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We Judge Girls in Costumes—Why Not Boys?

Photograph by Twitter

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.

RELATED: Worst Halloween Costumes for Teen Girls

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 choice.

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 conflicting standards.

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 costumes.

RELATED: This Mom's Against Modesty

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.

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