Prom Dress Diets: The Seeds of Eating Disorders

In about two months, thousands of American teens will be partaking in the ritual called prom. It is often a frenzy of overdressing, overindulgence and overspending – but it is a rite of passage.

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In about two months, thousands of American teens will be partaking in the ritual called prom. It is often a frenzy of overdressing, overindulgence and overspending – but it is a rite of passage.

Underlying that rite of passage is a darker trend that was recently pointed out to me by the mother of a teen. 

Much like I observe in brides-to-be who engage in punishing diet and exercise regimens for one day of good photographs, thousands of teen girls will starve themselves to “look good” for prom. This mother said that with two months left, these young girls were engaging in restrictive diets, excessive exercise etc.  All to look “good” in that prom dress.  I spoke to other high school girls to get a pulse on this issue – and they sheepishly confirmed it for me.

One of the most consistent predictors of developing an eating disorder or significantly disordered eating patterns is … dieting. Especially what I call “wedding-dress diets.” Anyone can tolerate an impossibly restrictive regimen for a short time – but after the event passes, then what happens?

In most cases, the regimen cannot be maintained, the old habits creep back, and the weight comes back – usually more weight than before.   

But in a subset, the disordered eating patterns – the restricting, the control, the concern with weight and shape, in some cases purging or other compensatory behaviors – remain.  And then get worse. Being reinforced for thinness, the sense of control that can accompany such restrictive patterns can get stuck in place, and the seeds of dangerous disordered eating are planted.

In teen girls, everything is still developing – mind, body, identity – and as such, these prom dress diets can be even more dangerous and risky. Prom can be joyous – dressing up, saying goodbye to high school, moving on – and should also be a celebration of the unique beauty of each young girl. It should not be about conforming to a societal ideal of artificial and oversexualized standards of beauty; it should be about being healthy, each girl learning to love herself. 

Teachers, parents and anyone who works with teen girls should keep eyes and ears open. It is at this age that health habits are learned. Prom is only for a day, but disordered eating habits can end up being a lifelong problem. It’s easy to get lost in the haze of limousines, dressea and parties. And parents often play into this more than they think by getting lost in the giddiness. 

This time of year is a time to initiate healthy conversations, healthy habits, and healthy choices rather than set a course that can lead to lifelong body image concerns and dangerous diets. 

Blog written by Ramani Durvasula, PhD
Dr. Ramani Durvasula has over 15 years of teaching, clinical and research experience. After receiving her doctorate in clinical...