Prom dress policing is tough on kids and parents

Story highlights

  • A teen says she was kicked out of prom for a too-short dress and suggestive dancing
  • She says she wasn't dancing and her dress complied with the prom's dress code
  • The case illustrates concerns of parents who think dress options are too short and skimpy

This story was originally published on CNN.com in 2014.

Kelly Wallace is CNN's digital correspondent and editor-at-large covering family, career and life. Read her other columns and follow her reports at CNN Parents and on Twitter.

(CNN)Just when you thought you'd heard everything.

A 17-year-old high school senior who was attending a prom for home-schoolers this weekend near Richmond, Virginia, got kicked out, she says, because she was told her dress was too short.
In a blog post detailing what happened and showing a photo of her wearing the dress she claims conformed to the dress code, the student named Clare says she was told there were other concerns.
    Some of the dads who were chaperoning the prom had complained that her dancing "was too provocative" and that she was going to "cause the young men at the prom to think impure thoughts."
    Really? That isn't much of a stretch from "she asked for it" when we blame victims of sexual assault for what they were wearing. Are the thoughts and actions of young men and their fathers really her responsibility?
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    CNN affiliate WTVR reached out to the organizers of the prom, who provided the following response: "The Richmond Homeschool Prom has been a part of a long and wonderful tradition in the Richmond area for over 8 years. The prom is an opportunity to provide over 500 young adults from all over the Richmond area and surrounding counties with a prom. We regret that any individuals were dissatisfied with their experience this year."
    The case, while outrageous on many levels, does illustrate the potent mix of prom angst this time of year, with teenage girls shopping for the perfect dress, selections bordering on the wildly inappropriate to many parents and a culture sexualizing girls at younger and younger ages.

    Plenty of reasons to be anxious

    Can I just say right here I'm already freaking out, and my girls, 6 and 8, are years away from prom time?
    "Sixteen-, 17-, 18-year-olds should not be in dresses with thigh-high slits, necklines that plunge precariously close to the belly button, backs that are cut so low as to expose butt dimples," said a mother named Judith on CNN's Facebook page. "Parents need to step in and stop this 'beyond the age' dressing."
    In some cases, like the prom mentioned above in Virginia, schools are not leaving it up to the parents and are imposing their own dress codes for prom. Some are going to extra lengths to clarify what's acceptable.
    One Northern California Catholic high school sent an email to parents announcing that attire for junior and senior prom should "be moderate and reflect pride in both the person and the school."
    The email (PDF), obtained by CNN, included pictures of dresses deemed acceptable and those considered inappropriate. On the banned list were low-cut and backless dresses and dresses with very high hemlines.
    Holly Manson, a mom of three teens in Oakland, Maine, doesn't think dress codes are the answer. "I know the town over from us requires that their dresses have a strap," she said with a laugh. "It has to have a strap, but it's OK if it comes up to their butt cheek."
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    According to the teen who says she was booted from prom in Virginia, her gown met the prom's dress code, which called for dresses "fingertip length or longer."
    That means the dress must be longer than your fingertips once you have your hands at your side. At 5'9", she said, dresses might look shorter on her than on other girls. As for the "provocative" dance moves, she added that she hadn't been dancing at all.
    "Enough with the slut shaming," Clare wrote in her post. "I'm not responsible for some perverted 45 year old dad lusting after me because I have a sparkly dress on.
    "And if you think I am, then maybe you're part of the problem."
    Boys don't have many variations on the traditional tux to choose from when planning prom attire, so they typically don't have to deal with the harsh judgment and disrespect that girls such as Clare face because of their clothing choices.
    But when kids dress in ways that are gender-nonconforming, or even when a boy wants to wear a kilt, it doesn't always go over well with school administrators, either.

    Parents and teens: Not enough choices

    Another frustration I heard from parents and even some teens is that there just aren't enough moderate options -- both in terms of sexiness and price -- available in stores and online.
    "I would say the problem is ... that a girl who has sort of a more modern taste ... if (the dresses) are for someone her age, they're too short. They're shorter than they should be," said a mom of two teens, who said it can be extra difficult for tall girls or girls of different body types to find dresses schools deem appropriate.
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    Dresses can also cost hundreds of dollars, which most parents either can't or won't pay, she added.
    A 17-year-old named Angela says it's not that most teenagers want to wear revealing prom dresses. It's because they often have no other choice.
    "I feel as if it is not that teenage tastes have grown 'too sexy' but that the fashion market as a whole encourages young people to dress in a provocative way," she said via email.
    "When I go to department stores, the majority of prom dresses there seem to have some sort of cutout on the back or the sides. Otherwise, they are completely unflattering," Angela added.
    But an editor at Seventeen magazine, which just released its 291-page annual prom issue, says there are plenty of options.
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    "There literally is something for everyone, for every body type, for any kind of school regulation, if you have rules or dress codes, anything like that," said Jasmine Snow, accessories editor for Seventeen. "I think it's just about finding the right resources," she said, suggesting Seventeen's dress guide, which includes many style options.
    The key, says Snow, is for a girl to find a dress she'll feel good and confident wearing. "It also has to be something that your parents feel good about having you wear as well, and I think it's about having that compromise between the parent and the teenager."
    So many parents, this reporter among them, are concerned about how our girls are growing up so much faster than when we were kids. Clearly, we can't blame prom dresses as the single cause, but they're a factor.
    "Clothing definitely plays a role in the sexualization of our girls, so from prom dresses to starter bras to shorts, I believe we need to show our girls a broader range of options so they can choose the style that works for them," said Sharon Choksi, a mom of two in Austin, Texas, who got so fed up with the "short shorts" and "teeny bikinis" she started her own clothing company, Girls Will Be.
    "Girls today receive so many messages that they should focus on their appearance and act more grown-up. I don't want my daughter thinking that is what is most important and is how people will value her," said Choksi.

    What happens when you put your fears aside

    Not every parent considers shopping for a teenage daughter's prom dress about as welcome as, let's say, a root canal, doing taxes or cleaning the bathroom.
    "As a single dad, the entire prom experience was just one more experience I actually looked forward to with my daughter," said Jim Higley, an award-winning author and national fatherhood advocate.
    "Clothes shopping, shoe shopping -- all the things that are important to my daughter, they're important to me," said the father of three and author of the book "Bobblehead Dad."
    Tracey Clark took this photo during a dress shopping outing with her daughter Julia.
    For Tracey Clark of Huntington Beach, California, a mom of two girls and a Babble.com contributor, shopping for prom and other school dance dresses has been so positive, she even posted a video online of one of her shopping excursions with her 16-year-old daughter.
    She credits her happy experiences with planning (they shop for dresses very far in advance) and plain luck. Her daughter has kind of a retro style and doesn't gravitate to the provocative stuff, said Clark, who hosts a blog in her own name and contributes photographs to the collaborative blog Shutter Sisters.
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    Growing up with a "strict and traditional" mother, Clark said, she often felt like she didn't fit in because of what she was and was not allowed to wear.
    She's mindful of that when it comes to her daughters' fashion choices.
    "I always want to be really careful that I'm not taking something from them that makes them feel normal," she said.