I recently took my teenage daughter shopping for a homecoming dress. Which is code, I guess, for something way fancier than a church dress but falls just short of prom spectacular. I figured finding a dress that met this very specific specification would be the hardest part about the afternoon.
I figured wrong.
My child tried on dresses in multiple stores throughout the mall for over three hours. Three hours, friends. That’s more time that I’ve spent at the mall cumulatively over the last ten years.
And then we left the mall empty-handed.
Only to return to the mall two hours later fed, fortified by sunlight, and riding a shopping high having found the “perfect” Saturday-at-State-Debate blouse (at a delightful shop that provided customer service and was not located in the mall). On attempt two, we succeeded in finding a wonderful dress that needs no alterations, was sadly not on sale, and in my opinion about three inches shorter than it should be, but hey, we came home with a dress. I’m calling that a win.
Some of you moms out there are nodding along, you know my pain and my joy. For the rest of you, lean in and let me (and other moms of teenage girls) be your cautionary tale. Maybe for you, there’s still time to fix this mess.
What went wrong:
- Dressing room drama. What gives with dress sizing? We can all agree that women’s clothing sizes are anything but standard. But fancy dress sizing seems worse than even jeans. While sharing our story with a friend recently, she said her bridesmaid dress was marked three sizes bigger than anything else in her closet. Who makes these decisions? Let’s take these big milestone moments for women and girls and start it off playing head games in the dressing room? Animals! Considering I had three hours to sit in waiting areas outside of the dressing rooms, I have a pretty good idea that it wasn’t only my kid having dressing room drama meltdowns, it was every.single.girl. Young girls of every height, weight, size, and shape were calling for help through closed doors. I heard plaintive pleas of “why won’t this dress zip???” from 9 out of every 10 dressing rooms. And you could see it on the faces of all of us waiting. We all teach a body positive message at home. Every single one of the girls we met that day knows the size on the tag isn’t important. And yet each of them gave in to insecurities and frustrations of unforgiving semi-formal wear.
- Why are all the skirts so short? While we are on the topic of body positivity, we are all doing our best to raise young women who know in their hearts that a female shape should never be cause for shame. But dressmakers, shouldn’t skirts be long enough to sit down at dinner without having to put your private parts directly on the seat? Insert eyerolls from all the teenagers here. I get it. But formalwear in particular seems to magnify all the conflicting messages our culture sends to young women and girls. Love yourself, love your shape, but don’t flaunt it too much or you’ll be to blame, and on a fancy night in a fancy dress your only option is ay-ay-ay short! No matter how much work you’ve put in to your teenager’s sense of self-worth, all the dresses at the mall said short = grown up fancy. I’d rather they didn’t.
- I don’t even know where to look — on the racks. I am a shop small devotee, hence the lack of time spent at the mall. I’m used to curated selections, easily marked sizes, and a professional staff that gets me, my style, and what works for my body. Thus my favorite places often whisk items destined to cause dressing room drama away and replace them with something perfect. What is the exact opposite of that? Buying a homecoming dress at the mall. And my daughter is a junior. I get to do this again.
- Bring your team but spectators stay at home. Most of the young women we met all needed some assistance. The sheer number of dresses was overwhelming unless you had a specific silhouette or color in mind. None of the racks were marked by size except a few but dresses were filed in every which way. My daughter seems to have difficulty working a hanger. Turns out she’s not the only teenager suffering from this affliction meaning hangers were sticking out, dresses were on the floor or tangled together. It took a team to pull dresses not to mention the help required to get a teenager into a fancy dress. I didn’t see a single girl turn away help. But I saw a lot of anxious faces for young women forced to come out of the dressing room and show each dress, no matter how uncomfortable they were, to a group of family and friends who thought this was going to be fun. Nothing adds to the angst of not feeling like yourself quite like having to do it all in front of an audience.
What went right:
- So much body positivity. Seriously. Girls cheering each other on, moms taking their cues from daughters, and even a couple of supportive boyfriends who sat with passive faces until they were asked a direct question. Those of us confined to the waiting area oohed and ahhed over each girl who walked out needing a little boost. It was community at its finest, friends.
- Bonding with other adults. In lowered voices, we talked about where we had been before, what was working, what wasn’t, and commiserated over the ridiculous sizing issues. With a wink and a nod, we gave each other secret high-fives. We helped keep an eye on which dressing rooms were free and helped hang up dresses that didn’t make the cut so the next girl in line had the best selection possible. We helped each other pass the time and did I mention THREE HOURS. Other grown ups were a gift.
- Appreciation of each other. At the end of that very long day, my daughter and I had a lot to talk about on the drive home. She appreciated that I was there with her for the drama and the success and I appreciated what she had endured alone in that dressing room, her and the mirror and the dress tag that read two sizes bigger than her jeans. I was reminded that being a teenage girl is hard and I’m so glad I never lost my patience that day.
- Appreciation for that personal service that comes from shopping small. Please send me all the small boutique suggestions for formal shopping. This mom’s heart needs some help before prom season.