It's Prom season. Gown season. Tuxedo and corsage season. And so the long standing tradition of prom night is repeated yet again. Dates are secured, dresses are chosen, flowers are ordered and tuxedos are rented. Proud parents show pictures of smiling couples posed on the front lawn. Flipping through a stack of these pictures recently, I was thinking about how little has changed over the years in this rite of passage. The prom pictures I was looking at could have been mine from twenty-five years ago, except ... the kids in these pictures were gorgeous! I'm talking about the girls here. My eyes skip over the boys in the photos the way my brain skips over numbers when I read.

When did this happen? All this sophisticated beauty! When did 18-year-olds get so amazingly gorgeous? Each girl is more fabulous than the next, in Academy Award type gowns, gym bodies, salon hair and photo ready makeup. I wore my hair in barrettes to my prom. Barrettes and pink lip gloss. It took me five minutes to get ready. It wasn't that I didn't want to look good. I desperately wanted to look good. I just didn't know how. Being the oldest girl in my family, I had no one to show me how. My dress was made out of white eyelet. It had a high waist, a square neckline, ruffled sleeves and a tiny blue ribbon tied at the waist. I looked like a walking, talking, bassinet. Not a bit of my skin was showing on prom night that wasn't showing, say, at my first communion.

Clothing sends a message. It tells people who we are and what we care about and sometimes gives a voice to things we are unable to express with words. Very few people get dressed without a thought as to how they look to others. The clothes we put on telegraph a message about what we are thinking quite effectively, even if what we are thinking is: "Don't notice me." The message my prom dress sent was clear: "The girl wearing this dress will be home by midnight. She will not accompany you to the shore this weekend, nor will she provide you with memories of this night to last a lifetime." The message came from my parents, not from me, hence the white eyelet.

I know people complain about the way teens are dressing (what's new?) and many also fret about the dangers of such early sophistication. But I'm not sure I agree. To me, the clothing, the hair, and acting older than they are, is a teenager's way of celebrating life and life's potential. Parents are thrilled at their child's first word, first step, and first day of kindergarten. But somewhere between a child's first pair of shoes and first traffic ticket, the enthusiasm for growth wanes. Fear sets in. All of a sudden things are going too fast. When my children were toddlers, I couldn't wait for them to move to the next stage of development, tie their own shoes, become independent, and make me a cup of tea... When they hit their teens, I resisted their growth. Growing up somehow meant growing away. And I wasn't finished yet. I hadn't had enough of their sweet faces, their enthusiasm and their eagerness to please. Every generation feels the same way as they see their children grow up. I think the fear and resistance is more about our future than about theirs.

To me, the slinky dresses, exotic hair and confident smiles don't represent the downfall of the next generation. To me, these promgoers represent hope, joy and the boundless energy of youth. Going "all out" for the prom shows a willingness on the part of kids to allow joy into their lives. They are proud of themselves and they are happy in their own skins. Is all this attention to grooming and clothing trivial? Yes. Will the money and time spent on prom night prepare our children to solve the world's problems? No. But despite all the darkness and heartache in the world, prom will go on. And somewhere, someone (in a fantastic dress), is accumulating memories of prom night to last a lifetime.

You can write to Jennifer Gregory at jen.gregory@comcast.net

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