When most parents think about Halloween costumes, they picture their children dressed up as witches and ghosts, maybe pirates or cute animals. They probably aren’t looking for a costume with sex appeal. But, unfortunately, that’s what many retailers are selling. While sexy adult costumes have been standard for years, those designed for tweens, and even young girls, have recently begun displaying a sexualized edge. A quick Google search returns page after page of costumes with miniskirts, bared bellies or strapless tops, even when such choices are completely ridiculous. Do we really need a Cookie Monster dress that ends six inches above the knee?
We shouldn’t overstate the effect of these costumes, but we shouldn’t ignore it either. Children, especially girls, are bombarded with messages that what really matters is how they look and how much of their body they show off. They get these messages through movies and television, in magazines, and especially in advertisements. The idea that a female’s worth lies in how she looks or can be made to look is even embedded in the fairytale—and perennial favorite Halloween costume—“Cinderella.” Cinderella is not allowed to go to the ball because she lacks the appropriate clothes, but after her fairy godmother provides a ball gown and glass slippers, she is fit to go to the ball and win the heart of a prince (a prince, by the way, who doesn’t recognize his true love standing in front of him until she is again all decked out). These days, instead of a fairy godmother, women have cosmetic companies and clothing lines to make them worthy of a prince.
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It’s normal for children, especially tweens, to copy adults and use Halloween to “test out” adult roles and behaviors. If the overriding message they get is that a woman’s value lies in her looks, and specifically in being sexy, girls will naturally clamor for costumes that mimic adult sexuality, not because they are actually interested in sex, but because they want to be grown-up.
Parents of boys should not feel they’ve dodged the body-image bullet; the most popular costumes for boys are all superhero costumes, which feature form-fitting body suits, sometimes with fake muscles built right in. While men are less affected by our culture’s obsession with beauty than women, they are not immune. Underwear ads and fitness magazines are normalizing the idea that men should also slave over their bodies, working out until they have washboard abs and chiseled pecs. So boys are starting to absorb the idea that to be a “real” man, to be valued, they must be muscled and good looking. For both boys and girls, adulthood is being presented as both superficial and commercial—physical perfection that can be bought.
Obviously, one kid's Halloween costume choice neither creates nor negates this syndrome, but subtle messages build up over time. Instead, why not use Halloween as a way to open up a conversation? Here, I suggest a few ways to help your children have a healthy and positive attitude about Halloween costumes and their own bodies.
Find Out What She Really Want to Be: Halloween is traditionally a time to test-drive a different persona, so ask your child what skill she wishes she had or what activity she’d like to be good at. Then, build a costume around that rather than a preformed character. Does she want to be athletic? Dress her up like an Olympian in red, white and blue with a gold medal. Is he interested in science? Suggest a mad scientist, with a lab coat and a brain in a jar.
Go Scary: Emphasize the roots of Halloween—a spooky time when the supernatural is on the loose. Instead of aiming for an adult costume, suggest your kids try to create a scary one.
Humanize a Character: If your child desperately wants to dress up as a particular character, get him to articulate what makes that character so special. Stress the superheroes’ values rather than how cool they look.
Don’t Badmouth Sexy Costumes: Parents shouldn't be sex negative, especially with tweens. Telling a girl she can’t wear something skimpy because it makes her look like a slut or because it will send the wrong message just creates internal dissonance since she sees even skimpier outfits on celebrities every day. Instead of fighting, ask her why this costume is the one she wants as a way to open a dialogue.
Keep it Up All Year Long: Finally, throughout the year, praise your children—especially your daughters—for what they attempt and accomplish, not for how they look. A girl who hears “you always work hard” repeatedly rather than “you look so nice” can wear a skimpy costume one night and not be convinced it’s the only way to be popular and loved.
Dr. Annalisa Castaldo teaches English at Widener University. She is also director of Gender & Women’s Studies and often represents the university in the media as an expert on a variety of topics related to the women’s movement. She has lectured on gender issues and feminism to a wide variety of groups and is currently writing about gender in Shakespearean adaptations.