The Dress Debate: What happened when girls were kicked out of prom for what they were wearing

by Rebecca Lumley

The prom, or debs/grad here in Ireland, is a rite of passage for school leavers and generally a lively topic of conversation for months in advance. Whether you’ve been dreaming of the dress you’d wear since first year (guilty) or just looking forward to a night out with your friends, it’s a big social occasion and something to look forward to amongst the stress of exams.

However, 2015 has seen a number of young ladies turned away from their prom because of what they were wearing. The last night of fun with their classmates was ripped away from these girls, all because the dresses they had chosen were deemed “too revealing”. When the cases were challenged by the students and parents affected, the schools refused to discuss the matter. You might be surprised by the offending dresses in  question.

Case 1: Mireya Briceno

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This gorgeous Michegan 18 year old was sent home after just one hour from her prom because the backless dress she wore was “inappropriate”. The school’s dress code stated that dresses showing skin “around the midriff” were forbidden, but had no such rule concerning backless dresses.The school principal, Brad Perkins, originally defended the decision but is now saying the dress code will be “reviewed” in the Autumn. Probably because of the internet storm the decision has caused.

Case 2: Alexus Miller-Wigfall

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This Pennsylvania teen wasn’t turned away from her actual prom, but issued a day’s school suspension after the event. This came as a complete shock to Alexus and her mother, who believes the targeting is weight related. The school’s dress code requires that “all body parts are covered”, including breasts. Alexus’ mother maintains that as Alexus has bigger boobs than several other students, she was punished over girls who were wearing more revealing clothing. To add insult to injury, her mother had emailed several photos of the dress to the school for their approval prior to the prom. “I don’t see anything wrong with that dress. What do they want her to wear, a turtleneck?” her mother said.

Case 3: Shelton High School

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This is perhaps the worst case of all as dozens of students have been affected and not just a few select individuals. Shelton High, a school in Connecticut, created an extensive list of dress code violations and have warned students that breaking the rules will see you denied entry from prom. The problem? They announced these rules a mere eight days before the event was set to take place. This late change in policy has naturally caused a wave of distress amongst students and parents, with many finding their pricey and often non-returnable dresses in violation. Above are two of the dresses rejected by the school. Determined to fight the unfair regulations, the students launched a petition that has gone viral in the last few days. They point out that:

“It takes a long time to pick out a dress or have one custom made, even longer for any necessary alterations to be made; it is unfair to release the dress guidelines eight days before the dance and expect every person to have a dress that follows them.”

The students also articulately  tackled the wider issue of double standards in the school.

“There is a sexist and backwards logic that girls must cover up so that boys are not distracted or tempted to behave inappropriately. If a girl wears a pair of shorts and a boy takes that as an invitation to touch her, who really needs to be told to control themselves? Don’t teach girls to hide their bodies; teach boys self control and that they aren’t entitled to a girl’s body just because she dressed in a way that made her feel beautiful or just didn’t want to get overheated.”

“There is no reason why the boys at Mr. Student Body should have been allowed to parade around the stage in nothing but their boxers but a girl can’t wear a backless dress to prom. This selective enforcement of school dress code is unacceptable.”

Read the full petition here.

The issue that the students of Shelton High so brilliantly address here is the crux of all of the prom debacles we’ve seen.

While prom is a school event and the school are entitled to ask for decent dress, the instances we have seen have gone too far. Is an exposed back really so “inappropriate” when women wear backless gowns getting married every day? Is a 1cm sliver of midriff really so offensive? Are people unaware of the fact that girls have boobs and are therefore startled when they see them in a v-neck dress? Is it reasonable to demand that ALL BODY PARTS be covered, as in the case of Alexus’ high school?

The idea these cases perpetuate is that it is unacceptable for women to show their bodies. These rules tell girls that it is their responsibility to cover up so boys aren’t distracted in class. They say girls should dress a certain way to avoid wolf whistles on the street or leering gazes in a nightclub. They tell people that there is something wrong with exposing skin. They place the blame on women for the way men react to womens’ bodies.

This often unrecognized attitude is an important mark of inequality in modern society. It shows society is still placing the blame on women for sexual harassment and even sexual assault because the inherrent attitude that women should cover up still exists. Is it fair for teenage girls to be banned from wearing sleeveless tops and shorts in school so the boys “aren’t distracted”? Is it fair that police still ask a woman what she was wearing in a case of sexual assault? Is it fair that girls were denied their prom because of the archaic idea that it is women’s duty to cover their skin?

The school administrations that are enforcing unfair rules clearly need to shift their focus. It is not the fault of the boys in a school, or men in general that such policies are being enforced but it is the fault of the policy makers. Instead of turning girls away from prom, maybe they should be teaching students that bare skin is never an invitation, that the female form is neither something to be feared nor overtly sexualised.

Take the blame off women as a whole for the actions of a few select men who believe certain clothes grant them entitlements. This is a minority mindset and one that must be done away with through education. As these girls have realised, this is about much more than missing out on prom.

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Body Image- Not A Gender Specific Subject

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by Rebecca Lumley

The modern world is a polarized place. For the past few years, ideas concerning body image have been changing rapidly and the spectrum of what is beautiful and what is desirable has broadened exponentially. On the one hand, there’s the fashion industry, who still tell us that tall, skinny models possess the ideal bodies. On the other, there’s the wave of protein fuelled, Instagram- loving gym bunnies who want muscles of steel. On the third hand (because you’re an octopus), we have the plus size bloggers campaigning for body acceptance, an end to fat shaming and for less weight related discrimination.

Those are just a few examples from the Western World.

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I say the world is polarized because never before has there been such an impassioned universal debate on what beauty is or such an emphasis on acceptance- no matter what size or shape you are. It was 2015 when Tess Holiday, at a size 22, became the world’s largest and most praised plus size model. It was 2015 when her hashtag #effyourbeautystandards, got the internet talking about self acceptance and diversity. This year, brands like Dove and No.7 are using “real women” in their beauty campaigns.  This year is when the spectrum continues to broaden and in doing so, creates a more tolerant, less image conscious world.

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There’s only one problem- all this is aimed at women.

Yesterday was International Women’s Day and like women all over the world, I loved the chance to celebrate feminism and verbalise the importance of gender equality. I was, however, struck by an inequality I hadn’t even noticed until recently- that men are under as much pressure as women to conform to a certain image, an issue not given any importance or recognition in society.

Dubbed the “Geordie Shore effect” by the Irish Independent last week, this year has seen a massive increase in the number of men joining gyms and taking supplements in hopes of attaining a thick, muscular physique. The popularity of this look has grown massively in recent times and men are going further and further to achieve it, turning to protein powder, weight gain supplements and impossibly heavy weights. Size, not fitness, is everything.

Talking to the Independent, a Cork native by the name of Mark describes his motivations.

“Myself I wanted to be big beyond belief. I wanted to be that man, the one that people look at and go ‘Jesus, he’s something else’.”    

According to the ESRI, almost half of gym users in the country are men, a massive increase from six years ago when it was just a quarter. This trend is undoubtedly impacted by the media glorification of the muscular male.

“Guys are looking for approval from others. They are comparing themselves to other athletes and actors because they desperately want to fit into one of the categories that we now identified as manly, attractive, or ideal,” Mark says.

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What I find unequal about this turn of events is not the actual pressure being placed on men (because all humans are subjected to a myriad of pressures from external sources every day) – but the societal intolerance when it comes to men’s ability to talk about such issues.

“You don’t see guys post on Facebook complaining about how fat they look or how they don’t match up with the Hollywood movie star image,” Mark says.

“You don’t see this because, men still can’t talk openly about their insecurities because when you do so, you get told to ‘man up. I’ve been there myself and seen it, there are quite a few men out there who are suffering in silence.”

These double standards applied to dialogue concerning body image are having real effects on men all over the world and need to be changed.

Since humans first roamed the earth, men were the hunters and women the gatherers. Men have been typecast since the dawn of time as providers, biologically stronger and taller and expected to protect their families. Because of the leadership role nature placed upon them, an expectation has grown that men should not be emotional, should have a thick skin and should be “strong” in all situations. Luckily, we’re not in the Stone Age anymore and women can now fend for themselves. We have slowly raised ourselves from the gatherers to the hunters of our own lives. We are re-defining gender roles and though there’s still a lot to do, it’s happening.

If women are allowed to re-define gender roles- why not men?

As we strive for equality, we must recognize the oppression that men face in certain areas of their lives and strive to eradicate that. We must treat men like they have feelings and allow them to express them without the fear of judgement. We must realize that as body image in the media can affect women, it can also affect men. We must realize that men have the capacity to hate what they see in the mirror just as women do.

Equality means equality.

Eating disorders in men have increased by 25% since 2000. The average age for a man with an eating disorder is 24. Whether concerned with bulking up or slimming down, men feel the same pressures women do.

As Emma Watson pointed out in her UN speech, feminism does not concern only women- it is a male issue too. Only when we are truly equal will women and men have equal freedom, respect and rights. That includes the freedom for men to be able to talk about their insecurities, their fears and their ambitions as freely as women do.

Negative body image is not a gender- specific problem and the emphasis placed on physical perfection in the media doesn’t only affect women.

Equality means equality.