What message does Prom send to our girls?

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CNN) -- Spring may be graduation season, but the most coveted rite of passage for many teenage girls is the prom.
From the latest craze of "promposals" to the minute-by-minute social media broadcast of it all, the rituals of prom form a throwback cultural primer called "How to be a young woman." Teen girls are competing relentlessly to be queen.
The queens of prom are the conventionally beautiful, the wealthy and the heterosexual -- always passively waiting to be asked.
Isn't prom just a fun dance that hardworking students deserve? Sure, but it's also an event where girls internalize damaging cultural messages. Those who are exalted on this "once in a lifetime" night offer an object lesson in how modern girls are expected to look and act.
Prom is a cultural report card of sorts on how well, or not, young women are doing.
Here's what a bright 17-year-old girl learns as her lace gown drags behind her into the school gymnasium:
She learns that she must have money to attend the prom
Prom was modeled after the debutante ball of the old days, where elite girls formally announced they were ready to date, while a hand-picked bevy of suitors watched. Today, prom is still a rich girl's party.
In 2013, prom spending will rise on the shoulders of a more robust economy. Families who plan to spend money on the big night are expected to drop an average of $1,139. All that cash might be good for business, but it disadvantages the poor and working class girls who can't keep up. Meanwhile, boys can get away with renting a tux for less than $100.
She learns that conventional beauty is valued above all else
Girls will spend lavishly on expensive dresses and shoes, along with professional tanning, hair and makeup. The final look is a far cry from Molly Ringwald's original, homespun vibe in the '80s teen classic "Pretty in Pink."
Instead, girls are angling for the Hollywood red carpet look. Oscar gown knockoffs, such as a copy of Jennifer Lawrence's pink Dior dress, are among the most sought after this season.
Prom drops girls squarely into the beauty spending pipeline. It prepares them to shell out a disproportionate amount of money on their appearance as adult women, when they will spend $7 billion annually on makeup alone.
She learns that the most valued girls must wait to be asked
Asking season can begin during the winter, consigning girls looking for a date to months of anxious waiting. Nor is it enough just to be invited; now, the truly successful prom girls get elaborate public promposals, with suitors spelling out "Prom?" in cupcakes or smoke, as was the case with the boy who hired a skywriter.
By contrast, the brave girls who do the inviting often endure a scrim of embarrassment for breaking the unwritten rules. The message?
Assertiveness makes you less attractive, a lesson girls are likely to draw on as women, when they avoid asking for raises and are seen as less likeable when they do.
She learns to broadcast every minute of it to get 'likes'
Prom culture is now painstakingly documented on sites such as Instagram and Facebook, exacerbating the angst of the uninvited.
The near constant posting of photos -- of having one's hair done, doing makeup, riding in the limo -- becomes a strategic social press conference, announcing to anyone with a social media account that you are playing the game. The online photo albums are anxiously monitored as barometers of popularity, telling girls who is "in" and "out," as many girls learn to equate their worth with the number of "likes" each photo receives.
The underside of this constant self-promotion is comparing oneself endlessly to others. The prom beauty contest in girlhood is a final dress rehearsal for modern womanhood when, in one study, 80% of women said they competed with peers over appearance.
She learns that straight is better
Who you bring to the prom is under as much scrutiny as the hem of your dress.
In all but the most progressive communities, prom glorifies heterosexuality, leaving gay youths facing disapproval at best, outright rejection at worst.
In its 2011 School Climate report, the Gay Lesbian and Straight Education Network found that same-sex couples were frequently not allowed to attend school dances together or were penalized for doing so, such as being ineligible for "couple discounts" on tickets.
The good news is that the rules of prom are starting to change.
Girls are pushing back against the pressure to wait for an invitation and are asking boys first. Lindsay, 17, a senior from San Antonio, engineered her own promposal with a poem, a special T-shirt and poster.
Meanwhile, same-sex couples are growing more visible. Dates are being replaced by whole groups of friends attending together. This spring, girls in Georgia used social media to end their town's racially segregated proms with national support.
When I went to prom in the early 1990s, I seesawed between my wish to get asked by the right guy and ride in the cool kids' limousine with the burgeoning realization that I was gay. I had a fun night, but I was far from my authentic, assertive self that night. Prom felt mostly like a job I had to do to maintain my position in the social hierarchy.
Three decades after Title IX, our culture has yet to decide how powerful it wants its girls to be. As we figure out the answer, prom becomes an even more important cultural touchstone for who we want our girls to become.


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Marla - posted on 07/26/2013




both of my daughters refused to go to prom!! they thought is was too hyped up ,too expensive and too snooty,instead of spending money on a dress they would wear once,my girls opted to spend money on classic pieces of clothing they could wear for years. Prom nowadays has turned almost like a wedding, Hotel rooms are rented-girls are expected to sleep with their dates,Im glad my girls used common sense!

Jodi - posted on 05/23/2013




At our school, the Year 10 students spend the year fundraising so that (1) there are enough funds to cover a fair cost of the tickets, (2) enough money to cover the cost of the tickets for those whose parents can't afford to purchase them and (3) cover the cost of being able to purchase some dresses for the girls (or organise suits for the boys) who would otherwise not attend.

The school is in a low socioeconomic area, so it isn't uncommon that students could otherwise not afford to go.

At the end of the day, they all attend, they all have a great time, and they all look fantastically grown up.

So I guess it depends on how the "prom" (we call it a school formal here) is promoted......

No-one would blink an eye at our school over the gay thing. All of the year group are welcome, and no-one gives a shit who is dating who.

♫ Shawnn ♪♫♫ - posted on 05/23/2013




I agree with Cecilia: Prom teaches our girls what we allow it to teach.

One young lady couldn't afford an expensive dress this year, so we (the thriftier parents) helped her find one that she could borrow through a program that we have in our area that's designed for just this type of thing: So that the "have nots" (I SO Hate that term) have the same equal chance to have the "nice" things.

But also, we're in a more rural area here so we don't see the spendy dresses, the thousands dropped on limos, etc, the 3 day preparation that some prima donnas seem to think is necessary, and does create a glaring difference between the over privileged and under.

But, bottom line, if you raise your daughters to see their self worth, and their value as a person, they'll see prom as a silly party that really doesn't mean much in the scope of their lives. Granted, that may be easier in my setting where the "bright lights big city" scene isn't so prevalent, but...

And I have long wondered about the gay thing...when I was in school (granted dinos did walk the earth) we did like Cecilia's groups did...we just bought the tickets, and showed up, 2 girls, 2 guys...it didn't matter.

Cecilia - posted on 05/23/2013




I think the message sent depends on the message the parent has raised them with. Will you allow them to spend $900 of your money on a dress? If you're willing to spend it i'm sure they will be willing to spend it. Did you raise the type of person who is even caring about being prom queen? Not everyone wants that or even thinks much about it. I know personally I can't tell you who won or was even nominated for prom queen my year. I didn't know those group of girls. As far as those girls who thinks they deserve some award for being beautiful, their feelings might get hurt. It might be good for them.

As far as the gay thing, I guess that depends on where you live. My high school allowed anyone to buy a set of tickets. They were only sold as sets so a single person either has to find a friend to go or just suck up the price of the 2nd ticket. Many people went with same sex friends to simply just go. We had 4 sets of tickets for us girls to go together. We got there by car not limo. We had okay dresses but nothing outrageous.

My oldest daughter is going to high school soon and she has already asked me if I will make her prom gown. I told her I will try. I have yet to make anything that labor intensive yet. My dress making is typically summer dresses you can throw together in a few hours and a few yards of fabric.

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