Schools Just Can’t Stop Making Teen Girls Feel Ashamed About Their Bodies

When the dos and don'ts of acceptable prom-wear stretch for 19 pages, we’ve got a problem

An excerpt from Boylan Catholic High School's 19-page prom dress rules.

Tickets? Check. Transportation? Check. Dinner Reservations? Check. A dress? Well, the dress part is way more complicated than it used to be—and we’re not talking complicated à la Molly Ringwald’s sewing pattern in Pretty in Pink, either.

Nowadays high school girls headed to prom might have to consult a magnum opus of dress code guidelines to figure out whether or not their dress will be acceptable to campus administrators—or they might have to send a picture of their outfit to the principal for approval before purchasing it. And as one Florida teen found out in late April, thanks to confusion over all these rules, girls who think their dresses pass muster might still be denied entry to prom.

[quote position="left" is_quote="true"]Why are schools discriminating against girls based on their bodies?[/quote]

Zhade Allen, a senior at Sandalwood High School in Jacksonville, Florida, called her mom on prom night sobbing after being told she couldn’t enter the event. The teen was told by school staff that her purple and black gown, which was floor-length in the back and knee-length in the front, was against the rules.

“She’s crying, she’s like, ‘Mom just come and get me,’” Nydia Allen, Zhade’s mother, told Action News Jax. “I said, ‘No, you’re going to the prom.’ We spent all this money, and it doesn’t make any sense for them to say it’s inappropriate.”

The outraged mom told the station that she purchased the garment for her daughter after carefully reviewing the dress code guidelines the school provided. (A spokesperson for Duval County Public Schools responded that “students were made aware in advance that prom dresses must be floor length.”)

Nydia Allen posted a photo of her daughter in her prom dress to Facebook, asking her friends, “Was this dress inappropriate for prom?”

While male students are commonly advised to wear a suit or tux and to skip the sneakers, plenty of prom dress codes have come under fire in recent years due to their overwhelming focus on what female students are wearing. Boylan Catholic High School in Rockford, Illinois, sparked a firestorm after it released a 19-page document that detailed its prom dress code.

You read that right: 19 pages. Two pages were devoted to boys’ attire—and 14 detailed exactly what girls could and couldn’t wear. One line in particular drew the ire of students and experts: “Some girls may wear the same dress, but due to body types, one dress may be acceptable while the other is not.”

“This line in the code is discriminatory and supports body shaming,” Robyn Goodman, a professor and a body image expert at the University of Florida, wrote in an email to the Rockford Register Star.

“Telling one girl she has to restrict her body by only wearing certain fashions and telling another her body is fine for any fashion is sending a message about what is the ‘right’ body to have and what is the ‘wrong’ body,” added Goodman. “These messages are often damaging to girls. We are not allowed to discriminate in the U.S. based on race, disability, gender, age, etc. ... So why are schools discriminating against girls based on their bodies?”

An excerpt from Boylan Catholic High School's 19-page prom dress rules.

In some instances, the emphasis on how much skin girls may or may not show on prom night seems downright creepy. Stanton College Preparatory School, a magnet school that’s also in Jacksonville, was dragged on social media in late March after a photo of a school display that labeled girls as good or bad depending on their prom dress choices was shared by a student.

According to Amie Hess, a sociology professor at Meredith College in Raleigh, North Carolina, this kind of flyer “suggests that young women’s bodies are objects to be consumed by men, and that it is up to women to police the behavior of men,” as she told The Boston Globe.

“They must modify themselves in order to keep men’s impulses in check, placing the burden of sexual responsibility solely on the shoulders of young women,” Hess said.

That’s a problematic message to send to female students, particularly given long-standing research from the American Psychological Association. Ten years ago, a task force from the organization issued a report that detailed how the sexualization of girls is linked to mental health challenges such as depression, low self-esteem, or the development of an eating disorder. It appears America’s schools haven’t caught up on their reading yet.

As for Zhade Allen, the teen ended up donning black tights so she could attend her prom. She’ll graduate and leave Sandalwood High behind her, but it’s hard not to wonder how her experience at what was supposed to be a milestone celebratory event will affect her.

Zhade’s mom is looking for clarification and an end to double standards, saying to Action News Jax, “She can wear the skirt to school, but she can’t wear it to prom? What’s the difference?” Given how happy and confident Zhade looks in the gown, hopefully school administrators in Jacksonville—and everywhere else—can come up with a sensible answer before prom 2018.

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