Call it Vanity Fair or the Bazaar of the Bizarre or something similar because there is no kind way to describe the obscene average expenditure of $1,078 per family on the spring rite known as the prom, up 33 percent from last year’s $807 average, according to a recent Visa poll.
And then there is that other spring rite, the June wedding, for which the prom seems to be a dress rehearsal, now averaging more than $25,000 each in the United States.
A friend of mine said to a friend of his who was complaining about having to spend $30,000 for his daughter’s wedding, “That’s decadent.”
When you realize that the word decadent as an adjective means “being in a state of decline or decay” and “marked by or providing unrestrained gratification; self-indulgent;” and as a noun means “a person in a condition or process of mental or moral decay,” it’s hard to disagree.
Here in the Northeast, the average spent on the prom is the highest in the country, almost $2,000 per family, nearly three times what a family in the Midwest spends. There is not only the dress, the limo, flowers, the hairdresser’s bill, the nail salon’s bill, but in some cases there is the plastic surgeon’s bill for botox injections and injections to plump the lips of girls so they can look like some sultry Playboy centerfold.
What’s sadder is that the middling poor, those earning $20,000 to $30,000 per year, spend more than the rich on proms.
That’s not hard to believe if you live in Amsterdam, which can hardly support two of anything but for years has supported two specialty dress shops that cater to promgoers and brides-to-be. (One moved a few months ago but not because it wasn’t making money.)
Let’s travel to Laos for a minute, where beautiful brown-skinned children walk down dirt roads and jungle trails to modest schools that don’t have sports, field trips, computers or proms and where kids are still eager to learn for learning’s sake. On the way to school, they sometimes see a round object in the woods, and they pick it up because they can get 10 or 20 cents for it on the scrap metal market to buy food for their family, whose average income is $2 a day, and sometimes the round object explodes and ball bearings fly off in all directions, maiming and killing.
These objects are cluster bombs or bombies as the Laotians call them. They proudly carry the “Made in the USA” label and created enormous wealth for American arms manufacturers and their stockholders. B-52s secretly exported them for nine years to Laos, a country we were not at war with, and delivered them indiscriminately from high up in the sky, making Laos the most bombed nation in world history.
Some 30 percent of the bombs, however, did not explode. But they have been exploding ever since and have killed 12,000 innocent Laotians since the end of the Vietnam War and maimed thousands of others, who cannot afford plastic surgeons.
The schoolchildren of Laos worry about how they are going to help their parents make enough money to live on. They, too, hold dances, traditional Laotian dances, but they aren’t proms because no one is promenading, of which the word prom is a shortened form and whose synonyms are parade, strut, swagger, flaunt.
And that’s what the prom has become. It is no longer a dance event, but a giant show-and-tell program in which the participants and their parents are saying “look at me, me, me.”
This deplorable state of affairs is not the schools’ faults. It’s the parents’ fault. Parents are teaching their children all the time, whether they realize it or not, and what they are teaching their children by spending vast amounts on proms and weddings is not good.
They are teaching them that style is more important than substance. That it’s better to receive than give. That it’s better to spend than save. That spending, in one night, what would pay for a semester of tuition and fees at HVCC, SCCC or FMCC is not only reasonable but their right. The same with spending what would pay for four years of education at a state school or a substantial down payment on a house on a ceremony that has a 50 percent chance of leading to divorce.
I don’t want our children to live like the children of Laos. I am not opposed to proms or weddings. But we need to restore a sense of proportion, something missing in a nation that believes we are entitled to consume 25 percent of the world’s resources.
I suggest watching “Bomb Harvest,” a documentary about Laos, with your teens. On the one hand, it has nothing to do with proms or weddings; on the other hand it has everything to do with them.
Watch it and if you don’t agree that what we spend on proms, weddings and so many other things here in the USA is indeed decadent, then it can only be because you have a heart of stone.
Daniel T. Weaver lives in Amsterdam and is a regular contributor to the Sunday Opinion section.