Firefighters don’t wear short skirts while combating flames, and police officers aren’t outfitted in mini-dresses and high heels to apprehend criminals. Unless it’s Halloween – then the Halloween costume options for girls offer exactly that – a sexualized version of these, and many other costumes.
Consider these examples from Halloweencostumes.com
Or this example, from Kohl's:
More than 171 million Americans will celebrate Halloween this year, and they'll spend about $3.1 billion on costumes, according to the National Retail Federation (NRF). Interestingly, more than 31 percent of women’s costumes online include the word “sexy” in the description, and 21 percent of girls’ costume names include the word "princess."
Want a non-princess or non-sexy costume? The cost goes up by about half, according to Indix, a product information company.
Lisa Dinella, Ph.D., is a research scientist who investigates the connection between gender, academic achievement, and career development. She's a gender expert and an associate professor of psychology at Monmouth University, and says the sexualization of Halloween costumes, like the gender color coding of toys, is bad for kids.
“Research clearly shows that children’s toys have become more gender stereotyped over the years,” Dr. Dinella says. “This trend of color coding toys is similar to retailers making girl versus boy versions of the same Halloween costume. By adding sexy accessories like tutus, high heels, and midriff-revealing tops to superhero or doctor costumes, they are creating rules about who should and shouldn’t wear that costume – while also sending the message that it is important for girls to always be sexy.”
Frieda Birnbaum, Ph.D., a research psychologist and psychoanalyst, agrees. An expert on depression, women’s issues, and attaining happiness, Dr. Birnbaum says that the mental and emotional impact of objectifying and sexualizing young girls is that it prevents them from being as academically involved as their male counterparts.
“They compete for their physical attributes instead of their ability to be productive,” Dr. Birnbaum says. “The message we send to young girls is that being in a strong role is not enough – we have to sexualize it.”
Dr. Birnbaum laments the days when Halloween costumes were homemade – a trend that certainly gave parents more control. “Halloween costumes used to be wearing what you could find – a scarecrow made out of fabric, painting your face like a clown. Now it's costumes that are expensive,” she says.
She adds that the trend of sexualizing Halloween costumes is reinforcing the messages that appearance is the most important consideration for girls.
“Young girls learn that looking good gets them attention,” Dr. Birnbaum says. “Men will appreciate them. We see this trend – sexualizing toys, clothing – and it becomes the end of innocence. The media will further exploit their innocence with selling hair products, makeup, and revealing clothing. Even sports games present sexual images of cheerleaders.”
Unfortunately, the marked differences between the genders are also seen in toys, according to Dr. Dinella. “Toys are being marketed as either for boys or for girls, rather than letting children decide what they like,” she says. “This is a problem, because kids should be playing with the toys that spark their interest, not just the toys that retailers decide are for girls or for boys.”
Dr. Dinella personally experienced the gender costume issue last year when searching for a mummy costume for her daughter. The sales clerk asked her if she was looking for a boy or a girl mummy. “Why should it matter?” she asked.
Dr. Dinella finds that disturbing. “Kids should be allowed to pretend to be anything they want to be, especially on Halloween,” she says. “And girls shouldn’t have to worry about whether they are being attractive while they pretend to be a firefighter saving someone from a burning building, or while they are trying out what it feels like to be a doctor for the day.”
Maria Miller, founder of Stella Di Rose Domestics, a boutique nanny agency in Manhattan, is saddened by the trend.
“Children in our society are unknowingly being stripped of... innocence in the most vulnerable ways,” she says. “Halloween, a child-driven holiday, has turned into a free-for-all, exploiting the imaginations of young children. The false ideology of womanhood presented in the form of over-sexualized Halloween costumes preys on the self-esteem of impressionable girls.”
Jenn Steele, director of product marketing at Indix, said that last year, the company noticed a stark difference in the titles of boys and girls costumes. “A majority of the costumes targeted at young boys contained words like ‘muscles,’ ‘wars’ or ‘ninja’,” she says. “The costumes for girls contained words such as ‘princess,’ ‘Cinderella,’ ‘pink’ or ‘witch’. When it comes to Halloween costumes and prices, there is a dramatic divide between boys and girls, and the expectations retailers have for both.”
This is where parental involvement and action come into play.
“Parents can play a strong role,” Dr. Birnbaum says. “If they don't buy the costumes, retailers will stop selling them. Parents can buy costumes that have the same theme in a more conservative style.”
Dr. Dinella says that retailers do have a responsibility. “It would be great for them to proactively take a stand and make the changes under their control,” she says. “But they are in business to make a profit, and will respond to the market, too. Parents can vote with their wallets – not buying sexy or gender-stereotyped costumes sends the message to retailers that they need to change the products they make and sell.”
Dr. Birnbaum suggests that fathers focus on complimenting their daughters’ abilities rather than their appearance. “When a girl is coming of age, the father often compliments her on her looks. This gives the wrong message – if you look good, you will be liked.”
Additionally, parents should role model for their children how to make difficult decisions in a culture that doesn’t always reflect our own personal values, according to Dr. Dinella.
“We all want our children to fit in. And having friends and feeling accepted is very important,” Dr. Dinella says. “Sometimes we have to take a stand and make choices that align with our values rather than what makes us popular. These big life lessons can happen even in small moments, such as picking a Halloween costume.”
She says parents should explain to their children why they think a costume is inappropriate. “It's okay to say that a costume is too violent, and that you want your child to always be nice to others. Or that a costume is more about how the character looks, rather than how the character acts. And if you are having trouble deciding where you stand on a costume, tell your kids that! They can see you think through difficult decisions and weigh your options.”