There is nothing modest about the American high school prom. From the gowns to the limos to the day-long spa treatments, prom is an exercise in adolescent excess, generating an estimated three billion dollars in revenues this year. And while many parents and students balk at the immodest price tag, many conservative religious parents--and teens--worry about the skimpy dress and intermingling of the sexes typical of proms.
Not to mention the underage drinking, rented hotel rooms and some very immodest debauchery. "Prom," says the Reverend Bill Petterson of Brookfield Presbyterian Church outside of Milwaukee, "is now a cross between 'coming out' and 'coming on.'"
For most partygoers, picking out the perfect dress or renting the right limo is the extent of any spiritual crisis related to the prom. But for the more conservative Christian, Jewish, or Muslim student, deciding whether or not to attend prom can be a real test of faith.
To observant Muslims, the traditional prom is a triple threat of music, dancing and mingling with the opposite sex--all of which are "haram," or forbidden, in Islam. And while at least one Muslim high school, the Clara Mohammad School in Milwaukee, has entertained the idea of a prom-like event, parents and students are often not comfortable with the idea.
"The idea of going out with friends is not a problem; but going out to mixed areas where the primary purpose is to go with a guy is the issue," explains Lubna Malik, now a student at Princeton University. "At `dances' you generally dance with guys. Even if you were just dancing with girls, there would still be guys watching."
"[A prom] has dancing (which is forbidden) and music (which is looked down upon)... they lead to shamelessness. I never attended a middle school dance, a high school dance, a homecoming dance, or prom or even any formals here at Princeton."
Many Muslim teen web sites suggest organizing alternate events on prom night, such as shopping with the girls or having a sports night with the boys. The popular Muslim website SoundVision.com offers a resource page covering prom concerns and alternatives, with articles like "How to Say No to the Prom: Six Tips."
Recently, Muslim teen girls from California to Toronto have been throwing girl-only prom alternatives where they can enjoy all the trappings of the prom without the worry of the boy factor. Many of the girls arrive at the rented halls in hijab, only to reveal halter-top or strapless gowns, intricate hairstyles and dazzling accessories once inside. They eat a halal dinner and dance to pop and Arab music with their girlfriends.
According to the Toronto Star, "Girls who organize these dances say they want to celebrate the end of high school as all teens do... To enjoy the freedom of bare arms, uncovered heads, pretty dresses and dancing, while staying true to their Muslim convictions."
Jane I. Smith, a professor of Islamic studies at the Hartford Seminary in Connecticut, told The New York Times that, "These young women are being very creative, finding a way to continue being Muslim in the American context."
"Before, young Muslims may have stuck with the traditions of their parents or rejected them totally to become completely Americanized. Now, they're blending them."
However, Malik, who describes herself as conservative and has been wearing hijab since 14, would not attend such a single-sex event. "If the prom did not entail dancing and music it would be fine. Further, the dress code at such a 'prom' would probably not be modest, and if it were, it would be hypocritical to be dressed as such, and then be dancing."
As with many Muslims, some administrators at Orthodox Jewish high schools object to even the concept of the prom, citing it as a poor reflection on the schools. They argue that prom is in direct contrast to the tradition of maintaining "shomer negia"--refraining from touching members of the opposite sex--and encourages immodest dress and behavior.
However, many Orthodox teens circumvent these restrictions by planning underground proms. Small groups of seniors usually plan the prom, renting a hall or arranging to have the party at a student's home. Depending on the venue, attendees pay for prom tickets which go toward the cost of the affair. The girls wear fancy gowns--some with long sleeves and long skirts, some not--while the boys usually don tuxedos. And there's a hefty amount of mixed-sex dancing. If one of the students has "cool" parents, the parents might actually look into booking a hall, ordering catered food or hosting the party.
At one such prom in New Jersey, "many of the students who attended were religious--kept kosher, kept the Sabbath, prayed three times a day, etc.--but they sincerely didn't find anything wrong with dancing with their fellow schoolmates," says Noah*. "They thought it was harmless, especially since most students knew each other since they were in kindergarten. It wasn't as if a night of partying would end in sex, drugs, and alcohol--we all knew each other too well for that."
However, the school's rabbis didn't see the underground proms as harmless and neither did many of the parents. A former student of modern Orthodox schools on both the East and West coasts, Noah recalls getting lectures at home and at school about not planning a prom because it was a form of assimilation: "Many parents felt that a prom sealed the deal in terms of their children throwing off the yoke of Judaism and copying their gentile neighbors."
Orthodox Jewish school administrators may try to find out which students attended such underground proms. In Noah's case, those who attended were threatened with expulsion. One school was said to have scheduled important finals for the morning after the prom as a disincentive. Some schools are rumored to offer better grades in exchange for not attending the underground prom. Rena Lauer, who attended Orthodox schools her whole life but is not Orthodox, recalls hearing tales of rabbis paying people not to attend. "According to my friend," explains Lauer, "they didn't simply offer a couple of dollars, but hundreds."
Orly Lieberman, who attended a Jewish Orthodox co-ed high school in Brooklyn, NY, recalls that while her school had an underground prom, she chose not to attend.
"Although I was in a relationship at the time (with the man who is now my husband), and personally felt comfortable attending the prom (I would deal with issues of dress by finding something appropriate, if not quite as formal as proms usually are), I chose not to attend because I felt that I gained a lot from my high school education; I enjoyed what I learned and it brought me closer to my faith. As a result I felt I would be disrespecting both the teachers and the lessons that I learned by participating."
However, Noah stresses that most of the students attended the underground prom "not as an act of rebellion, but simply because they genuinely thought it would be fun and because they wanted a solid 'validation' of their high school experience."
"We'd been watching countless movies and reading teen magazines and each screamed 'Prom! Prom! Prom!' each spring, and so we felt somewhat entitled to that 'average high school experience' that we were obviously lacking."
Lieberman's school did, however, offer a kosher alternative to prom. "The school held a dinner for the senior class and faculty. We were to dress rather formally, but modestly," explains Leiberman. "The event included speeches by classmates and administrators and dancing in which the genders each took up half of the dance floor and danced among themselves."
Gown by Modest
Some conservative Christian teens skip their proms because of similar concerns about immodesty. Others, whether or not they attend private religious schools, can still feel comfortable attending their prom thanks to the phenomenon of modest prom wear. This small but growing trend--retailers selling dresses that meet religious modesty requirements--may expand now that secular schools are creating and enforcing prom dress codes, sending those in too-revealing clothing home for the night.
The Utah-based company Modest by Design, co-owned by Eddie and Heather Gist, carries prom dresses with the Church of Latter-day Saint's modesty requirements in mind--shoulders, navel and knees covered (and don't even think about cleavage). But their gowns are going over big with non-Mormons, says Eddie Gist. "We found out very quickly that there are a lot of people looking for modest clothing; from Florida to New York, all walks of life, Muslim, Catholic, Baptist, and Presbyterian." The store even holds a modest prom dress design contest in which the winner has her dress made and can wear it to her prom.
"It's not like you're gonna go to hell if you show your shoulders or anything," explains Jennifer Loch of Jen Magazine, a fashion magazine for Latter-day teen girls. "But you have to draw a line somewhere. All religions have a place where they draw the line. It's just important that you have a line, because it's all about saying 'This is as far as I'm gonna go.'"
Latter-day Saints aren't the only ones getting in on the modesty movement. Some Roman Catholics have started hosting what they call Pure Fashion shows, highlighting clothing with coverage.
While cynics might think that it's the parents pushing the modest trend, and many teens are donning prim gowns begrudgingly, Loch also points to the hundreds of letters she gets declaring that "modest is the hottest!" Gist puts the numbers at about "60/40, when it comes to mothers vs. daughters" seeking out modest prom wear.
Between same-sex proms and modest prom dresses, religiously conservative teens are finding ways to celebrate this rite of passage without compromising their own values (or their parents' rules). Notes Loch, "Most of the Latter-day Saint teens in the U.S. go to regular high school and are just trying to fit in with the crowd; they're trying to be like their friends, without breaking the rules of their religion."
But not all religious high school students consider the prom a rite of passage. Asked whether she felt she missed out on an important milestone by skipping her prom, Malik, the Muslim student now at Princeton, concludes, "I don't feel being American means going to a prom. I was born and raised in America and experienced every aspect of life that any other person would have. Spending hundreds of dollars on a dress, shoes, my hair and nails--that doesn't seem like something I missed out on."