Oakland, CA — I’ve spent the last few weeks shopping around for a Halloween costume, but it’s been hard to find fun costumes without a particular modifier: sexy.
As consumerism has grown, Halloween has evolved into an industry where specialty merchandise, like costumes and decor, are marketed to people of every gender and age. The holiday originates from the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain, a pagan celebration held on the first of November. It's a day that was believed to blur the line between the supernatural and human worlds, which led to scary costumes being worn to ward off ghosts.
In an effort to make Halloween a safer and happier holiday, costume designs changed to be less scary and shifted instead to things like movie and comic characters in the 1930s. By the 1950s, mass-produced costumes had reached the mainstream — by the 1960s, “sexy” women’s costumes became commercialized commonplace.
These industries are content in reinforcing the gender stereotype that women’s costumes need to be sensual. And my friend, Zoe Jung, agrees.
“I think that the image of the mainstream consumer market in America is currently one of a very divided gender binary," said Jung. "Women's Halloween costumes that you buy in stores are typically all weirdly skimpy, and made for skinny people … It comes from a toxic patriarchal culture of trying to sharply divide the two genders, man and woman, into different boxes.”
Most women-oriented costumes show more skin and are warped into more provocative versions than costumes intended for men, which typically cover the full body or feature cartoonish fake foam muscles instead of real skin. An example being a woman’s police uniform, referred to as the “Officer Pat U Down Costume,” versus a man's police uniform, “Adult Police Officer Costume.”
“I actually find consumerized Halloween costumes really irritating,” she said. These gender disparities push the notion that sexualizing femininity is some kind of seasonal norm. And the influx of revealing costumes advertised each year can create pressure to fall into that norm.
A sexy costume could mean different things for different people. There are plenty of reasons to choose a revealing costume — and no one should be shamed for making that choice. Many wear sexy costumes because they like how it looks, and it makes them feel confident in their body. Showing skin can also feel like an act of rebellion against notions that women should dress conservatively.
But Halloween is full of contradictions. Because despite women being encouraged to dress and be sexy on Halloween, if they actually do, they’re often degraded or harassed because of it. While costume manufacturers are coercing women to dress sexually, the real-world reaction to feminine people using clothing as an expression of sexuality is getting labeled a “slut.”
Every year, women are given two terrible options: dress sexy on Halloween and risk being harassed and judged, or deny the revealing costume norms and risk being ignored or called a prude. The inadequate options offered to women, girls and feminine people for what to wear and how to act are not without serious consequences.
The judgements we make on Halloween night reflect the sexist attitudes we project onto women the other 364 days of the year. “I think that a lot of the things applied to women's versus men's clothing in regular areas also apply to Halloween costumes: worse quality, more sexualized and more expensive,” Jung added.
Women are not sexual objects. And no one should be afraid to feel too conservative or too sexy because of a costume. What Halloween needs is a new level of female respect — where we can leave societal norms behind and let Halloween costumes just be about expression.
Phoebe Lefebvre (she/her) is a high school student at Oakland School of the Arts focusing on creative nonfiction writing.
Edited by shaylyn martos.