If it's Halloween, it's time for kids to dress up and indulge in make believe. But along with costumes for ghosts, goblins, and the latest pop culture icons (Duck Dynasty, anyone?) parents are often taken aback by the sexy outfits marketed to teen and pre-teen girls.
USA TODAY's Michelle Healy talked to gender studies expert Annalisa Castaldo of Widener University in Chester, Pa., and counseling and school psychology professor Sharon Lamb of the University of Massachusetts, Boston, about the popularity of these costumes and how parents can help their daughters develop a healthy and positive attitude about their bodies.
Q: When did the concept of sexy Halloween costumes for teen and tween girls become cool?
Castaldo: Sexy adult costumes have been around for years, but costumes designed for teens and tweens have more recently begun displaying a sexualized edge.
Lamb: The movie Mean Girls certainly helped popularize it. There's a line in the film, repeated by many girls, that 'Halloween is the one night a year you can be a slut and get away with it.' The girl who was the odd girl out in that movie shows up at a party dressed up as a little mouse and is made fun of because she's not sexy. So there is this attitude that (sexy costumes) are the cool costumes.
Q: Isn't this simply about playing pretend and seeking attention?
Lamb: Girls get that this kind of thing is risqué and proves to the world that they're not under their parents' thumb. They understand from an early age that acting sexy and looking sexy gets you attention and at the same time they understand that looking sexy doesn't necessarily mean you want to have sex. It just means that you want to look mature and that means looking sexy, like the Victoria's Secret models and the (women) on prime time TV who parade around in their underwear. But dressing up on one Halloween looking sexy is not going to ruin their lives.
Castaldo: What's most disturbing is that girls have much less choice when they go to the costume store to be seen as anything other than a physical object. The only way they can dress up for Halloween is as something that reveals their body. A boy can be a pirate with baggy pants, an eye patch, a sword and a parrot on his shoulder, The costume matches the character. With the girl, the pirate is wearing a short skirt. As a superhero, she's wearing a short skirt. And my favorite is Cookie Monster with a short skirt. Every costume becomes about the physicality of the body it reveals, not about the characteristics of the character being impersonated.
Q: A 2007 American Psychological Association task force said that the proliferation of sexualized images of girls and young women in advertising, merchandizing and media is harmful to girls' self-image and healthy development. So there's a bigger issue here than just the inappropriateness of some costumes?
Lamb: I was on the task force that wrote that statement. We don't want to give adolescent girls a message that it's wrong to be sexual and that there's something wrong with being sexy. If you're a teenager or adult, most people at some point do want to be sexy. But a message we do want to give is that our society (allows for) a very narrow stereotype of who and what is sexy, and very often it's about being sexy in a pornographic way. That's all you're seeing these days on television, movies, video games, music videos. Another important message is that If you over-invest in looking a certain way, whether it's sexy or anything, you're over-investing in something very superficial when you could be developing your talents and intelligence in multiple other ways.
Castaldo: The bigger issue is that this continues to teach girls every day that what matters most about them is their physical body. Their intellect, their ethics, their character are all secondary to the physical presentation and their need to please the world with how they look. And there's no doubt in the research that this (over sexualization of girls) is problematic for boys, too. As they hit adolescence they are surrounded by girls presenting themselves as much more adult than they really are. And one of the messages they can pick up is that to be a winner you have to "score." That means learning very inappropriate behavior that has very long-term effects on how they relate to women.
Q: What's your advice for parents?
Lamb: Certainly a parent can just say, 'No, you're not wearing that costume out of the house.' There are some kids who just want that kind of structure from their parents, and there are others who are just going to rebel. And although it's too late to affect this Halloween, I think you want to have some conversations with your daughter about why some kids buy into sexy costumes and let her know you value her qualities and talents that are based on who she is and not what she looks like.
Castaldo: Learn to sew! Seriously though, I would love to see parents take back Halloween costumes. I know parents are incredibly over-burdened and creating a costume is just one more thing for them to do. But ideally, costumes should be something that you and your child come up with together. Also, if you have a 10- or 11-year-old girl, there's nothing wrong with shopping on the boys side of the Halloween aisle if she wants to do something that's not a tiny skirt and fishnet stockings. And when tweens and teens show interest in sexy or skimpy costumes, don't demean that interest or fight over the issue. Aim to maintain a dialogue throughout the year that praises what they attempt and accomplish, not how they look.