It’s almost Sexy Costume Day! I mean, Halloween. My wife and I love Halloween because it gives us an excuse to pull out our glue gun and have a craft day. We usually make our costumes, but a few weeks ago we went to one of those pop-up Halloween shops to get some inspiration. I guess it had been a while since we’ve been in one, because we were pretty surprised by what we saw. For one, there was not one woman’s costume in the entire store that was not “sexy”. Even costumes that you would think should not be sexy, were sexy. Like sexy potato head, sexy minion, sexy Bert and Ernie and sexy hamburger. Seriously, there was a sexy hamburger.
Don’t worry, I’m not going to use this is an excuse to post photos of scantily clad women dressed as sexy scrabble. I thought I’d let some dudes demonstrate instead.
But these costumes are for adult women with agency, so no harm right? I’m not going to answer that just yet. I want to first tell you about our second observation in the Halloween store, this one in the kids’ section.
In this store, there were little girl costumes and little boy costumes. But despite the fact that between the ages of 4 and 6, little girl bodies and little boy bodies are pretty much the same, the costumes were very different. The little girl costumes looked like miniature versions of sexy _______ (fill in the blank).
You’ve probably read about the mom in Victoria who took her 4-year-old daughter shopping for a Halloween costume at Value Village. The little girl wanted to be a firefighter. Her mother found a cute firefighting costume in the boys’ section. It had an axe, a fire hat and a red jacket.
She then found the equivalent costume in the girls’ section. It had a skin-tight black shiny dress and a fascinator in the place of a fire hat. The police officer costume was equally appalling. The little girl version was a dress with a short skirt. In real life, policewomen have not had to wear skirts as part of their uniform since 1990.[i] And this was a change women really fought for.
“What those costumes tell me is that the boys can wear the real thing. They can be a real firefighter. The girls, on the other hand can’t. They can dress up pretty and pretend to be a firefighter, but they could never aspire to be the real thing.”[ii]
This should be especially concerning when you consider that firefighting remains very male dominated and has traditionally been a hostile workplace for women. In 2006, allegations of severe sexual harassment were made by women firefighters from Richmond, BC. The alleged incidents included hard-core pornography being displayed in their presence, human feces being put in a woman’s boots and pants, a condom with the word “cunt” written on it being placed in a woman’s locker and water pressure being turned off as a woman battled a fire. [iii]
Fortunately for the mother in this story, Value Village heard her complaints and decided to take down these gender specific costumes.
But not all shops are so progressive. If the store I went to was any indication, there are sexy toddler costumes being sold all over Canada.
I don’t think it is difficult to understand why sexualizing a 4-year-old is problematic. For one, it’s pedophilic. But more than that, it can have a very significant impact on how girls and women see themselves.
In the documentary Miss Representation (which I highly encourage anyone with Netflix to watch), author Jean Kilbourne talks about the message these sexualized images send to young girls.
“Girls get the message from very early on that what’s most important is how they look, that their value, their worth, depends on that. And boys get the message that this is what’s important about girls….So, no matter what else a woman does, no matter what else her achievements, their value still depends on how they look.”[iv]
The documentary goes on to discuss how this sexualisation leads girls to self-objectify which has disastrous consequences.
“The American Psychological Association has found in recent years that self-objectification has become a national epidemic, a national problem. The more women and girls self-objectify, the more likely they are to be depressed, to have eating disorders. They have lower confidence. They have lower ambition. They have lower cognitive functioning. They have lower GPAs.” [v]
In Canada, women are not well represented in leadership positions. Only 17% of Conservative Members of Parliament are women. The percentages for the NDP and Liberals are 38% and 25% respectively. BC has the highest rate of women MLAs in Canada at 36%. The other provinces and territories range from 10% (Northwest Territories) to 35% (Ontario).[vi]
Could there be a connection? Dr. Caroline Heldman, a professor of political science, says yes. Women who are high self-objectifiers have lower political efficacy. Political efficacy is the idea that your voice matters in politics and that you can bring about political change. As she sees it, if we have a whole generation of young people being raised with the message that the objectification of women is normal, we have a whole generation of women who are less likely to run for office and less likely to vote.
So after 18 years of being told by advertising, films, television shows, pop-up Halloween stores, you name it, that our value as women lies in our bodies, how free is our choice to buy a sexy adult Halloween costume? Are we dressing as sexy a Girl Guide because we would feel awesome and empowered in that costume? Or have we been conditioned by marketing and social pressure? To be honest, these are very complicated questions that I do not have an answer to (Philosophy 101 was my only B in undergrad).
But here is something I can answer. Is it possible to enjoy Halloween in a socially conscious way? The answer to that question is YES! Here are my Do’s and Don’ts for selecting a totally awesome, feminist Halloween costume.
#1 Do celebrate women heroes
There are so many women heroes in history, literature and modern day who have made a difference, fought the system, broken the glass ceiling, bent gender norms and kicked some serious ass. Why not celebrate one of them? There’s Katniss, Hermione, the Paper Bag Princess, Amelia Earhart and Rosie the Riveter, just to name a few.
#2 Do not appropriate someone else’s culture
I’ll admit, it took me an embarrassingly long time to understand that this is a problem. When I was a kid I once dressed up as Tiger Lily from Peter Pan. Another year, I wore my mother’s burqa from her days living in Saudi Arabia. It really didn’t occur to me that dressing up as someone else’s culture would be offensive. The way I reasoned it, I would not be offended if someone dressed up as a lumberjack or fur trader to represent a Canadian. Well, as I’ve learned, that is because this is not a proper analogy. “There are no pervasive stereotypes for whites on the same level that allow for them to be caricatured as a Halloween costume.” [vii] And Canadians are not a marginalized group.
Students from Ohio University have launched a campaign to make revelers think twice before reducing a culture to a caricature. The message: We’re a culture, not a costume.[viii] When we dress up as another culture, we reduce sacred and culturally significant attire. We perpetuate inaccurate, stereotypical and often offensive portrayals of someone else’s heritage. We temporarily “play” an exotic other without experiencing any of the daily discrimination faced by them, like dressing up as a “sexy squaw” while being completely unaware of the horrific rates of sexual violence Aboriginal women face.[ix]
#3 Do not dress as a famous oppressor
This seems so obvious, but every year people dress in horrible costumes that glamorize violence and violations of human and civil rights. In 2005, Prince Harry dressed up for a costume party with a swastika on his arm. This year, men have been reported dressing up as Ray Rice, the football player who punched his then-fiancé in an elevator. This is incredibly disrespectful to women who have been victims of domestic violence. And there are a lot of us. One half of all Canadian women have experienced at least one incident of physical or sexual violence.[x] Dressing up as an oppressor trivializes real discrimination, persecution and violence. It can also re-victimize survivors.
#4 Do not dress as a member of a marginalized group
I think most people know that it is not ok for a white person to don blackface. Yet people dress as other marginalized groups all the time: Indian, hobo, illegal immigrant. This is what one Aboriginal woman had to say about people dressing as a Native person:
“But you don’t understand what it feels like to be me. I am a Native person. You are (most likely) a white person. You walk through life everyday never having the fear of someone misrepresenting your people and your culture. You don’t have to worry about the vast majority of your people living in poverty, struggling with alcoholism, domestic violence, hunger, and unemployment caused by 500+ years of colonialism and federal policies aimed at erasing your existence. You don’t walk thought life everyday feeling invisible, because the only images the public sees of you are fictionalized stereotypes that don’t represent who you are at all. You don’t know what it is like to care about something so deeply and know at your core that it’s so wrong and have others in positions of power dismiss you like you’re some sort of over-sensitive freak.”[xi]
#5 Do highlight your talents
Halloween is an opportunity to get creative and think outside the box. It is also an opportunity to make a statement. A few Halloweens ago my wife and I went as Mrs. and Mrs. Potato Head. Not only was the costume a political statement about gay marriage, it had super awesome Velcro facial features that we could swap around all night.
#6 Do not denigrate women who choose a sexy costume
Some women find demonstrating their sexuality really empowering when they can do it safely and without pressure or judgment. Halloween is, for some women, one of the only days of the year that they feel comfortable really having their sexuality on display.[xii] That is great. These women do not deserve judgment. “Slut shaming” is a different side of the same sexist coin. Instead of assigning women value for being sexy, it strips women of value for being too sexy.[xiii] But ultimately, it is still determining a woman’s value based on her appearance. That is not ok.
Bottom line, have a great time this Halloween, but don’t do it at someone else’s expense. Halloween is not an excuse to leave your feminism at the door.