Last week, a new survey found that nationwide, U.S. teens and their families will spend an average of $1,000 on this year’s prom. In my region, the northeast, the average is double that–a whopping $2,000 per family. With such numbers, the article argues, “Prom is the new wedding.”
Teen girls view prom as their “red-carpet moment” and are “heavily influenced” by celebrities who walk actual red carpets in designer gowns. “It’s a rite of passage, and there’s a legacy of how you look at your prom. Girls want to dress to impress.”
In other words, the intense consumerism of prom may be fueled by a wish to be like a celebrity for a night: the center of attention, all eyes on her, enjoying the spotlight.
But with such pleasures come intense pressure–the pressure of public scrutiny, with a fear of condemnation if the girl fails to achieve an idealized look. External scrutiny may be real or imagined. It may take place on Facebook or at an afterparty. But self-scrutiny will most likely take place in the mirror, as a girl turns her critical eye on her own reflection to gauge whether she measures up to the ideal. No sympathy, no compassion–just judgments.
It’s easy for critics to wag their fingers at teen girls and their parents for enabling this behavior. However, prom spending can’t be removed from its cultural context. For one thing, girls face a marketing machine that makes such spending seem necessary (see any teen magazine during prom season for details). But more importantly, our culture socializes girls to be consumers who treat themselves as commodities–packaged to be gazed upon, admired, and desired.
Consider all the toddler girls who want nothing more than to be miniature Disney Princesses: Some are so insistent on their princess identities that they will wear nothing but princess play clothes, and protest with tearful heartbreak at every well-intended reality check. For the families of discerning young preschool consumers, this can become a costly interest to support: Disney-branded princess dresses start at about $45 at the Disney Store; accessories like matching shoes, tiaras, and purses are sold separately.
The Disney princess dresses can cost twice that or more if purchased at a Disney theme park during a family vacation, while a full princess makeover at Disney’s popular Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique can set parents back an additional $50-$190 or more (dress not included). But Disney persuades parents that these costs are worthwhile, for the memories will last a lifetime: As the signs at Disney’s parks say, “Let the memories begin.”
And so the toddler girl’s $100-$200 princess dress-up experience sets the stage for the $1,000-$2,000 prom.
What the toddlers and teens are buying is a fantasy. Teen girls who aspire to have a “red-carpet moment” at prom–like couples who now spend an average of $27,000 on their dream weddings–are spending their money to display a glamorous image for a single evening.
The marketing machine insists that moment will “last a lifetime,” which makes all the spending seem worthwhile. The advertising narrative tells girls, “You’re worth it! Go ahead and be glamorous. Show everyone the real you.”
But this prom experience isn’t so much “real” as aspirational.
Just like little girls (and beautiful brides) are not really princesses, girls at prom are playing dress-up, too. Yes, it’s a lot of fun to do so–but as many girls do in fact know, prom can be just as fun on a smaller budget. (As one teen who reported happily finding a gown on consignment said last year, “Being frugal is cool.”) When exorbitant spending seems necessary and inevitable, though, the marketers are winning–aided and abetted by a culture that teaches girls that a primary source of their value is their appearances.
The Christian Science Monitor has assembled a diverse group of the best family and parenting bloggers out there. Our contributing and guest bloggers are not employed or directed by the Monitor, and the views expressed are the bloggers' own, as is responsibility for the content of their blogs. Rebecca Hains blogs at rebeccahains.wordpress.com.