The Sin of the Strapless Dress

celebrities-alice-olivia-maggie-strapless-dress-sequin-bodiceWho knew that shoulders are the new middle school distraction?

I feel sorry for those poor eighth grade girls at Readington Middle School in New Jersey. Their principal has banned the strapless dress for this year’s prom. Her reason for the ban?

They are too distracting for the boys.

There is a whole brouhaha brewing over this ban on strapless dresses and parents are angry. Some undoubtedly are fuming because there are already non-refundable $200 strapless dresses hanging in their daughters’ closets. I’d like to think others are steaming because the very idea that a strapless dress is going to provoke inappropriate behavior insults young women as well as young men everywhere, not just in New Jersey.

There is something so inherently wrong in suggesting that shoulders are distracting. Shoulders. It is just another way of saying that girls have something that drive boys wild, and that boys have no control over their impulses.

After I read about the “no bare shoulders” dress code, I peeked into my own daughter’s closet to remind myself what her prom dress looked like. Ah, yes. That beautiful satiny pink elegant dress we bought in New York for her special night. Not strapless, but certainly her shoulders were showing. I do not remember hearing about boys losing control because they caught a glimpse of them through spaghetti straps. I do remember an awkward, albeit sweet, boy handing her a wrist corsage.

Raising a daughter is different from raising a son. As mothers, we say things like, “Maybe that dress is a little short.” But teaching our daughters how to dress is mostly a matter of good taste. Appropriate dress for the situation. For the life of me, I see nothing wrong with a bare shoulder.

To suggest otherwise, is dangerously close to what we now refer to as “slut shaming.” As in —  It’s the girl’s fault. Her dress was too short, her neckline was too low, her shoulders were too bare.

When I was in junior high, I liked short skirts and make-up and way too much Yardley Oh! de London perfume. It didn’t make the boys lose control, and it didn’t make me a slut. It would be many years before I would even kiss a boy.

Good taste, appropriate dress, and teaching respect for oneself and others, both at home and at school, is my prescription for the fears of this New Jersey middle school principal. Trying to make her eighth grade girls take the responsibility for what the eighth grade boys may or may not do only perpetuates the false premise that a girl is “asking for it” depending on how she dresses.

To this mom, bare shoulders are okay. imposing a dress code that teeters too closely to the edge of slut-shaming is not okay. As parents, we have the obligation to teach our daughters and sons respect for themselves and each other.

And it has nothing to do with bare shoulders.

Contributor Joan Haskins has been writing her popular blog on Open Salon since 2009. She teaches yoga to children at Balasana Yoga, which provides material for many of her pieces. She is currently writing a memoir, which goes against everything she was taught as a child about not telling family business. She lives in Washington, D.C. with her husband, and has one daughter in college who she misses on a daily basis.

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  • Touche! Joanie! I’m the mother of a son, but especially your last sentence made SO much sense.

  • My prom dress was strapless. It was also a Laura Ashley floral pattern – I think it screamed “Grandma’s Couch” way more than sexy. Unlike my friend’s lacy black number that did happen to have to have covered shoulders. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that a guy dumb enough to make this rule wouldn’t understand that sexy and strapless are not necessarily the same thing.

    Not, of course, that it matters. Teenage boys can get turned on by melons in the supermarket. Suggesting that it’s in any way the girls’ responsibility to control the boys’ thoughts makes me wonder if this guy started his educational career in Saudi Arabia.

  • I think you raise a very good point that there is something wrong with limiting girls’ clothing option because “boys cannot handle it.” This reinforces a message that boys don’t have to handle it, that it’s somehow OK for them to be driven by their urges without any effort to curb them. That’s a dangerous message especially in light of recent events, such as the Steubenville rape case.

    With that said, I am not against schools limiting what girls’ where in some fashion — although no bare shoulder at the prom seems ridiculously strict. Most formal or semi-formal dresses have bare shoulders, and I think we’d be better to teach our sons that whatever a girl wears, he needs to control himself. That’s the message i am attempting to instill in my own son.

    However, I have also explained to my daughter that she needs to dress appropriately. She’s only 11, so at this point, there is little conflict. I suspect (if she’s anything like I was) she will take to changing her clothes in the backseat of a moving car so she can wear outfits she knows I won’t approve of. But that’s part of learning, too.

  • While I heartily disagree with the school’s reasoning, I see nothing wrong with having some sort of dress code for prom. It makes it easier on those girls who may not feel comfortable in more revealing evening wear, for one. And I don’t think it is the end of the world if that dress code includes banning strapless dresses. The prom our homeschool community sponsors insists on 2-inch or more straps. Those “$200 strapless dresses”? Can easily be retrofitted with straps – we do it all the time. Although I don’t think I would pay 200 dollars for a teen’s dress!

    We also ask that dresses hit no higher than right above the knee. Everyone has a fantastic time, with a lot of our guests coming from outside the homeschool community. Seems that a lot of girls prefer a prom that is low key and that has a dress code set by adults and not by fellow students…

  • Lezlie Bishop

    While I am full agreement with your point that bare shoulders should have nothing at all to do with boys’ behavior, I believe middle school girls are far too young to be wearing such a sophisticated look. Here in Atlanta middle school starts at 6th grade and there is no such thing as a prom before high school. My strapless dress for my first high school prom was a symbol of a right of passage into near young adulthood. Plus, by then I had the physique required to hold the dress up! The lovely young ladies in the picture above are clearly older than 12 or 13, the age of middle school girls. What’s the rush?

    • Lezlie, as the mother of a 7th grade daughter who is just starting to attend “mixers,” I agree. I would not let my daughter do to a dance yet in a strapless dress. But part of me says it depends on the community and, I have to say, it does fall into the realm of wondering why we have to ask our daughters to alter what they want to wear because there are those who are afraid of what the conduct will be of the boys.

  • Joan Haskins

    My good friend with two daughters in high school just called me after reading this and said, “what’s the problem?” She reminded me that at her daughter’s bat mitzvah, most of the girls were wearing strapless dresses. (They would have been 13) I think there are parts of the country where it is very acceptable and considered youthful but elegant. I only remember thinking they were just a lovely bunch of girls…
    Of course, this is not the point of my piece, just telling this as a nod to Lezlie and Joanne’s comments.

    • Joan, agreed. There are certainly very tasteful strapless dresses. I know that for bar and bat mitzvah parties, many teens see that as a time to try outfits that are a bit more grown up. And I would rather see bare shoulders than seeing girls with dresses that barely cover their behind! 😉 But as you point out, that’s not really the point of your piece and I agree — school administrators need to think about the potential “sult-shaming” aspect.

  • gabbyabby

    A “Prom” in middle school? what? There is ‘Jr. Prom’ and ‘Sr. Prom’ in your junior and senior years of high school. These are dance & dinner events for 16-17 year olds — not 11-13 year olds. That is reeeDICulous!

    Middle schoolers enroll in Cotillion and go to casual, chaperoned mixers in grades 6, 7, and 8. A Prom is held for young men and women who are mature enough to date, dress formally, and have an young adult-like experience of a formal dinner and dance party.

    Adults are the springboard for the silly idea of a ‘prom’ for kids. If they are going to sponsor a “Prom”, they can’t complain that the children want to play dress up in imitation of older, more mature students who actually *have* Proms.

  • Hi Joanie – I just saw this! This gives great food for thought. I get your point and agree with it, but having a little one with an already provocative idea of how girls should dress (she tried on a pencil skirt in White House/Black Market as a dress when I wasn’t looking, and you know what? She rocked it), I think as a parent I would love if my school district made a similar rule and took the impetus off of parents. However, this is a conversation that needs to be had: slut-shaming, both boys’ and girls’ behavior and the responsibility that needs to be taken for that behavior. Let this be a jumping off point. Great writing.

  • Of course the parents want their kids to look great and have a good time. On the other hand, the school wants to ensure age-appropriateness around the event and the students involved. I had a similar situation. That’s why I found the Schalero TM. It is an attachable and detachable wrap/shrug for occasions such as this. The girls get their dresses with cover ups and the schools rules are followed. Everyone is happy and everyone has a great time. @The_Schalero on Twitter

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