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May 9, 2014

A Prom Dress Registry?

by Anne Paddock

Your clothes conceal much of your beauty, yet they hide not the unbeautiful.

                                                  -Gibran Khalil Gibran

Decades ago when I was going to proms, finding a dress was as simple as going to the mall and buying a gown that would match a date’s tux (yes, it was the 70’s). Nowadays, my daughter tells me things are different. Girls buy a dress and immediately post a picture of the dress on-line (usually a Facebook page set up for this purpose) so that no one else even thinks about buying the coveted frock because there really can’t be anything more catastrophic than two or three girls wearing the same dress to a prom. And, if an independent-minded teen dares to defy her peers and not conform, she is criticized, shunned, or runs the risk of subjecting herself to a fashion face-off of “Who Wears it Better?”

Am I the only parent who thinks a prom registry is inappropriate? This whole new process sounds like a version of Mean Girls or Queen Bee Want-A-Be, but what is a mother to do? When a college friend e-mailed me this week to tell me her eighth-grader is going to a middle school dance and that all the girls post their “Lilly” (Lilly Pulitzer dress) on-line, I was saddened to learn this registry process is now working its way down to middle school.

There are 48 girls in her daughter’s class, all of whom want to wear a Lilly but there is one major problem: there are 65 Lilly party dresses this season but not all the Lilly styles appeal to the middle school set so the choices are limited. My friend, who had no idea about the dress registry took her daughter shopping and found a Lilly, only to realize the dress had already been posted by someone else. Call me old-fashioned but shouldn’t doors be opening for 13-year olds, instead of closing?

Let’s step back for a moment and consider several issues.

First, all girls want to feel special about a dance or a prom but it doesn’t mean “the dress” is the answer. The point of the prom is to have fun and if a teen can’t have fun because someone else is wearing the same dress, then what does that say about our culture? No one wants to see someone in the same dress but just like most things in life, how a situation is handled says more about a person than how she looks. At the risk of sounding like an old fuddy duddy, girls who showed up in the same dress at my dances would laugh and usually pose together making fun of the situation, referring to themselves as twins or soul sisters. Why can’t girls rejoice in their good taste and make light of the double take? Great minds can dress alike. Guys do it all the time.

Second, consider how many boys are registering their outfit on-line. Probably zero. By participating in this madness, parents are sending out some pretty strong messages about uniqueness, appearance, conforming, and punishment to young teenage girls at a very impressionable age.

And, lastly, did the creators of this registry ever think about the effect this process has on the family? Consider a typical middle/high schooler who goes to school with a few hundred other teens. Add classes, homework, sports, standardized tests, and outside commitments. Then, consider the other family members and their commitments. The time pressure to find a dress that no one else has “claimed” along with the financial cost creates one stressful situation.

So, what’s the answer? The obvious answer is for parents to not allow their daughters to participate in the registry, which may be difficult given that kids of all ages are so connected on-line. It takes a strong parent and child to not participate. Opting out is tantamount to not letting your high-schooler take the twelve standardized tests that every other student is taking. The pressure is there and it’s hard to buck a system in place – even one that doesn’t make sense – but the only way social change occurs is when people stand up and say “no, this is wrong and I’m not going to support or participate in this process.” It’s not easy, but then again doing the right thing is rarely easy.

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