a dress, a decade ago.
I can’t explain how or why, but suddenly, it’s been ten years since my senior prom. I remember it vividly; the theme was 007…in 2007…a bit gauche. They projected the new Casino Royale on the wall of the dance hall. I tried not to look at it because I hadn’t seen it yet. There was a poker table, complete with a dealer in full costume (actually our lunch lady, Joyce, wearing a green visor). The dance circle cheered as I casually but flawlessly rapped all of “Fergalicious,” even the bridge. I didn’t dare tell anyone that I absolutely had googled the lyrics and worked hard to memorize them.
I can look at the calendar and see the ten years that have passed since that night, but I don’t know where they went. I mostly feel the same. Ten years and all I have to show for it are a pair of crows feet, two questionable moles, and slightly less distance between my nipples and the ground. I’ve accumulated experiences and age and armpit hair, but at my core, am I the same person I was a decade ago?
That’s the thought that harasses me. Following me into the shower, prodding me while I attempt to sleep, humming dissonance through each quiet moment. I had resigned myself to never being able to answer it until I remembered…it. The fucking prom dress.
By senior year, I had stopped calling my classmates “posers” and “conformist lemmings,” or rather, I stopped writing it in my journal. I stopped judging them for wearing Chuck Taylors only after Journey’s started selling them. I stopped trying to hide my music from them and started making them mix CDs. In kind, they started inviting me to parties. (Parties that, unbeknownst to me, had been recurring events for four years.) By winter break, I had my whole damn class listening to Sufjan Stevens and was co-captain of the cheerleading squad. I grew up on an island with 19–30 kids per grade so it wasn’t a massive undertaking. But for me, it was a big deal — for the first time in my life, I felt included. Even if these kids didn’t “get” me, they were at least willing to try.
Despite this evolution, the idea of “prom” remained a festering cornucopia of things I hated and/or feared. I hated dancing in public. I hated drinking. I hated the principle of spending $70 to do something I could do at home, in the privacy of my own room, to music I actually liked, where I wasn’t ashamed to stop dancing because I was winded. I both hated and feared dressing “feminine”. I hated having my photo taken. I was afraid of looking stupid. I was afraid no one would ask me to prom. I was afraid if I asked someone, they would say no. I both hated and feared the notorious pressure on girls to have sex afterward.
A month before the dance, my sweet and platonic friend Willie showed up outside my french class holding a sign and a rose — «Irez-vous au prom avec moi?» I jumped into his giant arms and proclaimed «Bien sûr!» The general “prom” anxiety abruptly shrunk to a mouse behind the stampeding elephant of “prom preparations”.
I bought a package of 10 tanning booth sessions. I booked a hair appointment with the local hairstylist. I started using whitening toothpaste. I put band-aids on my fingertips to stop biting my nails. And I, somehow, convinced my mom to take me to Seattle to get a dress. To clarify, I convinced my mom to drive down to the ferry line, wait an hour, sit on the ferry for 1.5 hours, drive 90 miles, pay $20/hour for downtown parking, follow me around for hours as I try on dresses, give me truthful (but constructive) feedback on them, buy one for me, then either rush back to make the last ferry ($60/car) or pay for a hotel in Seattle and head back the next morning. (I should send her an edible arrangement.)
Saturday before prom, at the Pacific Place mall in downtown Seattle, I found it. It was strapless, champagne, and covered in sequins that slowly dissipated down the bodice, like bubbles at the top of a glass. It highlighted my “hell yeah” region (defined clavicle) and hid my “scream into my pillow” areas (entire middle). I felt like a mermaid as I walked out of the dressing room. My mom gasped and quietly said “Oh Miel…” It wasn’t cheap, but since I had only gone to two dances in all of high school, it was still cheaper than if I had made friends earlier.
I wish I had known then, at the cash register, that I would never wear that dress again.
Monday morning, I walked through the school like I was in the “Billie Jean” music video, the floor lighting up every time I took a step. Prom was only 5 days away but it felt like an eternity. I couldn’t wait to wear that dress again. I couldn’t wait to feel pretty again. I couldn’t wait for all my classmates, these kids I had known for 12 years, to see me as “pretty”.
I sat down at the table in the commons for my free period, just before lunch. One of my classmates, Amy, sat across from me. I worked on homework while she flipped through an “Us Weekly” magazine. Without looking up, she asked me if I had found a prom dress yet. I tried to play it cool when I responded that I had. She was reading “Stars — They’re Just Like Us!” when she asked me,
“What does it look like?”
“Ok so, it’s strapless and champagne with sequins at the top that fade down it. It’s like…maybe knee length? But with tulle under the skirt so it hits a little higher”
Amy’s head shot up like she was trying to give herself whiplash.
“Did you get it in Seattle?”
“…at Pacific Place?”
“Oh…my…god. Did you get the same dress as Sara?!”
Sara? How would I have known what dress Sara had? My breath caught in my throat, choking me. The blood rushed to my face and my cheeks burned, the heat crawling towards my eyes. I focused on keeping my voice steady.
“I...don’t know? I haven’t seen Sara’s dress?
“Yes you did, she talked about it all last week. She told everyone.”
“Uh…I guessed I missed it? It’s probably not the same. That would be a crazy coincidence…But honestly, even if it is, we look so different that it would be hard to tell it was the same dress...”
Amy stood up and began packing up her stuff.
“Amy, hey, please don’t tell her. I want to do it myself. I don’t want drama, or for her to think I’m doing this on purpose. Please”
Amy nodded and walked away.
Five minutes later, Caitlyn marched up to me.
“WHY would you get the same dress as Sara?!”
“I didn’t know! Why would I get the same dress on purpose?!”
“You DID know. EVERYONE knows. She LOVES that dress.”
“I didn’t know! What am I supposed to do? I don’t have time to get a new one and it was final sale!”
Caitlyn had already walked away.
By lunch, everyone knew that Miel got the same dress as Sara on purpose. Even my closest friends didn’t want to “get involved.” I attempted to talk directly to Sara about it but she dodged me, shepherded away by the flock of girls surrounding her. I shouted as they left, “Why would I deliberately get the same dress? This sucks for both of us!”
I skipped last period and drove home. I cried the entire 20 minutes. I didn’t care that we had the same dress. Even side by side, it would’ve looked wildly different on each of us. She had olive skin and thick, black hair, while I could not be more caucasian with 15 blonde hairs to my name. But they cared, and so it was done. I was a villain. And there was no way I could wear my dress to prom.
My mom tried to support me, “Fuck ‘em Miel. It looks beautiful on you. Don’t let them ruin it.” But what I couldn’t explain is that they already had. I tried to join their game but was disqualified before it even started. I couldn’t get a new dress and I couldn’t wear my dress. I couldn’t even return the dress. I stared at it all week before sending it back for store credit (I bought a pair of absurd shoes with it. I wore them once. They are still in my closet.)
On Friday, the day before prom, my older sister returned from her year abroad. She generously offered to let me wear one of her dresses she’d returned with. I looked through her suitcase and picked a red sundress. It wasn’t formal, it wasn’t structured, it didn’t match my shoes. But it fit the bill of “a dress that isn’t Sara’s”. I found a cheap red necklace and pair of earrings at the island jewelry shop and lipstick at the pharmacy. I put a rose in my hair. I applied this brand new “Bare Minerals” bronzer all over my entire face (contouring didn’t exist yet.) Shockingly, I looked…pretty?
My family walked in with their mouths agape and wordlessly said it — I did look pretty. Other parents came over to tell me I looked pretty. Even Sara’s friends told me I looked pretty. I had turned lemons into lemonade and finally, I felt pretty.
It has been 3,650 days since I thought about it, the fucking prom dress. The last time I did, it felt traumatic, albeit with an underlying ‘phoenix rising from the ashes’ theme. But now, it seems so…silly. Laughable. Imagine being so mad that someone bought the same piece of cloth as you that you turned everyone you know on them. Imagine unwittingly purchasing the same piece of cloth as someone when they get mad about it, crying?
Imagine having such low self-esteem that feeling pretty, even just for one night, makes you actually think you are worth more, as a human being.
I know now — I am not the person I was 10 years ago. That girl still lives in me, and I love her. But she didn’t know yet that she was talented, or interesting, or of value. She didn’t know yet that her thoughts mattered if only because she thought they mattered. She didn’t know yet she was strong. She didn’t know yet that she is “pretty”, even if she looks like crusty dogshit.
I know it now. And I still know all the words to Fergalicious.
Some names and identifying details have been changed to protect the privacy of individuals.