Prom, Dresses and Body Image 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…

More articles by Category: Body image and body standards, Feminism, Media
More articles by Tag: Activism and advocacy, Gender bias, Social media, High school



Laura H
Sign up for our Newsletter

Learn more about topics like these by signing up for Women’s Media Center’s newsletter.