It’s prom season. Again. And every year there are the national articles about the high schools that managed to shame their young women enough to make national news. 27 pages worth of rules and regs about dresses with pictures while the boys get 2 pages. Rules about having your prom outfit approved by the board. (Yeah, that’s not really going to do much. They could change it.) Or, the latest flap, a school here in Florida that used flyers a week before prom that used the words “good girl” and “bad girl” like young teenage girls are dogs rather than human beings to be respected.
While you hear some voices that speak up in favor of these young women. You often also hear in many comments that these young women are throwing tantrums for absolutely no reason. That dress styles are far too provocative and that young women need to be taught how to dress properly so boys will treat them with respect.
Look, no amount of dressing “properly” by any vaguely imposed standard is going to have boys treat girls with respect if they haven’t been taught to treat girls with respect.
Dressing “properly” is just another way that men and women impose control over women. (Yes, I’ve heard this argument from women too and it makes me cringe, every time.) They throw in some mutterings about how there aren’t as many styles for men as there are for women. (Let me tell you the story about the military guy who decided that for a formal function he was going to wear a dress.) Which tells me, that most young men don’t know how to rules lawyer well enough. “Hey, ain’t nothin’ in the rules against it, Principle.”
And for goodness sake, respect isn’t something that can be learned through osmosis. Respect has to be taught from the cradle that every human being no matter their gender, skin tone or sexual preference are to be afforded human decency, body autonomy and boundaries. Because not only is it the honorable and right thing to do, it is also what humans do who love those around them. (There both the society of honor and the society of love in one sentence.) There is no boys will be boys, boys have hormones or any age old patriarchal excuse that will justify any behavior that doesn’t love and respect their fellow women and men. Period.
Look, I’m a girl. I have hormones. They work too. I’m not running around feeling up every guy I see that is remotely attractive or holding them down against their will and having sex with them. I am in control of my body, not my hormones. My hormones may influence me. I am still ultimately responsible for my actions. Period. End of story.
Lust can be like anger. It’s not that you have it. Having it is perfectly fine. It’s what you do with the lust and anger that matters. (Not that rape is about lust. Rape is about power and control.)
A huge part of this issue is the timing issue. If the schools were going to afford these girls respect about prom outfits, year after year, they wouldn’t be bringing up the issue a week or a month before prom. This would start in December at Winter Formal time. Because boys may buy a suit of the rack and have it fit right out of the gate (a tailored suit is extremely expensive for a function like prom, but hey if a boy wants to go that route, I have nothing against it,) girls have many shapes and sizes and no standardized sizing system. If you pull a dress off the rack and it fits. You’re lucky! So, in most cases, girls get their dresses at least six months before their event because these dresses have to have alterations. This is like buying your wedding dress. Buy it a year in advance so it has enough time to be ordered, made and fitted for goodness sake!
Respect your young women. If you’re going to have 2o pages worth of rules including pictures of examples, at least afford them enough time to find and purchase a dress that meets your oh so picky standards. That is respectful and courteous! But no, women are expected no matter what age to be able to change their wardrobe on the fly even for formal functions because a man doesn’t find it “appropriate.” (Here is my hearty, fuck you. If you don’t like my carefully chosen outfit, either shut your mouth or I won’t be missing you and your judgemental attitude as I go somewhere else in my pretty dress.)
I finished high school almost twenty years ago now. (Scary thought.) I went to small, private, conservative Baptist School in a town almost an hour away from my home. It took 2 buses to get there and home. (I spent upwards of 3.5 hours on a bus every day.) We had a dress code. And even back in the late 90s and early 2000s it was difficult to find clothes that fit that dress code. Skirts to the knee or longer, necklines within two fingers of your collar bone. No sleeveless. No tanktops. No midriffs. No high slits above your knee. That was the basic gist of it. We were to be “young ladies.” And the boys had to wear slacks and either button down shirts or henley style polos, ties on chapel day. Shirts tucked in. They were to be “young gentlemen.” This dress code was thought by the male deacons of the church that ran the school to prepare us for the workforce after high school was over and to keep us somewhat docile. There was even talk about instituting a uniform in order to even out any monetary differences between students. (Yeah, that went over like a lead balloon. If the uniform had seriously considered a pant option, it got better reviews from the girls. We didn’t thin they would seriously include one.)
And Jr. Year of high school, the Jr/Sr Banquet rolled around. We couldn’t have a prom. We were Baptists. No dancing. No drinking. No card playing. And two weeks, two weeks, before Jr/Sr Banquet, the Deacons got together and decided that they were instituting the school day to day dress code for the girls onto the banquet.
My mother and I had bought my dress six months ago in December. She’d bought two choices. They were six dollars a piece. (Yeah, let’s just not go into that.) And both of these gowns were fit for Queen Victoria to wear. By that, I mean, they were pretty much a fairy princess type ball gown. They were off the shoulder with small cap sleeves, a bodice that mimicked a woman in corsetry and a big poofy skirt. (This wasn’t my style at all even back then, mind you.) One was green with velvet rosettes. The other was maroon. And neither of them fit the school’s day to day dress code.
Now, we’d been through Jr/Sr Banquets before with my older sister. Gowns like the ones my mother picked out hadn’t been a problem back then. So, what had changed? Well, there had been a basketball tournament banquet. And some of the young ladies had worn dresses that were too “provocative” and offended the Deacons of the church. Some of these dresses were in my understanding, the exact same dresses the girls had worn to Jr/Sr Banquet the year before and then the Director and Co-Director of the school, who were nominally in charge of the banquet, had no problem with them.
When I say my school was small, I mean it was small. My graduating class was 33 students. The year ahead of me was about the same size. And the student body was pretty spread out on where they lived. Some of us lived in the three nearby cities, others of us lived an hour to two hours away, some even came from over the border of Pennsylvania to attend school. (Snow days were fun. Who is going to show up to school today?) I’d say there were about six different school districts represented at the school. Four NY counties and 1 PA county. And as such, most of us didn’t actually hang out together after school. Students who had boyfriends or girlfriends that also attended the school were pretty rare. (I can think of one maybe two couples who attended school together. And there was no kissing, no hand holding and no sitting closer than six inches apart. Why bother?) And unless your boyfriend or girlfriend was willing to drive anywhere from 20 to 50 miles to see you after school. School time was it to see each other.
Older students were also allowed to drive into school, register their car with the school and park in the lower parking lot. So, that could cut out bus rides too for any sort of social interaction. This means that most the people who were bringing significant others, particularly the boys, were bringing them in from out of the school system. These girls had no idea what our dress code was like. They, like me, no doubt had bought their dress months ago and probably were planning to wear it to two events, our Jr/Sr Banquet (hey, free-ish food) and their own prom. These dresses had to be special ordered and fitted if they weren’t like my mother.
So, the fact that the deacons had decided two weeks before Banquet that there were essentially new rules going into effect caused outrage among the two upper classes of our student body. Sixty angry teenagers all muttering among themselves, every clique, every group, some who weren’t planning on attending the Banquet anyways, all of them mad.
The Director of the School decided to hold a meeting with us in the Church Sanctuary. This was, I don’t know, a week and a half before. He was to go over the rules with us and address any concerns. It wasn’t his decision. He didn’t like it. But he had a job to do. He went over the rules with us. Told us that if we didn’t comply we couldn’t attend and would be turned away at the door and that a shawl for us ladies just wasn’t going to cut it. (Shawls could be left on chairs or something.) They were going to be inspecting our dresses at the door of the public venue. One guy speaks up, he has a girlfriend from his hometown. He was planning on bringing her. He knows her dress isn’t going to fit the dress code. Are they really going to apply it to her too? The answer was yes.
And then I spoke up. Let me explain to you that I was a fairly quiet person. I’d just been listening and nodding to most of the complaints. But I’d heard all of them. And I pretty much summed it up to him that we’d all gotten our dresses months ago. That if there had been a problem with the dress code of the Banquet, it should have been addressed months ago. Because there was no way in hell that any of us could go get new dresses even if we did have the money to do so in a week and a half. This had needed to be addressed at the Basketball Banquet which yes, had been in December! After a rumble of shock that I of all people would speak up and a rounding murmur of support. (Christian school.)
The Director had to stick to his guns. That year, that was how it was going to be and probably next year too.
So, my class had planned this lovely Banquet at a fairly formal location (An Inn at a local small town that was actually rather central location) with bowling afterwards for our Seniors and over half of them didn’t end up coming because of the dress code. Hell, half of our class didn’t end up attending either. I ended up having to wear a black lace t-shirt under my ballgown in order to attend. (It looked ridiculous.)
Did the standards change the next year? Yep. They did. The Deacons no longer cared what we wore. It didn’t have to fit the day to day dress code of the school. I made my dress anyways (with the help of my mother, who ended up doing most of the work because sewing lessons weren’t going well between the two of us.) And it fit the day to day dress code. I wasn’t going to be bitten twice.
Dresses back then had cut outs. Dresses back then had high slits and low backs and there were mid-riff options. The styles haven’t changed no matter what people tell you. The attitudes of control also haven’t changed. The time frames of control haven’t changed. Now, it’s just more acceptable to speak out about it.
And that is only a tiny step of progress. We can do so much better folks.