Monday, October 26, 2009

What's Really Scary About Halloween

“I want it, Mommy, puhleeze . . . puhleeze!”
A little girl no older than six was sprawled across the aisle, clinging to a Halloween costume and screaming in a voice high-pitched enough to break glass. Shoppers bunched up around her, my daughter, Ali, and I among them. There were a few irritated murmurs and groans of exasperation.

It was one of those please-let-me-vanish-into-thin-air mothering moments. I could see the effort the mom was making to stay calm, bending over her daughter, reasoning quietly. But everything she did only resulted in more shrieking. “I want it!” “I want it!”
The man next to me covered his ears. Finally the mother, flushing with humiliation, peeled her daughter off the large plastic bag. Now we got to see what all the fuss was about.
I couldn’t believe it. A Naughty Nurse costume!

It was impossible not to stare. The large picture showed a young girl dressed in white fishnet stockings, high heels, and a satiny candy-stripper mini with a matching bustier. One hand was at her thrust-out hip, the other holding a syringe as if it were a sex toy.
I directed my gaze to the bottom row and took in the other costumes--Transylvania Temptress, Frisky French Maid, and Little Miss Handy Candy--all with shiny bright fabrics, lots of sparkles, knee-high boots, plunging necklines, and fluffy boas. How could these be for the six-year-old set? But there they were, and all in easy reach of little hands. A clash of parent-child wills just waiting to happen.

Meanwhile, the situation on the ground was rapidly deteriorating. The little girl was writhing on the floor staging a level-five hissy fit. You could almost see the flashing words in the bubble over her mom’s head: “I’m not a bad mother. Really I’m not.” I watched her expression go from horrified to resigned. With rapid-fire motion, she yanked a fresh Naughty Nurse off the hook and scooped up her daughter. I gave her a sympathetic smile, but she’d already turned her head, anxiously looking for the checkout counter.

Other stores have pretty much the same selection. Pirate Wench, Instant Bunny (complete with the Playboy Bunny bowtie ) Major Flirt ( this year’s contribution to the military) and Little Bo Peep in a corset and lace petticoat. But what’s really scary are the pouty faces and beckoning thrust out hips of preteens ( and younger) modeling these clothes more rightfully belong in the window displays of seedy downtown sex shops..

“I wondered if I’d accidentally wondered into ‘Sluts R Us,’” Rachel Mosteller wrote on Blogging Baby about her search for her children’s Halloween costumes. She hoped her little ones would have no idea about the meaning behind names like Handy Candy--a sentiment widely shared by other moms who’d had similar experiences.

While Halloween for boys hasn’t changed much--the same blood-dripping masks and ghoulish garb--“costumes for girls have traded silly and sweet for skimpy and sexy.” “ It’s a strange time we live in when half the doctors are women, and half the lawyers are women, and all the little girls are prancing around in sexy costumes,” said Albany family therapist Lindy Guttman.

Her comment is right on target. Precisely because of the anxiety over women’s achievements, marketers are pushing marginalizing costumes on our daughters, reinforcing gender stereotypes. Instead of dressing up as a scientist, engineer, teacher or Dora the Explorer girls are parading around as chamber maids in a low-cut bodies and mini skirts. Tarty-tween costumes for Halloween are part of the sexualization of young women and girls—a trend going on for many years..

Unlike healthy sexuality, the sexualization of girls provides a very narrow definition of femaleness with a focus exclusively on appearance. This skewed identity “leads to a host of negative emotional consequences such as shame, anxiety, and even self-disgust,” says a recent report released by the American Psychological Association.

When sexual allure becomes the only path to power and self-worth, the role of achievement, talent, and being a decent person are diminished. Reduced concentration at school, eating disorders, depression, and unsafe and early sex are often the result. The onslaught of sexual images is encouraging a whole generation of girls to think about and treat their bodies as sexual objects, things for others’ use.

No parent wants to be Oscar the Grouch on Halloween and overrule a child’s choice of a costume, but if a group of parents get together and set up boundaries on what is and isn’t acceptable for dress-up, it will be a lot easier to steer your little goblin in the right direction. It’s also a good idea to organize an email blast to manufacturers and tell them why you’re not buying Miss Sexy Sergeant for your fifth grader. Or protest outside a store selling sexy costumes for the younger set and help to bring community-wide attention to issues of sexualizing girls and young women.

Women have a tremendous amount of power, but we have to use it to be effective.

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