The First (and Only) Time I Have Worn A Gown

Brown woman in gold gown. Photo credit: public domain


About the recent controversy over elaborate prom sendoffs…

Growing up, there were no shortage of teens I knew who paid for, and basically coordinated, their own prom. Growing up, there were no shortage of teens I knew who did not go to their prom at all.

Sometimes it was a money thing. But for many of us, it was a matter of our parents thinking we didn’t deserve it.

That includes yours truly.

I told myself I wanted to go to prom because I hadn’t participate in many school functions or activities, outside of suspensions and after school detention. But really I wanted to go to prom because I wanted to know what it felt like to be special.

I had never been to anything formal before, let alone wear a fancy gown. I wanted to do that. I wanted to get my nails and hair done up real nice and wear heels to high for my tinder arches to support. I wanted to go to prom to feel like one of those white kids on all of those television shows who had these great yet “normal” teenage lives.

When I first broached the subject with my mom, she straight up told me, “if you want to go to prom, you’re going to have to pay for it yourself.”

Her reasoning: since she paid for food and shelter, she wasn’t paying for anything extra.

And my dad…

Well, besides a telephone here and there, and a pop-off visit once in a blue moon, he barely contributed to my everyday care at all. Prom season was no different.

During a telephone call on the matter I begrudgingly asked if he would contributed a couple of dollars to the cause.

What I got back was a mess of reasons why I was basically being stupid for asking.

In his 30-minute long telephone lecture, he said things like, “Prom? Why are you worried about prom? You should be preparing for college.”

And, “All that prom stuff is nothing but a chance to show off to people who you really don’t know. And why do you want to impress those people anyway? I thought you were smarter than that.”

And my personal favorite, “What? I’m not wasting my money on that. No one did anything like that for me. Why do you feel entitled?”

I was a Black girl child growing up in 1990s deep inner city Philadelphia. I was stereotyped, maligned, downtrodden and often overlooked. My entire worth had been assessed by the clothing I did not own and the wealth I did not possess. And yet, I was the entitled one.I hung up the phone, feeling confused.

My grandma was equally perplexed.

“Well I can’t speak for your father, but I don’t know why your mom is acting like that,” she said during one of my visits to her home. She sat the kitchen table, puffing on a Phillip Morris Commander with one hand and furiously shaking her head at all I told her about my parents. She continued, “She had a great prom. We cooked, people came over and took pictures and everything. And it was her grandma and I who paid for it.”

She paused and took one more puff off the cigarette before extinguishing it into the ashtray. “Well if she is not going to help you, than I will.”

Grandma would become my biggest ally during prom season. She had not only committed to buying my shoes and accessories for the big dance, but she was also the person whom I discussed my color scheme and style preferences. She did not judge me. She did not belittle my desire to wear a sleeveless dress even though she had been very vocal about my big arms in the past. She never once gave me the impression that I was not worth it. She even stepped in and contributed more money when my mom’s drug addicted boyfriend stole the money I had scrapped together for my dress.

Between Grandma and myself, we contributed nearly $500 for the occasion. But on prom night, grandma didn’t get a chance to send me off. She wasn’t invited to our home. In fact, no one was at the house except mom and I.

She was downstairs watching a pre-recorded episode of All My Children. I was upstairs in her bedroom – the only room in the house with a mirror – doing my best to put on my makeup through a tear-soaked face.

I was crying because I hated everything. I hated my hair – a weaved pony tail botched by a hairdresser who left the hair salon early so that she had time to get her own daughter ready for prom. I hated my off-gray chiffon scarf, which was handmade to cover my fat arms but did not exactly match my silver shoes. I hated my side-boob that oozed out of my black sequins bodice. And I hated that while I dressed for what was supposed to be the most important nights of my young life, Mom paid me little mind.

I wanted her to help me. I wanted her to shower me with the same attention and special treatment she received from grandma and my great-grandma on her prom night. I wanted pictures, balloons and home-cooked food to mark the occasion. I wanted a house full of music playing and I wanted to see family and friends dancing and smiling in celebration of me. What I got was indifference, than fake concern.

It would be the loud slamming of her bedroom door that finally inspire Mom to come upstairs and check in on me. For the first time that evening, she looked sympathetic. But I didn’t buy it. Part of me felt she was happy to see me struggling to get ready. I blatantly told her not to bother, as I was almost dressed. At first, she looked upset, hurt even. But she shrugged her shoulders and went back downstairs to finish watching her soaps.

The next time I would see her is when she announced the arrival of my date. I came downstairs and saw him and mom, smiling and trading pleasantries. She had a camera in her hand as if we were going to stand around, pose and take pictures. I made my quick introductions before grabbing my date’s hand and flying out the front door. I wouldn’t see her again until the following day. She never asked if I had a good time.

I made it to prom that evening two hours after it started. My date who was a hookup from a mutual friend, was having the time of his life. Although he was well past his teenage years, he had never gone to a prom. So this was his opportunity to make up for a lost experience.

Meanwhile, I sat at the table in my pretty gown, looking depressed and regretting ever trying to be happy…

Now I share this story for a couple of reasons:

First, this story is a reflection. It wouldn’t be until I was 38 years old when a therapist diagnosed me with clinically depression. Although she was a highly trained professional, I did not want to believe her. I could not believe her. To believe my therapist meant having to admit some hard-to-swallow truths about people who raised me and who I loved. And I also meant having to admit there was something possibly broken with me.

However when I got to thinking back on my life, in particular all of the trauma and anxiety I had experienced, I also got to thinking about the opportunities missed or had thrown away. And what I began to realize is that I did not fully see my own worth because the people who raised me acted as if they couldn’t see my worth neither.

As such, dealing with the reality of who we were; what we were, has gone a long way in my understanding of who I am and my wants and needs in life.

Secondly, I share this story as a call to consciousness for others. For some of us, we see read the articles and watch the videos of these lavish prom send-offs and think we know.

More specifically, we think we know these people and what motivates them.

But the reality is too many children – too many of us – are reared to believe that they do not deserve happiness. We receive this message from our mothers and fathers. We receive these messages in the media, in school and in church, temple and at the masjid too. We are taught that because we are poor and with holes in our shoes and in our clothes, we should be hated and pitied. We are taught that because we are girls, we are less than important than our male counterparts. We are taught that because we are Black or Brown descendants of slave labor and Jim Crow, that we are not fully realized people.

From birth, we are conditioned to believe we are the opposite of what’s good and right in the world. The counterpoint to beauty. The arch-enemy of dignity. We are led to believe that there is nothing redeemable about us. That our lives are a waste of time, effort and space. We are sold the sour delusion that our mere existences should be one of infinite gratefulness and deep appreciation. That we should be humble at the point of self-depreciation. And that our lives are so sorrowful, there is little reason to celebrate.

We absorb these messages and subconsciously carry its poison down to our children who grow up to believe that they too, do not deserve anything good in their lives.

And yet to heal from that, we have to be willing to change the narrative. We have to be willing to do better for the next generation.

Now I won’t get into the whole debate about the need for folks to spend more constructively. That is not up for me to decide. And since it ain’t none of our money, it ain’t none of our business, to be honest.

But what I will say is, what we think might be an overly indulgent dad doing it big for his child’s big day, just might be the rites of passage that he did not get to pass in his own youth. And what we think might just be a ghetto fabulous mom frivolously spending money she does not have on a trivial event such as prom, just might be a woman attempting to right the wrongs that she had experienced in her own past.

Instead, when I see parents, in particular Black parents, going over-the-top for the kids in their lives, I will choose to see the love that is at the center of all of it. I opt to see the almost frenzied desire to both honor and show their offspring that they, as parents, do care. And that they, as children, do matter – regardless of their socio-economic stations in life.

And yes, even in our struggles, our faults and our traumas, there is always a reason to celebrate our humanity.

My prom wasn’t what I had excepted it to be. But ultimately I am glad that I had the courage and slither of faith in myself to go. In September, I will be turning 40. And in these all of these years on the planet, Prom, thus far, has been the only time in life I have worn a gown.