Sarit Luban
Updated May 27, 2016 @ 9:09 am
Credit: Disney

I spent a long time being embarrassed about who I was in high school. It wasn’t like I would sit down and press play on a montage of cringe-worthy mental footage until I was sufficiently crushed, it was more like an unspoken understanding where I wouldn’t judge the past if it stayed tucked away. Basically, I tried not to think about it. High school me was awkward. I said a lot of wrong things at the wrong times. I avoided most school-organized functions, and when I was invited to parties, I usually didn’t go. Attention from boys frightened me almost as much as it flattered me. Let’s just say I had a lot of growing up to do.

But only after a few years of said growing up did I start to see my old ways in a new light. I’d become so focused on saying the right thing, on making appearances, on playing it cool, that I lost touch with what I really wanted. High school me may have been a bit clueless, but that just means she was true to herself because she didn’t know any better. Nothing illustrates this more perfectly than my experiences with that quintessential high school tradition: prom. Here’s what my prom experiences taught me, and what I’ve learned since then:

1. Saying no isn’t mean.

During my high school career, I rejected multiple invitations to prom. One guy was super cute, but I barely knew him and dreaded spending a whole evening thinking of things to say. Another guy was a friend, but I sensed that he wanted me as his prom date as a prelude to having me as a regular date, and signing up to fend off romantic overtones all night seemed like a recipe for disaster. “Will you go to prom with me?” is a question for a reason. Doing what makes you feel comfortable and safe is more important than pleasing other people.

2. You don’t need to justify your decisions.

When I said no to a boy junior year, friends accused me of leading him on, breaking his heart, and hurting his self-esteem. More than one person told me that turning down a prom invite is something you “just don’t do.” The worst part, they said, was that I didn’t even have a good reason. It’s not that I had a problem with him, I simply didn’t feel like going. “I don’t want to” is a legitimate reason. Being able to say no without negotiation is important for any healthy relationship, whether it be between prom dates, spouses, or friends.

3. It’s okay to stay home.

There can be a lot of pressure to go to prom, either because it’s such an established rite of passage or because everyone you know is going. But is there a point to going through all the motions if you don’t anticipate having a good time? Sure, sometimes. Or sometimes not. One year my friends were at the big dance without me while I opted to go to a show at a local venue. I had the guts to go alone, but I ended up sitting with a few kids I knew from school. Maybe if I had gone to prom I would’ve had fun, but it doesn’t matter, because I had fun doing something else instead. As I’ve gotten older, shows and house parties have replaced dances as the place to be. Yet I still need to let myself follow my heart on a Saturday night: to a bar, a low-key board game night, or just my bed.

4. You’re allowed to change your mind.

Senior year, my staunch disinterest in prom was suddenly replaced by enthusiasm. I wanted to slow dance to cheesy love ballads, I wanted to go out for dinner with all my best friends in unnecessarily poofy dresses and tacky rented tuxedos. A small part of me worried about seeming hypocritical, but I put that voice aside when I said yes to a very cute, kind of embarrassing, sung, guitar-accompanied ask. And I’m glad I did. Changing your mind isn’t necessarily wishy-washy, it’s part of growing. It’s part of being a person. The ability to change your mind is also an essential component of consent.

5. Leaving your comfort zone can be rewarding, even if that means going against your personal brand.

As excited as I was to play dress-up for dances, I was also terrified. My aesthetic in high school was decidedly not femme (which in adulthood I’ve identified as a symptom of some serious ambiguity about my gender…but that’s a story for another time). I wore dresses strictly out of necessity, and adorning myself with jewelry or makeup only seemed to draw attention to how un-girly I was. This, combined with a hefty dose of body insecurity, meant there was no gown I’d find that didn’t come with a layer of anxiety sewn into it. I decided to go for it anyway. More than anything, my fear of dresses was fear of judgement, of disapproval. I’ve found that wearing my fears lessens them a little bit more each time. I still don’t feel totally comfortable wearing makeup or heels, despite wanting to rock them. Pushing myself to wear something outside my usual look might be nerve-wracking at first, but I typically end up feeling excited and empowered.

6. You get to choose which conventions to follow and which to abandon.

When people ask me about my prom, I love telling them that not a single picture exists of me with my date. This fact is the exclamation point to a whole list of things gone “wrong,” like the fact that I bought our tickets because he was out of town the whole week they were on sale or how he tried to make me a corsage out of twigs and wildflowers. I honestly didn’t care about having the perfect prom; if anything, following every rule about how to look and how to act, about what a guy does versus what a girl does, would’ve made my experience worse, not better. But just because I’ve always felt critical of prom doesn’t mean I betrayed myself in going. Almost a decade later, I still navigate similar questions: Am I doing this because it’s expected of me, or because I want to? What social norms can I tweak to work for me, and which must I reject entirely? I might not know all the answers yet, but I do know that as long as I trust myself, things will turn out alright.