First Person: American High School Prom Culture

Arielle Solomon is a high school senior at Golda Och Academy (a Schechter school). She is interning at Ma’yan this spring semester.

This year as a high school senior, I made the conscious – dare I say countercultural – choice to go to prom alone. Most students attend prom or a similar school dance during their high school careers. Even my small Jewish Day School with about a 150 high school students, has a junior-senior prom, which does not differ greatly from most proms across America. As a junior at prom, I spent most of my time with my friends so I did not feel that a date was necessary to have a nice time. For the most part, I felt fine going alone. My school has become increasingly more cognizant of dateless students for aspects of prom-like pictures. I took one picture by myself and one with my two triplet sisters. However, there were definitely more challenging aspects of going alone. Everyone in my grade wanted to know who I was going with. Having to reveal single status over and over again and to be met with curt responses was not pleasant. Author Sloane Crosley reflects that “when I go to a fancy event now [as an adult], I never ‘get asked,’ nor do I offer the name of the person I am ‘taking.’ One ‘takes’ a person to prom the way one ‘takes’ one’s most valuable possessions when one’s house is on fire.” I remember that during the hour of pre-prom at a classmate’s house, where everyone is consumed with taking hundreds of pictures with their dates to post on social media, I stood off to the side dateless, feeling alone and awkward, trying to look engaged in whatever was on my phone’s screen. While going to prom without a date is getting easier, in that moment like Crosley, “traditions of the prom butted heads with the reality of my dateless-ness.” The very culture of prom brings out the worst of 21st century American teen culture. Prom could just be a fun social event for overworked and stressed high school students, but instead it is a cornerstone of American adolescent culture entrenched in Western beauty norms, and wealthy, white, heterosexual, and male privilege.

But before I delve into this, let’s take a quick look at prom historically. Prom’s origins were simple annual coed banquets in the 19th century. They were held at Ivy League universities for their graduating class. In the 1940s, an emerging teenage culture shifted prom to a high school rite of passage. By the 1980s, it became more than just an elaborate dance, but rather “prom night” – an all-night marathon extravaganza complete with a prom king and queen, a frenzy over attire and dates, a quest for perfection, and the emergence of pre and post-prom. While prom has adapted to changing social mores, it has been a bit slow on the uptake. In the late 2000s a number of proms in the rural South were still racially segregated. Major issues remain with LGBTQ couples attending and feeling comfortable at prom. According to author, Rachel Simmons, “In all but the most progressive communities, prom glorifies heterosexuality, leaving gay youths facing disapproval at best, [and] outright rejection at worst.”

Most problems with American prom culture are symptoms of larger trends in adolescent and mainstream American culture, and have in many cases only been compounded with the rise of social media. Prom in particular sends caustic messages to females such as elevating the value of physical beauty above all else. A focus on appearance pervades female, especially teen culture, which is highlighted by the beauty pageant undertones of prom. Girls will not only buy expensive dresses and shoes, but also pay for professional hair, makeup, and other beauty services, creating a prom-industrial complex. Simmons writes, “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.” Prom also has roots in the elitist debutante balls of the past: “today, prom is still a rich girl’s party,” Simmons says. In 2013, the average family spent an average of over $1,100 on prom.

The competition to look good for prom can start many months before school prom invites are even sent out. In my school along with many others, girls form a Facebook prom dress group with the surface-level purpose of creating a construct to avoid more than one girl wearing the same dress. In large public schools where there are hundreds of female students and a limited number of dress styles, having similar or the same dress can lead to long heated, albeit petty fights over dresses. Additionally, beneath the façade of a harmless Facebook page for dresses is a built in constant comparative methodology for determining who looks the best. Social media is a platform for never ending and tiring self-promotion, competition amongst peers, and ultimately self-degradation vis-à-vis the amount of “likes” one receives for a certain post or picture. Prom’s minute-by-minute online broadcast exacerbates the negative effects of social media, and is the very incarnation of this confidence and self-esteem sucking monster. Simmons concludes that this “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.”

In the female teen world there is always pressure to look a certain way, and this is intensified by the focus on prom attire and appearances. There’s the pressure to have the latest dress style and the highest heels. As someone just below five feet and who finds heels painful, it really aggravates me that height and feminine beauty are synonymous in American society. When I saw my female peers at my prom looking pained wearing five inch plus heels, I thought to myself why are we putting ourselves through this? Women feeling pressured to wear high heels is not so far off from Chinese foot binding. Like binding, frequent heel wear causes a host of health issues and makes women more reliant and subservient to men as let’s face it, the irrational practice of hobbling around in five inch heels severely limits what women can do. This is why men stopped wearing heels during the Enlightenment because according to Kaila Prins “men were rational creatures who needed to be able to stand around and argue about philosophy and government without falling on their faces.” Why is the image of the ideal, mature female adult hypersexualized in our society? In our culture, feminine beauty and power are inextricably linked, and being sexually attractive is often viewed as a greater source of power than intellect.

While the girls in my school have a prom dress Facebook page, the boys have a “girls page,” solving the problem of two guys asking the same girl to prom. Just as the female students claim their dresses, the boys claim their women. In this medieval-esque process these young women are treated like objects, and have little to no say in selecting their dates. In my school, girls almost never reject a promposal even if they are not thrilled with their date. While there is a behind the scenes tango of sorts between male and female grade representatives to match the right couples together, in this equation, male students have all the power and can leave girls waiting for months without a date. I remember the waiting process in junior year left me feeling like I was in limbo because I wanted to go to prom with a date but could not initiate the promposal myself.  Therefore, I waited and worried until a couple of weeks before prom when my date popped the question. Yes, it is true that the pressure is on the boys to come up with increasingly elaborate and creative promposals that happen in the middle of busy school hallways and social media for all to see and judge. However, the notion of girls asking their dates out is not only logistically hard to do with the system in place, but also a public and defiant countercultural move. Simmons observes that the male-dominated promposal practice tells female students that “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.” In this way and others, prom is a romanticized rite of passage that teaches the wrong lifelong lessons to young women about what our society values. Beneath the thick tulle and sequin studded guise of being just a fun night to remember, the American prom is a microcosm for many of the nation’s continuing cultural and societal struggles. 

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