I was not one of those little girls who dreamt of her wedding day. I dreamt of being a celebrity chef and restaurateur. I dreamt of cooking delicious things with brilliant people and laughing all night long. Of an apartment in New York City with windows that opened onto possibility. And sometimes, about being a famous writer.

And I also dreamt of being beautiful. When I was a kid and my mom took me to Greenwich Village, I remember watching the models on the sidewalks, their endless arms and legs, their pointy shoes and sleek jackets. I wanted to be them.

When I was starving myself during college, at my very thinnest, people told me you could be a model. But I laughed. I hated pictures! And I knew I couldn’t keep up this anorexic charade for much longer. I was hungry. I was starving. Sure enough, I gained back the weight, and fast.

I never dreamt of my wedding, but here I am, engaged, and I would like to feel beautiful on my wedding day. Not generic beautiful—Hannah beautiful. Like me, just a prettier version, the prettiest version.

My friends have opinions about wedding dresses. My coworker used to be the merchandizer for Anthropologie, one of my favorite stores, and she has a knack for making things beautiful (including herself). “Go to Saks,” she says. “Then open a store credit card and wait until they have a double points day to buy the dress. You can spend the points on earrings and shoes.”

It sounds like a smart plan to me.

“Go to Pronovias,” another coworker advises. I’ve never heard of it. Google shows me lots of lace and mile long trains.

“I’m not sure it’s me,” I tell her.

“Oh, the dresses are beautiful. You’ll look fab. Trust me.”

So I make appointments at Saks and Pronovias. I invite my mom and Ursula, who has been my best friend since college. I have decided against bridesmaids, mostly because I don’t want to subject any friends to matching dresses, but Ursula is going to be my maid of honor. Over moules frites and Prosecco, we Googled what a maid of honor is supposed to do. One of the duties: help with wedding dress. Ursula and I have spent cumulative days browsing flea markets in Berlin and night markets in Bangkok, and she’s as good and honest a shopping companion as there is. I’m relieved that she doesn’t mind joining me on this expedition.

I tell myself this is just research. An adventure. But I admit, I have a fantasy that I’ll zip up a dress and my reflection will look bridal, luminous, and gorgeous.

On my way to Saks, there is a labor rights march processing slowly down Fifth Avenue. I am late and sweaty to the dress appointment. There are swarms of brides who look like regular young women except with more makeup and more nervous smiles, surrounded by bridesmaids and mothers and posses. Ursula and my mom are happily chatting on two cushy chairs.

“Here she is! Our bride!”

Our bride! How absurd that sounds.

They have a few racks of dresses that we fondle. Skirts with mountains of poof and strapless necklines encrusted with crystals. Gowns with roses that blossom into sparkly things. Corsets that look like torture devices. Backless things and wispy bows.

I choose a few of these just for kicks. When else will I try on a dress like this?

The nice lady lays the dress on the floor, leaving a little circle for me to step into. I think, I am a lot bigger than that circle. I step in anyway. I start to tug up the dress but my circumference is considerably more than the dress’s. The lady watches me, then she starts to pull the dress up. Really tug, with all her strength. We get the dress around me, somehow. It is not a good look. Even though I am wearing my Spanx, the tight beaded fabric pushes me into a weird, lumpy formation.

And the dress doesn’t zip, not even close. She has a big bowl of clamps which she reaches into. The kind that come from Home Depot. “Turn around,” she instructs, then secures the back of the dress to the back of my bra. And there’s some sort of beige swath of fabric she attaches to my back so I don’t have to go out and show Ursula and my mom this horror show while I’m half naked. I look like a deranged cupcake.

“Huh,” Ursula says.

“I don’t think so,” my mom says.

We try another one that’s less gigantically skirted. Again, with the Herculean effort to hoist the dress up and affix it to me in a way that sort of resembles a human wearing a garment. Again, with the clamps and the back fabric. This one is marginally better, in that I look like a woman and not dessert.

But when I go out to see my people, my mom is skeptical. “It looks like your boobs have wings!”

She’s right, of course. She usually is.

There’s a woman hogging the mirror. She’s as tiny as a child and fits into the sample sizes perfectly. I overhear her people chatting as they fluff the train that runs down half of the room. She’s getting married at the Four Seasons. The anti-Hannah. This place was made for her.

That’s the end of my dress adventures at Saks, as all the rest of the dresses are sample sizes: 0, 2, which “run small” in bridal, not that I could squeeze them on even if they ran big.

“You can sort of hold it up and tell,” the sales lady says, dangling a dress in front of me in the mirror. I think: Don’t cry, don’t cry, don’t cry.

At the end of the appointment, she hands me a business card with the name of the winged breast dress scribbled on the back. It’s $7,645. I can feel bad about myself for free.

Next we walk two blocks and half an avenue to Pronovias. We wait with a herd of ladies for our appointment. We flip through the hundreds of gowns in their catalog. I like one called “Dana” and one called “Drial.” The dresses all have names that begin with “d.” Finally, someone comes to see us. She takes us up to the seventh floor.

Ursula asks if the store is all 11 floors, which it is. Eleven floors of wedding dresses!

“So, do you know what you’re looking for?”

“We liked the Drial and the Dana,” Ursula tells her, and I’m grateful she’s been taking notes.

They have a lot of lace near my chest, and then a silky fabric underneath. The lady tells us it’s called crepe, which makes me like it more. Of course I love a dress named after a pastry. There’s no privacy here, so Ursula and my mom watch me undress and step into these dresses. I am extra chatty to try to distract myself from the awkwardness. I’m grateful for my Spanx.

These dresses zip up: a miracle! But I don’t feel pretty. I don’t feel OK. Instead, I feel gut punched. My body is too big and lumpy, even with the Spanx and in the elegant dress that kind of fits.

Ursula is trying to be helpful. She snaps a bunch of phone photos. After all, I have told her this is research. When she shows me the image of me in the white dress on the screen, I lose it. I cry. I loathe the image on that phone. How could that be me? I look devastatingly wrong. I am supposed to feel dazzling! I am supposed to have a bridal moment of bliss, not a bridal meltdown.

Ursula puts her arms around me. My mom rolls her eyes.

After, we go for pink bubbly. My fiancé Tony meets us, then my mom heads home, then Ursula. “It was so painful,” I tell him. “It was disheartening. I know it’s clichéd, but I want to be a beautiful bride.”

Tony says the best things. They are so good I write them down:

1. “There are 7.5 billion people in the world and you’re the most beautiful to me.”

2. “It’s OK if you don’t see that now. We are going to be married forever and forever is a long time. I don’t mind if it takes my whole life to convince you how beautiful you are.”

This time, I cry because of his kindness. How did I get so lucky?

I have a lot of good conversations with smart friends that make me feel marginally better. Damn the wedding industrial complex. I can wear whatever I want! I can have something custom made! And who says that some dresses are wedding dresses and others are not? Just marketing, and an extra zero or two on the price tag.

“I’ll marry you in a sack,” Tony says.

I don’t think I’ll wear a sack. But then again I might.

Hannah Howard

Hannah Howard is a food writer who lives in New York City. Her memoir, Feast: True Love In and Out of the Kitchen, is coming out in 2018.