Halloween Costume Challenge

This post originally appeared on Lisa Naylor’s own blog Gentle Angry Blogger. Thank you Lisa for sharing it with us.
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Over time, October 31 has become a celebration of dress up and fantasy, scary and beautiful, something for children and those with an imagination. Now, it’s even a family event.  Remember when it wasn’t even cool to dress up after age 12 and you stayed home to hand out the candy and see the younger kids in their costumes?  Just once as an adult (a very young adult), I went to a night club with friends on Halloween and  we all dressed up.  I spent a lot of money renting my costume. I was a clown, fully outfitted in striped cotton, complete with floppy shoes and a rainbow wig.  In retrospect, I think maybe my then-boyfriend had something else in mind.

I knew there had been a huge cultural shift when Lindsey Lohan’s character in the popular teen film Mean Girls astutely stated “Halloween is the one night a year when girls can dress like a total slut and no other girls can say anything about it.” That was in 2004. Those words (penned by comedienne and screenwriter Tina Fey) were a wry observation of what was happening in the world of teen girl Halloween costumes. In retrospect, I wonder if they were prescriptive as well.

Halloween seems to have become the most sexualized night of the year for teens and adults alike. While this makes me sad  it is so much more disturbing to see that the training begins so early. It seems the trend for little girls’ costumes to be skin-tight and include high heels and fishnet stockings. Flyers and catalogues feature children’s French Maid and Geisha Girl costumes along with sexualized version of all the classics: mini-skirted and crop-topped pirates, princesses and Little Red Riding Hood.

Even though few things shock me, I actually cried when I saw a half-dressed Hermione Granger costume posted online last week. A Facebook friend wrote this about the image: “Every time I see that ‘sexy Hogwarts’ costume, or any other one that reduces a heroine (or a legit occupation) to a cheap sexual fantasy I want to scream. Hermione Granger is a war hero, a bad ass activist, a genius and is not amused. Why does this exist and not a Sexy Harry or Sexy Ron costume? Why are 95% of costumes for adult women outfits that should rightfully come with a pole as an accessory? And why aren’t more people pissed about it???”

It was devastating to see Hermione reduced to this image. Partly because behind that fictional character is an amazing young actress, Emma Watson, who has maintained the ability to be a healthy role model for young girls despite her commercial success. And partly because this is one of my daughter’s heroines. She has had more fun dressing as the evil Draco Malfoy and the ethereal Luna Lovegood but Hermione pictures decorate her wall and we have had many conversations about the values that she can learn from Hermione: hardworking, not afraid to be smart, loyal and brave. There is NO place for a hyper sexualized, semi-bare breasted Hermione in our vision of strong, brave girls who are passionate about social justice and healthy, caring relationships.

Most thoughtful parents are not going to intentionally let their pre-teen child leave the house in a costume that is designed to present them in a sexual and objectified way.  However, I think the problem starts in the aisles of the costume stores. It is almost impossible to go out and purchase costumes without being exposed to inappropriate versions of well-known children’s characters. So I have been giving some thought on how to opt out of this sexualized, often racist, and commercialized experience.

"Luna Lovegood", Halloween 2011

“Luna Lovegood”, Halloween 2011

Here are a few ideas:

  • For pre-teens and young children, you can easily reclaim the innocent fun, outrageous and creative aspects of Halloween. Work together to make costumes instead of immersing your daughter in the commercialised version of Halloween at the mall. Encourage her to use her imagination and see herself as powerful or adventurous. If she could be anyone who would she be? Remind her of characters in books that she admires but does not have a visual image for. Help her imagine how that character would dress and act if she or he came to life.
  • Consider throwing a party instead of or prior to trick-or-treating. Raid your own closet and pick up crazy pieces at discount and dollar stores. Provide face paints and silly hats. Invite kids to attend and make their own costumes as the main activity. Give awards for the funniest, scariest or most imaginative costume. Genuine creativity will boost self-esteem while reducing the pressure to look sexy or pretty.
  • This issue is more difficult to address with teens. Revealing clothing and appropriate limits are an ongoing conversation at this stage. Be prepared to talk about the difference between her own healthy, developing sexual desire versus being a sex object and the risks involved with playing that role. Help her explore her own feelings and develop critical thinking about sexualized images of women, feminine “ideals” and marketing. Even if she agrees that Halloween is the one night a year that she can “dress like a slut and no one will say anything about it”, remind her that the photos live on forever and can be shared anywhere on any day of the year.
  • Check out this blog post called Take Back Halloween that I came across last year  for some fun and intelligent suggestions. I’m considering being Emma Goldman this year, thanks to that idea posted in the “Notable Women” section of the article!
  • For a completely different approach – consider joining in a local harvest festival or having your own Day of the Dead celebration complete with a small altar in your home to honour your ancestors or more recently deceased love ones.  Do some research together and join in the dancing in colourful costumes, making your own prayer flags and decorating and gifting skulls shaped from sugar and candy.
Lisa Naylor Guest Blogger

Lisa Naylor Guest Blogger

By guest blogger Lisa Naylor. Lisa blogs about self-esteem, body image & preventing eating disorders; drawing on 20 years experience as a counsellor & group facilitator with girls and women. Read more by Lisa on her blog Gentle Angry Blogger, as well as her previous post on GirlGuidesCANBlog: What Pop Culture is Teaching Our Girls.


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2 Responses to Halloween Costume Challenge

  1. Jenna says:

    While I agree with much of this, and how it applies to the younger branches, I disagree with some.
    “Most thoughtful parents are not going to intentionally let their pre-teen child leave the house in a costume that is designed to present them in a sexual and objectified way.” Yes, absolutely. And I 100% agree with the idea of making costumes.

    But when it comes to the older branches, girls who are actually curious about sex and dressing in a revealing manner, I think it’s dangerous to say:
    “There is NO place for a hyper sexualized, semi-bare breasted Hermione in our vision of strong, brave girls who are passionate about social justice and healthy, caring relationships.”
    Why not? Do we really want to say that being sexy and smart are mutually exclusive concepts? A sexualized woman can’t be caring or brave?
    “dress like a slut and no one will say anything about it” Does dressing a certain way automatically make someone a slut? Should we promote that way of thinking amongst girls? I feel that would be irresponsible and dangerous. We’re basically telling them to judge each other based on what they wear.

    The fact is many girls go through a phase where they try dressing in a more revealing or sexy way. But even if you look “like a sex object” that doesn’t mean you have to *act* like one. If Hermione chose to dress sexy, that doesn’t give other girls the right to judge her for it. And that doesn’t make Hermione less smart. It just makes her look different.

  2. Lisa says:

    Thanks for your comments! I thought I would weigh in here (as the author of the above article). I absolutely believe that teens are going to experiment with “sexy” and that for older teens and adult women this is developmentally appropriate. I don’t think that sexy and brave or smart are mutually exclusive.
    But SEXY and SEXUALIZED have quite different meanings.
    When I talk about being sexualized… I am talking about sexual objectification.. dangerous for all of us regardless of age or stage. Sexual objectification is about being a commodity, it is NOT about a girl or women’s own subjective experience of her sexuality.
    I also used the term “girls” intentionally in my paragraph about hyper-sexualization and bare breasts… I was not talking about women’s experience, but what is done to children by the culture.

    I don’t think I said anything to promote girl’s judgement or slut-shaming views of each other. But I do think it is important to help girls have a critical analysis about why and how all of our strong, powerful cultural icons end up getting sexualized even when that has nothing to do with the characters as we know them. Hermoine’s character was never presented in a sexualized or even in a sexy way in books or movies. So why is the costume of her chracter sold with very low cut breasts and a barely there mini skirt? (keep in mind it is a school girl uniform.. a very specific fetish for some.. and something typically worn by children).

    I really appreciate you taking the time to read the article and comment! This is a hot topic and additional clarity may be helpful 🙂

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