Prom is supposed to be a lot of things: A final opportunity to have all your peers in one place before college and post-12th-grade life tears you all apart; a time associated with falling in love, or consummating a preexisting love. Yep, high school prom is the embodiment of a "coming of age" narrative. It's one of those moments you're supposed to remember forever; one of those moments that's going to teach you all about yourself, so you can start off your future life with a pile of new existential lessons in tow. The truth is, prom is very rarely any of those things. At least for me, it was cause for aggravated insecurities. With big expectations come big pressures, after all.
In the month or two leading up to the big night, just about everything was a source for concern in my book. I didn't have a date, but all my friends did. I couldn't find an outfit I loved, because New Jersey malls didn't really stock gowns in my size and I had no idea that online shopping was a viable option (albeit plus size e-retail would've still been a pretty grim scene in 2009). I hated my hair — recently highlighted and straightened on a whim and not very me at all. Worst of all, I just kind of hated myself.
Up until that point, I'd never been a huge fan of anything about who I was. I detested my height. I detested the fat on my body, and the fact that it made me larger than almost anyone else in my year. I detested the introverted personality that prevented me from experiencing the things I thought I was supposed to experience. Come prom, I also detested the dress I was wearing: A black, sack-like gown with no straps that showed off the arms I particularly disliked. But that was my only option besides a hot pink gown that would've been way too look-at-me for someone who preferred to be a wallflower. Looking back, there's just one body positive lesson I wish I'd known then: How your body looks isn't really the point of prom. It's not really the point of most things.
This isn't to say that you shouldn't try to find an outfit that makes you feel your best. Whether that be an alternative tux or jumpsuit, or a quintessential princess gown, the ensemble you opt for will inevitably be immortalized through photographic evidence for all eternity (or at least for as long as your parents insist on holding onto old family albums). You definitely want to make sure the look is something that speaks to who you are, or who you want to be, or who you feel like in that moment. For us plus size humans, there now exists a myriad of sartorial options to look forward to, as compared to what we got in the early millennium. So yes, your outfit arguably matters. In the same way that our day-to-day fashion choices have the ability to influence our moods, so too do the things we wear to prom. What's underneath those clothes, however, just isn't totally relevant.
Remember all the things prom is supposed to be? A time for friendship; a time for romance; a time for memorable, and very-likely-cringe-worthy, teenage sex; a time for lessons learned and dances danced and booze snuck into punch? Nowhere in the definition of "high school prom" does it say we're supposed to change our bodies in order to enjoy everything else.
Yet all I can really remember from my own dance was the way I obsessed over covering my chest and arms with a shrug; the way I wouldn't let myself dance for fear that said shrug would fall off; the way I blamed my lack of a date for the way my body looked, rather than the simple fact that, in retrospect, there was just no one around who I would've been particularly compatible with. I also remember the dress in acutely unpleasant detail: The dress that strategically slimmed me down in some places thanks to its general bagginess, but that was physically uncomfortable and itchy and made me feel like a failed extra in Beetlejuice. And not in a cool way.
Prom was clouded by a distaste for my body that I wouldn't get over for several years thereafter. But it didn't have to be. I wasn't actually going to go to the whole affair until my mother insisted; explaining that — regardless of how in denial I might have been at the time — this might be the last opportunity for me to see all my friends in one place. She told me that the friendships I had then wouldn't likely be the friendships I had forever. I thought the outlook was cynical at the time; a result of her age or the fact that she only had one friend left over from before 11th grade, perhaps. But it proved to be pretty true. My closest buddies and I would try to keep hold of our relationships throughout the summer after high school, and even into freshman year of college. But nothing lasted. Our lives all changed, and so did we. We didn't fit together anymore. Prom was kind of the last time we could've.
This isn't to say that no one will ever preserve their high school relationships. I know plenty of people who've stayed close to those friends well into their 20s and 30s. But even if you stay emotionally close to them, the chances that you'll all end up physically close to one another are usually kind of bleak. Which is why, ultimately, prom night should be a celebration of the relationships you have: The relationships that got you through four very brutal years; the relationships that consisted of individuals who probably never cared about the size of your prom dress, anyway. Or the way your belly looked in that silhouette. Or how short or tall you were in heels.
When I look at photos of myself from prom, I can't particularly conceptualize what was so wrong with me — other than how miserable I looked. Sure, the dress and hair I opted for weren't super true to my style, but I was just an average-looking 18-year-old, more or less as awkward as everyone else around me. I wasn't hideous, or undateable, or damaged. I was just prioritizing the wrong things.
Prom arrived before I realized that enjoying one's life doesn't have to come with a list of aesthetic attributes to be achieved before it can happen. I didn't have to lose weight in order to dance. I didn't have to be shorter in order to enjoy the company of those closest to me. The people I surrounded myself with that night weren't humans who were that conscious of how I looked. They didn't care if I'd lost weight or gained it. They just wanted to hang out with their friend — and I didn't make that particularly easy. I didn't stop to think that I might not see most of them again. I didn't stop to think that the music being played was actually pretty decent. All I could think about was my body — when that simply wasn't the point at all.
Most events I've been to since haven't been about my body, either. Although there haven't been more prom nights in my life, there have been a lot of birthdays and weddings and dinners and work parties. Sure, sometimes there's been a dress code or some other focus on fashion. But most of the time, the focus is on human interactions. And the simple reality is that those — at least from what I've managed to deduce in 25 years — usually go a lot more smoothly when we're not too wrapped up in our own insecurities. When we give ourselves the freedom to enjoy things, without time limits or physical requirements.
I know that, in general, most of us live within cultures that inspire self-hatred. Deciding not to care about what your body looks like is as simple and realistic as deciding that you will be amongst the first human beings to settle on Mars. If you're struggling with body image-related hang-ups on prom night, pushing them aside might not be feasible without some effort. Personally, I wish I'd asked myself what it was I really wanted prom to be — what it was I really wanted to remember.
I wanted to remember my friends. I wanted to remember the good things about school, no matter how few and far between they were. I wanted to remember the two English teachers who practically changed my life. I wanted to remember the feeling of getting all dressed up with my besties and riding in a limo that none of us were, or would ever be, fancy enough for. I wanted to remember the feeling of experiencing a night during which none of the high school hierarchies were on my mind, because after that night, they wouldn't even exist.
Instead, I can only remember hating my body. And in the scheme of things, wasting one of the few potentially good nights of those four years. So please: Ask yourself what it is you want to take away from this night. What do you want to remember? If it's not body-hangups and/or aesthetic woes, then it simply doesn't have to be.
Images: Marie Southard Ospina