Prom & Eating Disorders: What to Do When Appearances Become the Spotlight
A shot of a man and woman people holding hands, both wearing blue and dressed up for prom

When JD Ouellette was helping her daughter prep for prom season, she was also supporting her through the very early stages of her eating disorder recovery. While the prospect of dressing up and dancing the night away with friends sounded like a positive step toward reclaiming fun and freedom, it also raised some major concerns.

“Prom was one of our very first hopeful experiences, and also an experience that came with many triggers,” says Ouellette, Equip’s Director of Lived Experience. “Prom is full of all manner of body image and social anxiety concerns for even the most mentally healthy of teens—add an eating disorder and all of these things become magnified.”

Between the anxiety of choosing an outfit, inviting a date or being invited, participating in elaborate, pressure-filled pre-event rituals, special events like prom, graduations, weddings, Bar Mitzvahs and quinceaneras can conjure up a lot of intense feelings. Factor in potential group dinners, endless photo ops, and the unfortunate prevalence of diet talk that may lead up to the event, and these celebratory events can quickly become something young people in recovery dread.

We spoke with several clinical experts, parents, and teens to understand how they got through special events like prom while navigating an eating disorder:

Make a game plan

Discuss all of this as early as possible as a family, and also have your child talk to their therapist and/or peer mentor if they have one. Ouellette suggests that families cope ahead versus simply hoping it will all be okay by:

  • Starting clothing shopping early and sticking to a plan
  • Following good practices like being rested, hydrated, and nourished
  • Shooting for relaxed versus rushed
  • Going for a couple of hours maximum
  • Having a comforting, distracting activities planned for afterwards

Cultivate a support circle

Equip peer mentor Isabella Dean reflects that “so many of the ‘fun’ things that events like prom and weddings brings, like shopping with friends, dressing room fashion shows, and getting ready for the event, are often the things that can become a source of extra distress while working on eating disorder recovery,” says Equip peer mentor Isabella Dean. She suggests that young people make sure to lean on friends and surround themselves with “people that make you remember why going to prom is important to you: to spend time making memories with the people you care about. As cliche as it sounds, prom is a once (or twice) in a lifetime experience, and that time spent singing and dancing the night away are what you will remember, not the size of the attire or what you looked like in the mirror."

Be prepared for the dressing room

Dressing rooms are notoriously triggering for just about everyone — eating disorder or not. Between the inconsistent sizes, bad lighting, and tricky mirrors, the dressing room can become a prime location for triggers and subsequent arguments. Here are a few ways to minimize stressors when shopping for that special outfit:

  • Decide if the teen will pick clothes off the rack, or point to things they like for the parent to estimate appropriate size
  • Take painter's tape and temporarily cover tags so the focus in the dressing room is not on the size of the garments
  • You may find it helpful to start with a size that is likely a bit too large and go from there

“Be mindful of the way you evaluate clothing and stay away from the f-word (that’s ‘flattering’ as a euphemism for slimming). Ask about comfort and confidence instead. Be prepared to run interference and cut off sales staff that may make unhelpful comments,” says Ouellette.

Anticipate the challenges of online shopping too

If you are ordering online, read reviews about sizing and be sure you are ordering more than one size, including one that is absolutely sure to not be too small. Your teen may well want to wear something that's not your first choice and it's a good opportunity to remember you raised them to be themselves.

If an outfit arrives in the mail and requires some tailoring, take precautions to offset potentially triggering language at that step as well. If you need to have your dress or tux altered, let the tailor/seamstress know ahead of time to not make any body comments. They may need some coaching as to what they should not say and what is a better way to say it.

Keep it all in perspective

“Remember, this is just one day,” says Equip family mentor Laura Cohen. “Events like prom get a lot of hype and it is just another night. Set low expectations. Try to stay in the moment and enjoy yourself. You will not be the first or last person to not feel that prom was the best night ever. GIve yourself some grace.”

Events like prom are stressful under the best of circumstances and with the added stress of eating disorder recovery can be challenging. Do not be hard on yourself, be realistic. And if you feel that the event is going to be too hard—skip it. Maybe make another plan that night that you would enjoy more.

Equip’s VP of clinical care delivery, Jennifer Derenne MD, adds that the lingering traditional expectations around events like weddings and prom may add an additional layer of complexity. But it is the ritual of outfit selection in particular that may open up a Pandora’s Box of problematic comments and pressure from peers, salespeople, and even other parents. “It's similar to a celebrity preparing for an awards show or the Met Gala,” Derenne says. Painstakingly curated ‘highlight reels’ on social media present additional potential pitfalls or challenges to someone vulnerable to unhelpful comparisons and self criticism.”

For Ouellette, the prom journey from beginning to end required vigilance — and a sense of humor. “We now laugh about the shopping experience, which started with my daughter and I driving down the freeway when ‘she’ said, ‘I want to find a long black dress, with long black sleeves, and a high neck.’” Ouellette says. “By this point I could tell exactly who I was talking to and that was pure anorexia; I (safely) pulled to the shoulder and turned to her and said : ‘I am so excited Kinsey is going to prom and I am also absolutely not going to take anorexia shopping for a funeral dress my grandma would wear. Can you get on board with that or should we turn around now?’ Kinsey got on board, anorexia stayed in the trunk of the car while we shopped, and she ended up with a beautiful, spaghetti strap, high/low floral chiffon dress

Michelle Konstantinovsky
Equip Contributing Editor
Our Editorial Policy
Get support in your inbox
Sign up to receive helpful articles, videos, and other resources.