My 13- year-old son is wearing my prom dress, a pink, sparkly thing straight out of the 1990s.
For some reason, my Mom held onto that dress for 20+ years. It hung in her closet, unloved, in limbo, for all those years. I certainly never asked her to hold onto the dress; prom, in my memory, was a disappointing event that only drilled home that fact that I was not pretty or popular enough to snag a boyfriend. Maybe my Mom hoped that someday I'd see the dress with clearer eyes, that someday the dress would remind me of a young, happy time. Perhaps she simply couldn't bear to part with a dress that had cost her so much. (Prom dresses aren't cheap, you know.) Whatever her reasons, my son and I both agree that she didn't expect THIS to be the dress's next stop. In the words of my son: "I bet Grandma never thought I'd be wearing this dress!"
He's right, of course. I have four boys. None of us ever expected that dress to see action again. But he's a theatrical one, my 13-year-old. He's involved in music and dance and gamely agreed to play the part of Mama in a lip sync production of "Welcome to the '60s!" When he came home and told me he needed a pink, sparkly dress, I knew just the dress for him. We headed over to Grandma's, grabbed the dress and within minutes of returning home, my pink prom dress was swathed around my son's body.
It fit him. (Well, mostly.) My pink prom dress, the one I wore at age 16, fit my 13-year-old son. The pink satiny material hugs his sides and I look on with wonder. Was I that small as a teen? The dress, in fact, is a little tight on him and he asks how I managed to breathe. I try to picture myself in the dainty dress, the dress with a small, narrow waist which opens into a full skirt. I don't recall feeling dainty in the dress. I recall feeling ugly and out-of-place.
For 20+ years, I have recoiled at pictures of myself in the dress, have slammed shut the closet door every time I stumbled across the dress at Grandma's, because the dress served only as reminder of my physical unattractiveness. How could I have chosen such an ugly dress, I wondered?
But now that the dress is back in service -- draped over seat of my van, hanging from my kitchen cupboards, hugging the not-at-all fat body of my son -- I see that the dress is not ugly. It's actually quite pretty: a lacy skirt overlaying pink satin; a wide, pink sash at the waist; a bosom decorated with tiny irirdescent beads. And from this perspective, I'm willing to acknowledge that maybe I wasn't ugly then either. If I could fit into that dress at age 16 - and fill it out in ways that my 13-year-old will never be able to -- clearly, I wasn't as large or ugly or ox-y as I once thought. I look at the dress now and shake my head at the sadness of it all. For 20+ years, I thought my 16-year-old self was ugly. It took my 13-year-old son in a dress to show me my errors of perception.
Fellow writer Dara Chadwick, author of You'd Be So Pretty If..., argues that moms of boys need to be just as concerned about girls' body image issues as moms of daughters. "Healthy self-esteem and self-respect are the foundation for healthy relationships," Chadwick wrote on her Psychology Today blog. "When girls don't feel good about who they are or the bodies they live in, they somtimes act out in unhealthy ways...And they're often not alone in this acting out behavior: our sons are with them."
It's taken 20 years -- and my son in a dress -- for me to even realize that I had body image issues as a teen. My goal now, as a mother of boys, is to make sure my boys see the person behind the dress, not just the dress or the pretty figure.