This essay originally appeared on BlogHer.
It’s prom season around our house. My seventeen-year-old son is a prom pro. He’s been to so many in the past few years, I don’t even need to give him the Prom Speech. He knows the drill and I trust him. This year, however, his fifteen-year-old sister was invited to the prom. Funny how different my reaction was; I said, “No!”
For most of us, prom evokes emotions and issues our children can’t really understand. We bring our own prom memories, assuming we can remember them, to the decision to allow our children to go (it is not a right, but a privilege I reminded them during our heated debate).
As we were arguing about whether my daughter could go to the prom, the whole scene reminded me of those television shows where the wild parents with a sordid past are busy raising well-behaved, respectable teenagers. You know, the ones where the parents struggle with how much to tell their kids and then marvel at how well-adjusted and mature their children are? Cue to my house. I didn’t need to share my own awful prom experience, I simply wanted my daughter’s experience to be different.
Let’s start with the obvious. Prom is so much more than it seems. Sure, it’s a night of fun and celebration. But it is also a tradition steeped in issues such as money and class and homophobia and racism. At the very least, it is supremely sexist.
My inner feminist bristles at the notion of my daughter being objectified. I want to protect her from a world that might value her only for her looks and not her deep and beautiful mind.I want her to understand the cattle call that is part of the preparation for prom — the dress, the hair, the nails, the shoes — represent more than just a night out. Dress too short, too revealing, to see-through and suddenly a girl goes from baby to babe. And the shoes? There is a reason they call them “fuck-me” pumps. I want her to see that in this case, a cigar is not just a cigar or, more to the point, a heel is not just a heel.
Beyond the politics of prom, I want her to be safe. I’ve read one too many stories of drunken drivers and lives forever altered. For many of us, prom is one of the first nights our teenagers take their teetering steps towards adulthood. Allowing my daughter to go to prom at the tender age of fifteen would be just another way in which the imaginary umbilicus that grounds my sense of security will unravel in her maturing.
I wonder now why was I so willing to throw my son to the cultural wolves and did not step back and ponder how prom might affect him? He went to his first prom when he was fifteen with a good friend who was a junior. She wanted him as a date because she “knew they’d have a great time.” She is funny, a little outrageous, and I knew she wouldn’t put my son in any awkward situations. He wore the requisite tux, bought her the requisite rose corsage, and they took the requisite limo with a group of friends to the museum where the event was held. He had a great time. It was all so innocent. I think.
But for my daughter, it feels different. Perhaps because I know the heartache and struggle and moments of self-doubt she will inevitably feel in a world that, for all its claims of “girl power,” still treats women as a minority. I’m so used to fighting her battles for her, is she really ready to fight them on her own?
The arguing continued until my son said, “Why can’t you trust her like you trust me.” And suddenly I saw it. My own internalized sexism had created a double standard allowing my son freedoms I was denying his sister. Didn’t she deserve the right to test the waters and try on a little bit of adulthood, even if for just one night?
And so she went. She wore a dress that was white and innocent and sexy all at once and shoes that almost sent my husband into cardiac arrest when he saw them. She looked like a young woman and had wonderful time. Her date was respectful and kind. He wantedto attend an after-party that started well after our daughter’s curfew, so we agreed in advance my husband would pick her up directly from the dance. On the way home, she fell asleep on my husband’s shoulder just like she did when she was daddy’s little girl.