questions.

“We’re from Florida…we just moved to Alabama last year…yes, I know we don’t look alike, I look more like my dad…I have a cat and two dogs…” I said.

“Well, that’s so wonderful! So, when can we get you back in here for another fitting? Hmm? How about Thursday night?”

The good girl inside of me wanted to just give her an answer and comply with this sales tactic, as usual. I never want to seem rude, so I tend to just go with the flow of most conflicts. I realized at that moment, standing in a hallway connected to many dressing rooms filled with prying eyes, that I didn’t owe this woman anymore of my time. I didn’t need to play this game anymore, as it didn’t help with my search for a wedding dress that was “just right” for me. I shook my head back and forth and closed my eyes out of frustration. “I don’t think we will be coming back here,” I said, as I handed the manager my goodie bag, pulled off my name tag sticker, and began to walk towards the store exit. No one tried to stop us or plead with us to let them make the situation right. They wanted us to get out; that much was clear. My mom followed me, awkwardly, as I pushed open the glass doors to the outside world once more.

As we walked towards the parking lot, there was an older woman standing in front of a black trash can with rock filled cigarette tray on top. She was smoking a cigarette, rubbing her face with her free hand, and looked over at us. We all had the same look of defeat, as if we had just left a battlefield.

“Did they tell you to come back, too? They just did the same thing to my granddaughter,” she said.

“I don’t understand why they did that,” my mom said. “We had an appointment and everything…”

The old woman didn’t need to say aloud the truth, for deep down we all knew the reason we were booted from the store. It’s hard to admit that sometimes in life, you’re judged and tossed to the side because you are not seen as valuable to someone else’s needs. Society tells us that all these material things, like having the most gorgeous wedding dress, means that you’re worthy of happiness. Stores like Daniel’s Nuptials prey upon women’s desperation to fulfill the fantasy of the perfect wedding day. If you’re not able to be preyed upon because of poverty or just outright refuse to partake in the sacrifice, they kick you to the curb in favor of someone to who is willing. I felt ashamed, punished for something out of my control, and empathy for all the women inside as they chose a dress and handed over their probably already maxed-out credit cards. Or the mothers or grandmothers of the brides who probably spent their entire savings to give their girl a day of pure happiness amongst the other hard days in life.

“If I give you the money, do you want to go back and get a dress? I’m already strapped for cash, but I can gather up some more someway,” my mother said as we walked towards her car. I shook my head and said, “No, I didn’t want any of those dresses. Let’s just keep looking.” I can’t deny that there were some gorgeous dresses on display—some beckoned me to try them on with promises of extravagance—but absolutely none of those were anywhere close to my budget. One dress had a price tag of over $2,000, which was above the entire cost of my wedding.

Shortly after this incident, I found the dress that made me feel special and was within my budget. My wedding was everything I wanted it to be, and it certainly was one of the happiest days in my life. But it wasn’t because of the dress, decorations, or the beautiful gardens that surrounded us. I finally was able to marry the love of my life, which we tend to forget should be the main reason for our happiness on our wedding day. Every day, I drive past Daniel’s Nuptials on my way home from work, feeling tempted to stick my middle finger out and blast my horn like a maniac with road rage. Instead, I take in a deep breath slowly and make a small wish for all the women who will ultimately make their way inside to this building. All of them in search of their dress, all hoping to have a picture-perfect wedding. And all of them, willing to sacrifice a huge chunk of income just to achieve the romantic bliss that is fed to us all by society. I wish them luck in their dress search, but mostly I wish them strength and clarity to survive that bridal store escape room.