Skip to main content

The damaging messages of proms

By Rachel Simmons, Special to CNN
updated 7:40 AM EDT, Mon May 13, 2013
Prom night is a big deal for many teenage girls. Author Rachel Simmons questions the lessons learned.
Prom night is a big deal for many teenage girls. Author Rachel Simmons questions the lessons learned.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Rachel Simmons: The most coveted rite of passage for many teenage girls is the prom
  • Simmons: Prom is an event where girls internalize damaging cultural messages
  • She says prom teaches girls to value money and conventional beauty and wait to be asked out
  • Simmons: The good news is that girls are pushing back against the pressure to just wait

Editor's note: Rachel Simmons is co-founder of Girls Leadership Institute and author of "The Curse of the Good Girl: Raising Authentic Girls with Courage and Confidence." Follow her on Twitter: @Racheljsimmons

(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.

Rachel Simmons
Rachel Simmons

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.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Rachel Simmons.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 2:45 PM EDT, Thu April 17, 2014
Michael Bloomberg and Shannon Watts say Americans are ready for sensible gun laws, but politicians are cowed by the NRA. Everytown for Gun Safety will prove the NRA is not that powerful.
updated 9:28 AM EDT, Thu April 17, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says Steve Israel is right: Some Republicans encourage anti-Latino prejudice. But that kind of bias is not limited to the GOP.
updated 7:23 PM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Peggy Drexler counts the ways Phyllis Schlafly's argument that lower pay for women helps them nab a husband is ridiculous.
updated 12:42 PM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Rick McGahey says Rep. Paul Ryan is signaling his presidential ambitions by appealing to hard core Republican values
updated 11:39 AM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Paul Saffo says current Google Glasses are doomed to become eBay collectibles, but they are only the leading edge of a surge in wearable tech that will change our lives
updated 2:49 PM EDT, Tue April 15, 2014
Kathleen Blee says the KKK and white power or neo-Nazi groups give haters the purpose and urgency to use violence.
updated 7:56 AM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse and Rep. Henry Waxman say read deep, and you'll see the federal Keystone pipeline report spells out the pipeline is bad news
updated 7:53 AM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Frida Ghitis says President Obama needs to stop making empty threats against Russia and consider other options
updated 5:29 PM EDT, Tue April 15, 2014
Peter Bergen and David Sterman say the Kansas Jewish Center killings are part of a string of lethal violence in the U.S. that outstrips al Qaeda-influenced attacks. Why don't we pay more attention?
updated 12:41 PM EDT, Tue April 15, 2014
Danny Cevallos says families of the passengers on Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 need legal counsel
updated 11:23 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
David Frum says Russia is on a rampage of mischief while Western leaders and Western alliances charged with keeping the peace hem and haw
updated 7:56 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
Most adults make the mistakes of hitting the snooze button and of checking emails first thing in the morning, writes Mel Robbins
updated 1:54 PM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
David Wheeler says as middle-class careers continue to disappear, we need a monthly cash payment to everyone
updated 7:55 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
Democrats need to show more political spine when it comes to the issue of taxes.
updated 11:55 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
Donna Brazile recalls the 50th Anniversary of the Civil Rights Act as four presidents honored the heroes of the movement and Lyndon Johnson, who signed the law
updated 9:17 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
Elmer Smith remembers Chuck Stone, the legendary journalist from Philadelphia who was known as a thorn in the side of police and an advocate for the little guy
updated 2:56 PM EDT, Sun April 13, 2014
Al Franken says Comcast, the nation's largest cable provider, wants to acquire Time Warner Cable, the nation's second-largest cable provider. Should we be concerned?
updated 11:22 AM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
Philip Cook and Kristin Goss says the Pennsylvania stabbing attack, which caused grave injury -- but not death, carries a lesson on guns for policymakers
updated 3:06 PM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
Wikipedia lists 105 football movies, but all too many of them are forgettable, writes Mike Downey
updated 10:32 AM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
John Sutter and hundreds of iReporters set out to run marathons after the bombings -- and learned a lot about the culture of running
updated 12:49 PM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
Timothy Stanley says it was cowardly to withdraw the offer of an honorary degree to Ayaan Hirsi Ali. The university should have done its homework on her narrow views and not made the offer
updated 10:16 AM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
Al Awlaki
Almost three years after his death in a 2011 CIA drone strike in Yemen, Anwar al-Awlaki continues to inspire violent jihadist extremists in the U.S, writes Peter Bergen
updated 9:21 PM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
David Bianculli says Colbert is a smart, funny interviewer, but ditching his blowhard persona to take over the mainstream late-night role may cost him fans
updated 1:31 PM EDT, Thu April 10, 2014
Rep. Paul Ryan says the Republican budget places its trust in the people, not in Washington
updated 5:28 PM EDT, Thu April 10, 2014
Aaron David Miller says Obama isn't to blame for Kerry's lack of progress in resolving Mideast talks
updated 11:22 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
David Weinberger says beyond focusing on the horrors of the attack a year ago, it's worth remembering the lessons it taught about strength, the dangers of idle speculation and Boston's solidarity
updated 12:32 PM EDT, Thu April 10, 2014
Katherine Newman says the motive for the school stabbing attack in Pennsylvania is not yet known, but research on such rampages turns up similarities in suspects and circumstances
updated 2:39 PM EDT, Wed April 9, 2014
Wendy Townsend says the Rattlesnake Roundup -- where thousands of pounds of snakes are killed and tormented -- is barbaric
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT