By Kelly Wallace
Editor’s note: Kelly Wallace is CNN’s digital correspondent and editor-at-large covering family, career and life. She is a mom of two.
(CNN) — For Holly Manson, a mom of three teens in Oakland, Maine, one simple saying has made the difference between absolute dread during prom season and actually welcoming the rite of passage.
“‘I always told my girls to ‘dress classy not trashy’ and so when they make their clothing choices, they tend to go towards the classy stuff,” said Manson, who responded to a request for comment on CNN’s Facebook page.
It’s a saying, she says, that just popped into her head around the time her girls, now 14 and 18, and her son, 16, started middle school.
All the inappropriate clothing Manson saw while out shopping with her kids inspired the mantra. “To be honest with you, that one phrase has saved us so many headaches.”
Plenty of reasons to be anxious
Many other parents around the country haven’t been so lucky. Trips to the mall in spring are steeped in a potent mix of prom angst: teenage girls shopping for the perfect dress, selections bordering on the wildly inappropriate to many parents, and a culture sexualizing girls at younger and younger ages.
Can I just say right here I’m already freaking out and my girls, ages 6 and 8, are years away from prom time?
“16, 17, 18-year-olds should not be in dresses with thigh-high slits, necklines that plunge precariously close to the belly button, backs that are cut so low as to expose butt dimples,” said a mother named Judith on CNN’s Facebook page. “Parents need to step in and stop this ‘beyond the age’ dressing.”
In some cases, schools are not leaving it up to the parents and are imposing their own dress codes for prom. One Northern California Catholic high school sent an e-mail to parents announcing that attire for junior and senior prom should “be moderate and reflect pride in both the person and the school.”
The e-mail, obtained by CNN, actually also included pictures of dresses deemed acceptable and those considered inappropriate. On the banned list were low-cut and backless dresses and dresses with very high hemlines.
Manson, the Maine mom of three, doesn’t think dress codes are the answer. “I know the town over from us requires that their dresses have a strap,” she said with a laugh. “It has to have a strap but it’s OK if it comes up to their butt cheek.”
Boys don’t have many variations on the traditional tux to choose from when planning prom attire, so they typically don’t have to deal with others judging them due to their clothing choice. But when kids dress in ways that are gender nonconforming, or even when a boy wants to wear a kilt, they can get into trouble with school administrators too.
Parents and teens: Not enough choices
Another frustration I heard from parents and even some teens is that there just aren’t enough moderate options — both in terms of sexiness and price — available in stores and online.
“I would say the problem is … that a girl who has sort of a more modern taste … if (the dresses) are for someone her age, they’re too short. They’re shorter than they should be,” said a mom of two teens. Dresses can also cost hundreds of dollars, which most parents either can’t pay or won’t pay, she added.
A 17-year-old named Angela, currently shopping for a prom dress, says it’s not that most teenagers want to wear revealing prom dresses. It’s because they often have no other choice.
“I feel as if it is not that teenage tastes have grown ‘too sexy’ but that the fashion market as a whole encourages young people to dress in a provocative way,” she said via e-mail.
“When I go to department stores, the majority of prom dresses there seem to have some sort of cut-out on the back or the sides. Otherwise, they are completely unflattering,” Angela added.
But an editor at Seventeen magazine, which just released its 291-page annual prom issue, says there are plenty of options.
“There literally is something for everyone, for every body type, for any kind of school regulation, if you have rules or dress codes, anything like that,” said Jasmine Snow, accessories editor for Seventeen. “I think it’s just about finding the right resources,” she said, suggesting Seventeen’s dress guide, which includes many style options.
The key, says Snow, is for a girl to find a dress she’ll feel good and confident wearing. “It also has to be something that your parents feel good about having you wear as well, and I think it’s about having that compromise between the parent and the teenager.”
“It could be a simple conversation of, ‘Let’s just make sure that we’re both on the same page’ … about what is expected and what is important,” said Snow, who said the shopping experience for teen girls is just as important as the actual prom itself. “You don’t want to have some big fight in the store, then you don’t get anything done.”
Growing up too fast
So many parents, this reporter among them, are concerned about how our girls are growing up so much faster than when we were kids. Clearly, we can’t blame prom dresses as the single cause, but they’re a factor.
“Clothing definitely plays a role in the sexualization of our girls, so from prom dresses to starter bras to shorts, I believe we need to show our girls a broader range of options so they can choose the style that works for them,” said Sharon Choksi, a mom of two in Austin, Texas, who got so fed up with the “short shorts” and “teeny bikinis” she started her own clothing company, Girls Will Be.
“Girls today receive so many messages that they should focus on their appearance and act more grown-up. I don’t want my daughter thinking that is what is most important and is how people will value her,” said Choksi.
Manson, the Maine mom of three, said the issue is not just about the dress and whether it’s too short or too sexy; it’s about how teenage girls portray themselves as well.
“If you go and dress trashy and slutty and promiscuous, that’s what you’re going to attract to yourself,” she said. “It dictates your behavior as well.”
What happens when you put your fears aside
Not every parent considers shopping for a teenage daughter’s prom dress about as welcome as, let’s say, a root canal, doing taxes or cleaning the bathroom.
“As a single dad, the entire prom experience was just one more experience I actually looked forward to with my daughter,” said Jim Higley, an award-winning author and national fatherhood advocate.
“Clothes shopping, shoe shopping — all the things that are important to my daughter — they’re important to me,” the father of three and author of the book “Bobblehead Dad” said.
For Tracey Clark of Huntington Beach, California, a mom of two girls and a Babble.com contributor, shopping for prom and other school dance dresses has been so positive she even posted a video online of one of her shopping excursions with her 16-year-old daughter.
She credits her happy experiences with planning (they shop for dresses very far in advance) and plain luck. Her daughter has kind of a retro style and doesn’t gravitate to the provocative stuff, said Clark, who hosts a blog in her own name and contributes photographs to the collaborative blog Shutter Sisters.
“But there are dresses where I’m like, ‘Babe, I know you don’t like short short things on you and this one from the back looks short short,'” said Clark.
And, when she’s with her daughter and sees girls wearing short skirts, she’ll point them out. “I’ll say, ‘Oh, I wonder if she knows how short that is?'” she said with a laugh. “My daughter’s like, ‘Oh, that’s heartbreaking. Look Mom, you can almost see her underwear.'”
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