Much like candy corn, costume judging has become a gross
Halloween habit we all indulge in. I’m just as guilty as the next person. I
love to scroll through articles that declare costumes to be offensive, racist,
outrageous and way too sexy. But I’m struck every year by how often girls' costumes are picked on.
It’s an easy judgment that pronounces a little girl in a
two-piece Princess Jasmine get up as “too sexy”—one of those quick determinations we
make as a casual aside. But those costumes reveal more than kid belly; they
reveal the death grip that sexism has on the female body.
Why judge a little girl in a two-piece outfit? Why not judge
a boy baring his chest? The kid dressed as a pimp? The serial killer? The little boy
dressed up as Ray Rice dragging a female doll around by the hair? Sure, if
you think about it, you might not like those other examples I gave. But the
fact that we’d rather side eye a girl flashing a belly button than a boy glorifying
the subjugation and enslavement of women in the sex trade is a disturbing
When I brought this issue up with my friends who are
parents, the overriding concern with little girls in “skimpy” costumes was that
they were being used to “oversexualize” young girls. This is not a new concern. Recently a blogger went
viral complaining that Target shorts for little girls were too skimpy. In
an op-ed for the New York Times, Peggy
Orenstein also decried the sexualization of young girls.
But Jia Tolentio,
writing for the Hairpin, eloquently offered a counterpoint, “to
automatically equate wearing tight or skimpy clothing with 'embracing
sexualization’ or ‘stressing self-presentation over self-knowledge’ … [is] a
conflation of intent and potential consequence in a very particular arena where
the two things have often been divorced for young women by others from the
second they realized they had a gendered body at all.”
That’s the beauty of costume—we get to explore the other in us.
I spent two of the four Halloweens of my college career
dressed as a “rock star”—a generic costume that was a low-point for my
creativity. But I loved it because it allowed me to bare a midriff, don my
friend’s impossibly tight leather pants and pretend I had cleavage. It was the
opposite of who I was the rest of the year, with my corduroys, long wool skirts
and turtlenecks. I cringe when I think
about that get-up, but I’m glad I did it. Those experiments in self allowed me to play a part I was unfamiliar
with and become more comfortable with who I am.
That’s the beauty of costume—we get to explore the other in
us, the other we let out only once a year. Costume gives us the chance to indulge in our weird
aspirations, our quirks, fantasies and fun. Halloween is carnival at its best—a world flipped upside-down, where for one night, we get to pick who we can be,
rather than have it determined for us.
Conflating a costume with a sexual intent in a young girl is
not only ridiculous, but moreover a judgment that stifles the full range of choice,
possibility and play that come with dressing up.
Of course, I was in college when I indulged in my own
“skimpy” costume. The issue at hand concerns a young child. In college, I was
the primary owner of myself. Little girls are, well, that’s the issue, isn’t it?
Who is the owner of a little girl’s body?
When babies are born, parents wash, dress, feed and care for every aspect of those tiny bodies. But
at some point, we cede control. Or we ought to cede control. It seems like, little
boys get away scot-free, while little girls stay locked in the cage of our
We idealize little girls as sweet and innocent. And yet, we
insist that young girls must be covered—otherwise, it is inappropriate,
immodest and disgusting. A little baby girl dressed in bows and lace is
adorable, but naked in the bathtub, she’s a shocking display of child porn that
could get you banned from Facebook.
The message to girls is clear: You must always stay covered, otherwise you are garbage.
I was once cautioned by a well-meaning
neighbor that my toddler girl running around the backyard in the summer in her
diaper ought to cover up. A few years later, when I let my baby boy splash
around nude in the baby pool, the neighbor laughed and a made a comment about
boys being boys.
A little girl showing a belly in her costume is vile. A boy
going shirtless for his doesn’t even merit a second glance. The message to
girls is clear: You must always stay covered, otherwise you are garbage.
Society never lets go of a woman’s body. This is why we feel
so comfortable slut-shaming a 5-year-old in costume and writing think pieces
about an actress's face. The female body is one of the last battlegrounds of
sexism and it starts right away, right when they are young. We adults imprint
our biases and prejudices on young girls in a way that we wouldn’t dream of
doing to boys, and nowhere is this more evident than the adult judgments about
This is not a binary where we must let our daughters dress
or undress how they feel or subjugate them to puritanical sexism. Rather, it’s
a quandary, a mucky mire of institutionalized and deeply ingrained sexism,
freedom, our interpretations of childhood and body issues that all surface to
scare the hell out of us on one night a year. Perhaps the only way out of this
is by punting the decisions to the person wearing the costume: the child.