Feminism, Pop-Culture | Posted by Laura H on 04/28/2010

Prom, Dresses and Body Image Issues

Prom: Unearthing Those Body Issues

Prom: Unearthing Those Body Issues

I’m looking for a prom dress at the moment. Okay, maybe I’m not. Perhaps a more accurate description of my current activities is that I’m writing this lot a rambling spiel, whilst conveniently skiving off looking for prom dresses on the internet. Well, shoot me.

To tell you the truth, going to the prom is pretty high on my scale of “things I don’t really want to do but feel I really should”. I have never expressed a burning desire to dress up like some sort of tragically imperfect reject Barbie doll and totter around in heels that I can’t even walk in, trying to give the impression that my lumbering around the dance floor is not an inept stagger, but a waltz, and nor am I ever likely to. I have a kind of horror of everything prom-like: dancing, small talk, that weird punch that comes in bowls, riding in a limo or – heaven help me – a horse-drawn carriage. It all seems so…over-the-top and ostentatious; the kind of thing I would never, ever be involved in out of choice.

Anyway, today I went – reluctantly and in full awareness of the horror the situation – up to the Mall with my mum to look for a prom dress. I knew I didn’t want a floor-length one – the very last thing I need on a night I’m already feeling anxious and uncomfortable is to have to added pressure of trying not to fall over the excess material of my own clothing. I also knew that I was absolutely adverse to any sort of large ornamental flowers, over-enthusiastic ruffles or anything that would make me look like a human blancmange. Turns out, that limits your choices quite severely.

I tried on what seemed like a hundred dresses, but was probably in reality closer to twenty. There were short ones, long ones, plain ones, glittery ones, straight ones, puffy ones, pastel ones, swishy ones, short-sleeved ones, strapless ones, flowered ones, patterned ones and just-plain-ridiculous ones. None of them were right. I guess I thought I’d know when the perfect dress came along. You know, eyes across a crowded aisle, heart skipping a beat, a single soul mate smock. All that stuff. But I didn’t. Sure, there were some nice dresses, and if I come back in a later life as a Barbie doll with a fetish for shiny, dry-clean only materials, I’ll have found my perfect heaven. Thing is, none of them looked right on me.

About half way through my shopping trip, I stepped out the changing room and stood in front of the mirror in a long turquoise evening dress with a beaded bodice. I scrutinised my reflection carefully before holding up a hand against my body, just above my chest. “From this point down,” I said to my poor, long-suffering mother, “It looks brilliant.” I loved the dress – it was beautiful – my problem, I realised, was the pale, uncomfortable-looking girl wearing it. We just didn’t match.

From then on, I knew my shopping trip was doomed. I’d had the big “uh oh” moment. After that, I was fixated on myself and my own flaws and shortcomings. Every time I put on a dress, I noticed one more thing that was wrong with my body. My lower legs were like tree trunks; my bum stuck out like some sort of weird globular growth; the skin on my shoulders was uneven and covered in blemishes. I tried on one dress and noticed that my breasts poked out like little pointed baby traffic cones. In another, they were barely there and the material of the gorgeous teal dress just sort of hung over pale, clammy skin like a forlorn handkerchief. Was that the strange, angular outline of ribs that I could see through the silk? And, oh dear, had my knees always looked like that? The dresses were just a thin, decorative façade, trying to convince an ever-critical one-person audience of something that was simply not there.

This got me thinking. I see myself as relatively confident with my own body; something I owe largely to my feminism. I know that the beauty standards we’ve been programmed to live by are culturally ascribed and, in reality, I don’t need to look like the models I see on the television. I know that the traditionally beautiful women I see in magazines have been airbrushed to within an inch of their lives. I know that the concept of what makes someone “pretty” is varying and fluid and that the way I should look is principally decided by a load of high-powered men at fashion industry HQ. I know all about body confidence and the body beautiful. I know there is absolutely nothing about my body that I should be ashamed of. I absolutely, one hundred percent know these things: in my head.

But there’s still a little niggling voice in the back of my mind that encapsulates all my insecurities and doubts. I don’t weigh myself compulsively, I’ve never dieted and I don’t compare myself to every other female-bodied person I meet. Most of the time I just get on with my life, giving very little thought to my body, aesthetically speaking. I try to stay healthy and that’s that. But that little voice is still there. “Don’t eat that,” it tells me “you’ll get spots!” Sometimes it visits me when I’m talking to one of my friends. “Look at her,” it squeals, “she’s so much thinner than you! Don’t you wish you looked like that?” Most of the time I manage to push all this negative stuff aside and the things I know in my head win through. I’ll eat what I like, thank you very much; and I’ll have you know, little voice, that I’m happy with my body just the way it is. So there.

I think most girls feel like this sometimes. That little niggling voice is a universal problem. It’s to do with social expectations and cultural aesthetic norms, and it plays on the insecurity of all girls going through a very difficult stage in their life. It doesn’t matter how feminist or body-confident you are, it’s still there, even if you’ve learnt not to listen to it. This, I suppose, comes back to my loathing of the concept of a prom. To me it seems like a kind of organized exhibitionism of a standard that nobody ever has any hope of living up to; just another way for most – if not all – girls to feel totally and completely inadequate.

I have a vague vision of turning up at the prom in my beautiful “single soul mate smock” and looking around at all the other girls who’ve done the same. I imagine all the different colours of silk and taffeta swirling round in the dressed-up dingy little village hall. I see the thick layers of make-up and the glitter of jewellery; I see the coils and spirals of hair. I see as all look round at each other critically…and I see all of us looking through what has been so painstakingly created. “Hang on,” we say, “what on earth have we been doing?” Suddenly, we all realise how fake it is. Why have we spent upwards of £300 on a dress? We have we spent two hours sitting in a hairdresser’s chair? What was the point? Why did we have to go this far in order to feel good about our bodies? We’re still the same people we were yesterday, and tomorrow, when we’ve washed off the fake tan and put our dresses in the back of a closet to gather dust, we’ll look back and realise how brazenly flamboyant and orchestrated the whole thing was. And we’ll be back to square one.

I guess my real fear is that the whole to-do will just be a total and complete let-down. The prom has been worked up to be this wonderful, magical evening and I can’t for the life of me figure out how it can possibly be all that it’s promised to be. I can’t help feeling like my and my friends are going to be horribly disappointed. But I guess that’s what happens with things like this; like when you buy that beautiful pair of shoes you’ve always wanted and when you bring them home that just sort of sit in the corner of your room for a while looking pretty and, after a while, you wonder what all the fuss was about. They don’t do anything; they don’t actually “go” with any other clothing you own; you can’t possibly wear them anywhere. What were you thinking?

The prom is a celebration of aesthetics; nothing more, nothing less. And I guess that’s okay. It’s okay to enjoy the way things look from time to time. Maybe it makes you feel good about yourself to get all dolled up and hop in your horse-drawn carriage. But not me. I guess I just can’t take it seriously enough.

So my search for a dress continues, half-heartedly and reluctantly. To be honest, I don’t see why I can’t just wear jeans…

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  • A.Y. Siu @ at 12:55 pm, April 28th, 2010

    This is a little off-topic, since you’re talking about the prom, but that picture is a bit disturbing to me.

    I think it’s trying to say “This deathly skinny girl sees a fat girl when she looks in the mirror,” but I don’t see a fat girl in the mirror. I see a normal girl.

    So is it really intended to say “This deathly skinny girls sees a normal girl when she looks in the mirror”? Or is it really saying normal girls are fat?

  • missjulied @ at 1:00 pm, April 28th, 2010

    I think it’s trying to say “This deathly skinny girl doesn’t see reality when she looks in the mirror”.

  • Erin @ at 3:24 pm, April 28th, 2010

    This article is brilliant. I’m always trying to shut that little voice up, and it’s ever so hard, especially when you have friends that are thinner or blonder or prettier or more aesthetically acceptable than you. I’m short and chubby and have short spiky hair and normally I love myself but every once in a while I want to be thin and svelte and blonde with long hair.

    However. My grad (I’m from Canada, so we don’t call it prom and it’s not as big of a deal up here) was one of the most fun nights of my life. My aunt sewed a dress for me – a faux corsetted piece in baby blue and teal with gauzy sleeves that made me feel like a fairy. My friends came over beforehand and we did each other’s hair and makeup, and spent that time listening to bad music and reminiscing about high school. We didn’t get wasted or spend the whole time obsessing about our hair – at the dance we took off our ridiculous shoes and danced barefoot under an archway of balloons. Afterward we drove home in a minivan and watched Pirates of the Carribean until we fell asleep. It felt like a great ending to high school, and it made me feel great because it didn’t have to be this ridiculous, pretentious event.

    I know this is kind of long-winded, but I just wanted to let you know that it doesn’t have to be a let down. It can be as awesome as you want it to be. :) Good luck!

  • Inness @ at 4:13 pm, April 28th, 2010

    I would recommend thrift and vintage stores! Chances are, you’ll find an eclectic assortment of dresses at much lower prices, and one of ‘em will be right for you. Plus, it will be unique. Think outside of the prom dress box..and seriously, avoid the mall.

    I recommend etsy.com.

  • Katherine C. @ at 9:17 pm, April 28th, 2010

    Oh, man! It is insane what a huge deal is made out of The Prom. I’m going this year with a friend- I’m wearing an evening dress that I wore in a play earlier this year. It cost the Drama department $15. I’m doing my own hair from a pic I found on the web. We’re in a recession, people! Who, may I ask, has this kind of money????!!!!

  • Steph B @ at 9:33 pm, April 28th, 2010

    Seconding the vintage/thrift store recommendation. I went dress shopping, and I had a lot of the feelings you write about having. So I decided to wear a femme-y tux. Hopefully, my school won’t pull an Itawamba Agricultural. So that’s an option, too.
    @Erin, your grad sounds amazing. Hooray for Canada! I’m hoping mine will be decent, too.

  • Holly @ at 12:49 am, April 29th, 2010

    I have to reiterate the advice above. Vintage stores are the way to go. I bought my dress for under $50 dollars. It’s not too dressy that I wouldn’t wear at again at another formal event. Look for something that makes you feel comfortable! Don’t worry about conforming to crazy shiny gauze and tulle standards.

    Don’t build up high expectations for prom. Take it for what it is- a little bit silly, but a good opportunity to have fun with your friends and classmates. It’s nothing more than that, and I assure you it’s nothing worth stressing over. Rechannel that same body image sensibility to this event! It’s not going to be air-brushed and perfect. It’s going to be a real event and it will have its flaws. Make the most of what’s there and you’ll have a great time!

  • Jen @ at 6:00 am, April 29th, 2010

    Is this how the prom is in America? I really think it’s quite different in the UK. I’ve only been to one, but it was so much fun.

    Yes, I did spend a while choosing a dress, but I only spent about £50 on it (about $80?) and that was about average. I spent about twenty minutes getting ready, not hours and hours.

    We were looking at everyone’s dresses, but the point wasn’t really about who was the thinnest or the prettiest – it was just fun to dress up for one night only.

    The point of the prom was to say goodbye to the classmates and friends, rather than judging people’s fashion tastes and bodies.

    I’m not saying that this kind of endless worrying doesn’t happen in the UK; obviously it does. But I think the prom has a special kind of meaning in the USA which it does not have here; this means that people don’t worry or fuss about it here. It’s less about clothes and more about having fun.

    I hope you enjoy your prom and don’t worry about how you look! If you feel comfortable and confident, you’ll have a great night.

  • me @ at 3:16 pm, May 1st, 2010

    Just prevail, it took me ages to find my first ball-gown (no proms where I live) I didn’t want shiny, pinkish, girly whatever.
    My mother and older sister were absolutely going bonkers over my refusal to say yes to a normal gown. And then we found it, marked down to 30% because it didn’t sell, dark blue-black, innovative fabric, rather goth (even if I wasn’t one) with long sleeves. It was perfect for me and as un-Barbie as possible. So I wish you luck, you will find the right gown, try some unconventional venues and keep your eyes open.
    And see your prom as a fun event, whatever happens happens, there is no perfect prom and there should not be. How boring would your mother’s story have been, if everything went perfect. Every hitch is a plot point to be cherished and memorized for the day you will tell the story of your prom to your own child.

  • Zhenya @ at 4:37 pm, May 1st, 2010

    I’m a newcomer to your site and it is exactly what I have been looking for.
    I really relate to your experience although mine differs. I really looked forward to my prom (it was last year). My friend and I spent months contemplating dresses and whether we want them short, sexy or sophisticated (at that point I have not yet discovered my feminist stance). I ended up paying £195 on a beautiful dress from Reiss even though I didn’t really like it or feel right in it, it was there and I was bored since I realised just how pointless the whole parade of curls and heels is.

  • Laura H @ at 10:31 am, May 2nd, 2010

    Just to be clear – this is a UK prom experience I am talking about. For anyone who is a little confuzzled.

  • LSharp @ at 3:12 pm, May 12th, 2010

    Mostly I’m not going to go to Prom because I find it pointless; but what you said is a good reason too.
    Also, if I ever go anywhere fancy, I make a concerted effort to find dress pants and shirts. Suits look good on anyone. They have the remarkable quality of flattering nearly every body type (just find one in a color you like).

  • Ella B @ at 4:36 pm, May 14th, 2010

    I would like to express my complete and utter gratitude- it’s a little frightening, but you may have just pulled those exact words out of my mind. My prom is next week and to be honest, I’m actually bored with the whole institution. The constant talk among the girls at my school- dazzlingly diverse and meaningful subjects ranging from hair, to makeup, to nails, to the bra colour- I feel out of place, annoyed, and frankly, quite ridiculous the entire time. For indeed, why can’t we just wear jeans, a jumper and call it a night?

  • Jessica @ at 4:07 pm, June 19th, 2010

    I think the normal girl is norrmal and the skinny girl way to skinny i fell sorry for the girl who can’t see how lovely they look they don’t need to go on diets and kll them selfs

  • Ellie @ at 5:17 am, October 20th, 2010

    My friend and I were reading this together, and I have to say, I clicked on this article for the picture- when I saw the image up close, the first thing that my friend said was “Ew, that girl’s fat.” When my first thought was “wow, she’s really pretty.”
    Comments like that are what lead people into anorexia. >.<

  • Lily @ at 5:39 pm, January 6th, 2011

    My prom is this year, and I’ve already bought my dress. I’m really excited!
    I do agree (to an extent) with what you’ve put in this post. A lot of girls in my year pay hundreds of pounds for their prom dress, just to end up looking like everyone else in acres of shiny fabric. I think the princess style dresses are boring and outdated; I don’t want to look like a clone. Yes, I will make an effort to look nice. But that’s because this is the first formal event our year has attended together; it signifies the departure from childhood and the step into adulthood. It doesn’t do any harm encouraging us to dress up and have your makeup and hair done for once; I doubt any of us will have that chance again, and it really isn’t harmful in small doses.
    My dress is a 50s style ‘pinup’ dress from Ebay; it was £18. Some of my more image conscious friends were shocked by this, and one even commented ‘You can’t get a decent prom dress for £18.’ Well actually, you can. And I’ll feel a damn sight better stepping out of our fire engine limo not looking like a clone, and costing my parents hundreds of pounds for this one night. But I guess the other girls can do this if they like. It’s just one night, after all.

  • patricia @ at 6:45 am, September 20th, 2011

    hi…this year is my prom..and you know what?,i take my extra times just to find dresses for prom in the internet,shoes,accesories and anything else….im same as you and i dont know how i can i face my prom with my looked…i dont know,let’s just see!!…im so excited!….wish to be dance by my crush!!…:DD..LOL

  • terry @ at 7:11 pm, March 8th, 2015

    Hi there i like your website and they way you run it,

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