Saturday, July 4, 2015

Prom and What (Not?) to Wear

A year ago at this time, all the high school buzz in Curmieville had to do with yearbooks. Curmie wrote about five variations on the theme over two entries (1, 2). There was the school that Photoshopped yearbook pictures without the students involved even knowing it was happening; the school that published a warm and fuzzy two-page spread on the students who were parents; the school that threatened the class vice president with suspension for saying something in the yearbook that was a little vulgar (and should have been caught by the editor or advisor), not because there were three consecutive misspelled words in the message; the school that refused to print a yearbook photo of a lesbian student who wore a tuxedo instead of a dress; and finally the principal who lifted his yearbook message to the class from another principal’s similar treatise: even congratulating the wrong class!

This year, it’s about prom dresses. There will be a whole other post about idiotic dress codes not related to prom, but there are more than enough stories to fill a post on this narrow topic alone. To be clear: not all of these stories will lead to consideration for the next Curmie Award, but there are a couple of possibilities… and the follow-up about dress code inanity unrelated to proms will generate another couple of contenders.

We take these stories chronologically, starting in March (Curmie has some serious catching up to do) in McSherrystown, PA, specifically at Delone Catholic High School. There, school administrators demanded that girls intending to attend prom submit a photo of their dresses for prior approval, and parents and students alike were, shall we say, irked by what they viewed as draconian demands.

First off, they said the school gave them too little warning, and several girls had already purchased dresses for several hundred dollars without knowing the policy. The school responded with a haughty missive claiming the policy had been announced on September 8 and that they were all about the school’s “responsibility to ensure that Catholic values and moral integrity permeate every facet of the school's life and activity.” Uh huh. Moral integrity would appear to be required only of students, however, not of administrators.

For one thing, Curmie (who perhaps arrogantly considers himself as good a researcher as the average parent) can find no evidence whatsoever to support the school’s claim. There’s nothing about a September 8 announcement in the “Archived News” section of the school’s website about an announcement in September, on the school’s Facebook page or, indeed, in the September 12 issue of the Squire Wire, the school’s newsletter. Indeed, the only readily accessible guidelines anywhere are a set of “Formal and Semi-formal Dance Dress Guidelines” which make no mention of prior approval, and indeed claim explicitly that students who violate the dress code will be given something else to wear. Curmie might also add that those guidelines are—of course—incompetently written. I’m particularly fond of the closing sentence: “If something is not listed above, it is not appropriate and it should not be worn.” Curmie notes that there is no mention of suitcoats or sportcoats for boys, so such items are apparently are apparently verboten.

Standard procedure seems to be playing out pretty well here. The standards were not, in fact, announced in advance, at least in any way that qualifies as “making public,” and the school is indignant about getting caught in a lie. The guidelines are silly to begin with (according to a local boutique owner, “A midriff-baring two-piece dress is acceptable, but the one with sheer material over the stomach is not. Another one has tan material covered in see-through netting, but it probably wouldn't be OK either because it gives the illusion of sheerness,” for example). And you can bet the mortgage that the rules capriciously applied… not to mention the whole idea that girls are held to strict standards but boys are not. Plus, of course, the approval process takes time, and a girl wanting to buy a dress—any dress, because they’re well aware of their administration’s inanity—might return to the store, pre-approval in hand, only to find that it’s already been sold to a girl who attends a school with less self-righteousness at the helm.

Ultimately, however, this is a Catholic school, and they therefore have considerable latitude in devising and enforcing silly standards. They don’t get to lie about it, though.

Mireya Briceno in her offending dress.
And so we move on to April in Muskegon (MI) High School, where Mireya Briceno was sent home from prom after being there for an hour because… well, no one is really saying, but it had something to do with the backless dress she wore. There’s a predictable disagreement about who said what when, but a few things are clear.

First off, backless dresses were explicitly allowed.  What wasn’t, was bare midriffs (or “mid-drifts,” to use the terminology employed by whoever wrote that policy… seriously, do you have to be illiterate to work for a school, or does it just help?): “when you look at yourself in a mirror there should be no skin showing around the mid-drift [sic.] area.”

OK, so assuming these were the guidelines (note that they’re fundamentally different—in both directions—than Delone Catholic’s rules), it’s reasonable that it might be interpreted differently by different people (which is but one reason the policy is stupid). What, after all, is the midriff? The term’s origin (or, rather, renaissance) came about as a euphemism for “belly,” which was considered vulgar in the mid-20th century. Is Ms. Briceno’s belly showing beneath that dress? No. No, it is not. But if she were to “look in a mirror” with her arms anywhere but at her sides, would she see skin? Yes. This might qualify, then, as a borderline call; although Curmie sees nothing wrong with the dress in terms of the stated guidelines, and would always give the student the benefit of the doubt in circumstances like these, and certainly after Mireya had already been admitted to the dance (reason #14,368 why Curmie will never be a high school administrator).

Of course, an unidentified (there’s another kind in these stories?) teacher claims that young Mireya admitted the dress was non-compliant, an assertion disputed by Mireya and her mom. Mireya also says there were other girls wearing similar style dresses, or even those in direct and obvious violation of the dress code, who were allowed to stay. This is, of course, SOP for people in her position… which doesn’t mean she’s wrong.

More importantly, Mireya was allowed into prom, apparently wearing her date’s suitcoat (because, she says, it was a little chilly outside), in violation of the rules. The fact that she wasn’t stopped immediately is a decision the administration will have to “own,” according to Principal Brad Perkins, who has shown all the leadership skills of overcooked vermicelli. Seriously, he was “caught off guard” by the fact that someone wouldn’t like to be humiliated in front of her friends and sent home from prom for a largely imaginary violation of the rules? He didn’t know why the dress was determined to be non-compliant, but supports the decision anyway? He refused to speak on camera and likewise refused to look at photographs of Mireya and of other girls at prom?

And his claim to have received only positive feedback for the decision marks him as either a prevaricator of world-class stature or as the inhabitant of an echo chamber that would make Fox News blush. (Note: an on-line poll shows that readers disagree with the decision by an 83-10 margin, with the rest undecided. No, that’s not a scientific poll, but how in the hell can someone this stupid and this dishonest remain employed? Oh… wait… he’s a high school principal. I should have remembered that. My bad.)

In one interview he wonders “What would be the purpose of looking in the past?” (Is he really so stupid that he doesn’t know the answer to that question?) In another interview he says, “In her opinion, (Mireya) did everything she could to honor the dress code…. At the end of the day, there was a decision made. We can't go back and change it.”

What you can do, you pusillanimous little turd, is to accept responsibility for shaming one of your students, certainly unnecessarily and I think unjustifiably, and offer an apology. That’s really all Mireya wants at this point, although she doesn’t expect one. That’s because she knows that her school administration is comprised largely if not exclusively by people lacking intelligence, personal responsibility, common sense, or moral courage. If Curmie were to list his ten least-favorite phrases to be uttered or written by a person in authority, there is absolutely no question that “there was a decision made”—agentless, passive, irresponsible—would be at or near the top.

Curmie also wonders if the problem would have been avoided had Ms. Briceno been a little less gorgeous… or had her date been of her race. But these are speculations, not accusations. For now.

And Alexus Miller-Wigfall in hers.
But if the hour between Mireya Briceno’s arrival at prom and her dismissal seems like an awfully long time for such a grievous violation of propriety (/snark) to have been allowed to continue, then wait to you read about this story from Harrisburg (PA) Sci-Tech High School, where senior Alexus Miller-Wigfall was threatened with suspension three days after prom night because her dress was… wait for it… too revealing. No one said anything when she was actually wearing it, but what of that?

No one seems to deny that the (unnamed, of course) Assistant Principal blithely applied a double standard in Ms. Miller-Wigfall’s case because the girl has “more boobs than other girls,” who “have less to show.” That, as Curmie’s netpal Jack Marshall has observed, “might sustain a sexual harassment lawsuit if the teacher said it to a secretary.” And the policy is—do I even need to mention this?—written by an illiterate. “Dresses and Gowns [yes, “Gowns” is capitalized] MUST cover all body parts….” SMH.

There are a range of options why Alexus was singled out for humiliation. Seventeen magazine calls it “body shaming”; the Daily Venus Diva blog similarly points out that Alexus is “plus-sized.” But linked footage of students arriving at prom posted by a local media outlet show that there were other big girls (and other African-American big girls) who showed more cleavage than Alexus did; there was also, just in the barely minute-long clip, at least one dress which was unquestionably too short, according to the published standards. So Curmie is going to simply agree with his friend Jack: “the administrators just wanted to make a young woman feel bad about herself because they are petty, mean-spirited, incompetent fools, and because they can. The suspension threat apparently disappeared after media coverage made the idiots in charge look like idiots the administration had a chance to think, but of course the damage had been done: the damage to Alexus Miller-Wigfall’s memories, but also the damage to the reputation of the school, and therefore to every one of her classmates, as well.

And then there was Shelton (CT) High School, where the restrictions were announced ridiculously late in the process: eight days before prom, to be precise. The policy itself—no backless dresses, no cut-outs, and no two-piece outfits in which the midriff is exposed—looks pretty familiar, as does the reaction of a host of girls and their families who had already spent hundreds of dollars on a non-returnable dress. The school is saying the guidelines have been out longer (that the short-notice announcement was a reminder, not a new direction) and that the rules are intended only to avoid the “very questionable dresses” of years past and they’re interested only in making the event enjoyable for all. To be honest, I don’t have the energy to track down the details. It does appear, however, that a committee was established to make some common-sense decisions: 19 dresses were called into question and only seven disapproved, with opportunities to alter them to bring them into compliance. Press coverage stopped by the time prom itself rolled around, so I’m assuming a satisfactory conclusion. We can hope.

Finally, two quick notes about proms elsewhere. After much struggle, officials at Southwest High School in San Antonio finally caved, under (veiled?) threat of a lawsuit, and allowed senior Samantha Amelle Lopez to wear a tux to her prom. This is reminiscent of last year’s yearbook controversy in which San Francisco’s Sacred Heart Cathedral High School omitted Jessica Urbina’s photo because she wore a tux. That school re-considered after the fact, and issued a very moving apology. Progress in this area is slow but inexorable. Having hissy fits over seeing a little skin under a prom dress: I fear that’s going to be with us for a while.

Which brings us to a brief discussion of Portsmouth (NH) High School. The local paper published a photo gallery of prom attendees, and shared some of them on Facebook, whereupon a number of locals went berserk—“Just glad these ladies are not my daughters!” and similar tripe. (By the way, the first response to that FB comment: “I’m sure it’s mutual” was also the first thought to come to Curmie’s mind.)

To be sure, some of the dresses were a little less than demure, and relatively few looked like what Curmie would call a prom dress, but there’s no question that they were tasteful, and that the overwhelming majority of the students looked really good. Moreover—especially in light of my comment about what I think a prom dress looks like—it’s their prom. They shouldn’t be expected to dress to my standards, but to theirs. Also, at this particular school, senior prom is a less formal event than junior prom—none of the boys are in tuxes, you’ll note. Prom is designed for seniors (especially) to have a good time. They did. Mission accomplished. If the school didn’t object, and the parents didn’t object, then the haters can go munch on some Ex-Lax until their problem resolves itself.

But the story doesn’t end with the indignant and hypocritical responses by the old biddies who wore skirts that short to class every day when they were that age. A group of girls from PHS came out swinging, organizing a rally to consider issues of young women’s self-esteem, body shaming and gender inequality. They point to double standards in the dress code, but more generally to the idea that a young woman’s worth should be in any way related to the length of her skirt. The ringleaders seem to be a quartet of senior girls: Brooke Matthews, Ginger Ruesswick, Casey McDevitt, and Charley Prevost. To them, Curmie wishes to extend his deep and sincere thanks. They are our future, and we might just be in better hands than Curmie thought.

NOTE: Curmie didn’t get to all the controversies, even in this long post. 

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