Sexy police officer. Sexy nurse. Sexy cat. Sexy angel. Sexy devil.
It’s time to start talking with your preteen or teenage daughter about her Halloween costume. Chances are, she has been plotting it out for weeks, if not longer — even though she may very well insist that she hasn’t spent one second thinking about it yet.
While boys can get away with putting on a sports jersey and claiming they’ve dressed as an athlete, girls must deal with entirely different guidelines. “You’re supposed to wear a sexy costume,” says Evelyn Benson, 16, of Williamsburg, Brooklyn. “You don’t even have to talk about it because everyone knows it.”
“Halloween is supposed to be about embracing the sinister, but when you are a girl, ‘sinister’ equals ‘sexual,’” points out Katie Cappiello, co-director and artistic director of the New York City-based theater program the Arts Effect. “It’s the one day when girls are expected to, and can actually justify, pushing the boundaries — but then they are punished for doing what they’re ‘supposed’ to do. It’s an impossible situation.”
Helping your daughter put together a costume she feels confident in requires consideration of the conflicting pressures she may be experiencing and opening a dialogue with her about everyday sexism. The conventional wisdom, as the Lindsay Lohan character put it in “Mean Girls,” is that “Halloween is the one night a year when a girl can dress like a total slut and no other girls can say anything about it.” The reality is more complicated. A girl is expected to wear a costume that exudes sex appeal without crossing an invisible, razor-thin boundary between “sexy” and “slutty.”
A girl who breaks this unspoken rule risks being mocked the way the Lindsay Lohan character was, all dressed up as a zombie bride while the other girls knowingly wear lingerie and some form of animal ears. But a girl who goes too far in the other direction and wears a costume deemed over-the-top sexy, may get called out as a “slut” or “ho” and publicly humiliated — or worse.
The pressure to be sexy without being slutty can ruin the holiday. “It used to be my favorite holiday, but now it’s like if you don’t look good in a mini skirt and cropped top, you might as well not dress up,” says Evelyn, who has never worn a sexy costume. “I am fearful that other people will see me as a ‘slut.’ It’s kind of a bummer.”
Many girls of color feel the pressure particularly intensely. Odley Jean, a 19-year-old student at Kingsborough Community College, says that she constantly has to monitor how her clothes might be interpreted by others. “If a white girl wears shorts and a tank top she looks like she’s wearing a regular outfit, but a lot of women of color have curves, and the same outfit looks more sexualized on us. So we can’t always get away with wearing the same clothes that other girls wear.” She, too, has reluctantly shied away from sexy Halloween costumes so as to minimize unwanted sexual attention.
The choice — sexy costume, funny costume, scary costume — should be your daughter’s. But with this much pressure, it’s hard for girls or their parents to know if the desire to go sexy is her own exploration of her identity, or a way to seek validation from male peers, girlfriends, or both. Girls who seem to be actively avoiding the sexier choices made by their friends may be self-conscious or uncomfortable with their bodies, worried about being called out as a “slut” or simply making a choice to do something different.
When girls make their decision — sexy, funny or scary — as a group, they can feel more comfortable. The teenage girls who participate in the Arts Effect “complain to us all the time about the pressure,” reports Meg McInerney, the program’s co-founder and managing director, not only on Halloween but also every day of the year. “We give them permission to say, ‘I don’t want to wear a sexy outfit’ — because even though it can feel really good to be sexy, it can also feel really bad when you’re objectified. And when other girls join in, it becomes easier to make that decision.”
If you’re worried about your daughter’s choice, sexy or not, the direct approach (a nonjudgmental “why?) could be a way into a discussion, or parents may want to start by talking about what “the other girls” will be wearing. Either way, recognizing why a girl may choose to dress sexy for Halloween can help a parent to set firm but reasonable limits on the costume and how much of her body she exposes, depending on her age and your values. And if a sexy costume leads to unwanted attention or shaming, both daughters and parents have to remember that neither girl nor costume is to blame. No one, no matter what she wears, deserves to be harassed or bullied — and those who believe that a girl is “asking for it” because of her attire are absolutely wrong.
In the end, even if you wish that her costume were less sexualized, remember what’s really important: how she feels about herself, and whether she recognizes the larger sexist forces at play.
Many girls have hit on a strategy: wearing a costume that appears sexy by accident, since effort is one hallmark of sluttiness. “So if you’re wearing a devil costume,” Evelyn says, “you would wear short shorts, a cropped top and devil ears — but also knee socks and Converse sneakers. If a girl wore high heels, that would make her look slutty.” It’s also preferable if the shorts or top have been worn previously. “The more you can make it look casual with clothes you’ve already worn before, the more you can get away with it.”
Last Halloween, Darci Siegel, a 17-year-old senior at the Beacon School in New York City, discussed her costume in advance with her mother. “I already had a cropped pink jacket because I had been a Pink Lady in a production of Grease. My mom suggested that I wear it with an old poodle skirt she had. But I got stressed out because the skirt was ankle length, and even though I didn’t want to be judged a ‘thot’” (a synonym for “slut” that stands for “that ho over there”) — “or a ‘slut,’ I also didn’t want to be the only girl who was all covered up. My mom was cool about it. She understood. I ended up wearing the jacket with black leggings.”