Lady prom-goers at Mount Healthy High learned a valuable lesson at their 2013 prom: If you want to go to prom, don’t have a body, especially if you’re a young Black woman. Multiple students were sent home for wearing dresses that were “too revealing” in the eyes of the fashion police, and in at least one case, a girl’s parents claim school representatives said she wouldn’t be allowed back in even with a change of clothes.
Laneisha Williams, 18; Nyasia Mitchell, 19; and Alexus Campbell, 17, were all informed that they were wearing too little to be permitted through the doors, with officials citing the dress code handed out with prom tickets.
The frock-by-frock breakdown tells a bit of a different story, though.
Williams was wearing an above-the-knee black tulle frock with a denim jacket and dramatic blue makeup, while her friend Mitchell wore a white and pink dress, also above-the-knee with a tulle skirt. Campbell, meanwhile, wore a hand-sewn crimson dress with a little jacket.
Are two of the three dresses above the knee, and the other relatively short? Yes. That doesn’t seem to be an uncommon trend with prom dresses, though; I took a quick gander at some major suppliers of prom dresses and noted that short prom dresses are common. Certainly manufacturers wouldn’t be producing them in scores if they weren’t permissible for proms and other dances, so clearly someone, somewhere, is wearing them.
Were the tops on two of the gowns strapless? Sure. The other top had a pieced cutout detail that was actually pretty cool. In all three cases, it was evident that the wearer of the frock had breasts, which is not really all that much of a surprise given that many ladies do. Some, like Mitchell, have very large breasts naturally, and this isn’t really something they can do anything about — unless, of course, you think teens should get breast reductions just because their chests are unacceptable.
The dress code stated that “Inappropriate dresses that are too short in length or reveal excess cleavage will not be permitted.”
But what does that mean? How short is “too short” and why wasn’t this clearly defined for the benefit of prom-goers preparing to buy their dresses? And how much cleavage is “excess,” especially when you have large breasts and pretty much anything you wear is going to show cleavage no matter how much you try to hide it?
Adding insult to injury, Principal Marlon Styles said that girls should attend prom with “no curvature of the breast showing.”
I’m sorry, but what?! How exactly are you supposed to conceal the “curvature of your breasts” without binding them? Is that what Styles means by “appropriate” prom wear? Should all the girls have popped on a binder and suffocated the night away on the heat of the dancefloor to avoid offending anyone with the uncomfortable reality of the fact that they have, you know, breasts?
Are these seriously the depths to which we have descended as a society, that three young women can be turned away from prom for having breasts?
Black women spend a lot of time being told they should be ashamed of their bodies, and having their bodies sexualized from a very early age. All these girls wanted to do was go to prom, wear some fun dresses, and have a good time, but they were reminded yet again that their bodies are something that should be hidden away and not discussed, that their breasts are gross, that they are sex objects and not human beings.
I understand why dress codes are put in place for proms and other school events, but I can’t help but note that most dress codes unfairly penalize girls, especially those who mature faster than their peers, and are so broadly written that wide room for interpretation is available. Which means that if an administrator wants to, it’s easily possible to shame a girl for appearing in the “wrong” clothes and claim it’s covered under the dress code.
Hemline trolling is pernicious, especially when it comes to young women of color who are already living in a sexually coded and loaded society. By telling these girls their dresses were unacceptable, the message was that they themselves were unacceptable, and that they shouldn’t be allowed out in public. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with wearing a fabulous dress on prom night: That is kind of the point.
And vague dress codes like this tend to be enforced radically differently depending on the size, body type, and race of the target. A thin white girl would be treated very differently than a curvy Black girl, and that right there highlights the ridiculousness of claiming to enforce community standards when your real mission is about making some people more socially acceptable than others.
All three of these girls are devastated by not being able to go to prom, and their mothers are furious. Some are threatening to take the matter to court to ask for their money back, as preparing for prom can get quite expensive, but that’s not going to fix the emotional harm done. Going to prom is a big deal for a lot of teens, and if you’re a senior, you only get one shot.
Having to live with the memory that you were kicked out of your prom for having a body type that administrators deemed unacceptable is not a pleasant thought.