Sexy Halloween Costumes . . . For Little
Titillating outfits marketed to kids are
a reflection of an increasingly sexualized childhood,
says author and professor Diane Levin. For little boys,
it's the macho look. What's a parent to do?
October 27, 2008
Diane E. Levin, a professor of education at Wheelock
College in Boston, is the co-author, with Jean Kilbourne,
of "So Sexy So Soon: The New Sexualized Childhood and
What Parents Can Do to Protect Their Kids." With
Halloween approaching, Levin spoke with The Times'
Health section about girls' -- and boys' -- costumes on
offer this year, and what they mean.
There's a recurring theme in Halloween costumes for
girls this year, and it's kind of spooky. What's going
Halloween costumes for 7- and 8-year-old girls and even
younger have become downright titillating, and for
tweens and teens, the vast majority of those sold in
stores and on the Internet are unabashedly sexually
Little girls and their big sisters are being encouraged
to get dressed up, in many cases, like child
prostitutes. Then, they wander the night judging and
being judged by their friends as to how well they meet
the provocative standard and begging for candy from
It can be very hard for parents to find an alternative
to letting them do it, short of having a war in the
family or making their kids miserable.
This is a continuation of what's been going on for quite
a while: Halloween costumes are reflecting an
increasingly sexualized childhood. They often reflect
the stars and starlets and popular culture role models
that girls have, starting with Disney princesses or
Hannah Montana when girls are young. But even
traditional favorites, like witches and pirates are
sexier every year. And French maids are quite the thing
for tweens and teens.
What's the most outlandish example out there that
you've seen in this or recent years?
The sexy princess costumes, sexy witch costumes seem to
be most ubiquitous and most dramatic. For girls 8 and
up, the skirt will have a big slit on one side. By the
time girls are 12, the costumes are low cut. This year,
the wigs and boots and makeup and all kinds of stuff to
be grown up and sexy seem to have become part of every
But kids are drawn to try out new personas, and
Halloween has always been about imagining yourself
transformed in some edgy, scary way. Is this any
That's always been one of the exciting things about
Halloween. But there was once a time when children were
trying out personas that were of their own making. When
they decided they wanted to be a knight or something,
they had to figure out what the knight did. It wasn't a
matter of having grown-ups -- marketers -- saying,
"Here. This will make you look like such and such a
character. You don't need to do anything." This isn't
about imagination. This is about marketers trying to
hijack kids' imaginations.
How did we go from witch, devil and nurse to vampy
witch, sexy devil and seductive nurse?
Since television was deregulated in the early 1980s,
marketing strategies have taken over all aspects of
kids' lives. From bedsheets to clothes and shoes to the
lunch box they carry -- they're all linked to media, to
popular culture. The message is, this is what's
desirable, this is what you should be.
And look at what they were offered: For boys, there was
GI Joe, He-Man, Transformers, Ninja Turtles, Mighty
Morphin Power Rangers. For girls, there was My Little
Pony, Care Bears, Disney's princesses. Gender roles were
very much part of that marketing. There was a whole new
escalation in gender division when children began to
become a market.
Kids are trying to figure out from an early age, "What
does it mean to be a girl, or to be a boy?" They look at
the most dramatic examples they can find to figure that
out. Marketers are making it the most extreme they
possibly can for that reason. Sexy is part of that
marketing to girls -- just as macho and violent has
become the way to market things to boys.
What about boys? Are they under any similar pressures
that you see reflected in Halloween costumes?
First of all, the girls' costumes set up certain
expectations in boys as well as in the girls who wear
them or want them. What are boys' reactions, looking at
girls when they're all dressed up in these sexy
costumes? They think, "That must be what girls look like
to be pretty, and being pretty is the important thing."
The equivalent of sexy costumes for girls are the
violent, macho characters for boys. Mimicking these
characters is about being ready to fight, to be macho.
For boys, choosing these costumes, the ideal is an image
of toughness. It's not about human feelings,
connections; it's about being tough and macho.
When that becomes the ideal, as expressed in Halloween
costumes, that's how boys judge each other, so it's no
surprise there's more and more bullying between boys,
especially when one doesn't satisfy that image. There's
a similar dynamic for girls: How they look and what they
buy affects their view of themselves. But it also
becomes the basis for how they treat other girls. It's
harder and harder to have relationships.
To me, this is objectification of both boys and girls --
allowing little human beings to be treated as if they
were objects. Girls learn to judge boys by how well they
meet that objective definition of mindless, unfeeling
machoism. And boys learn to judge girls by how sexy they
are. This is why we may be seeing a generation in which
relationships are often played out as interactions
between caricatures of sexual stereotypes, why you can
have friends with benefits and "hooking up."
Do you think there's a connection here with child sex
There could be -- we need to learn more about this. The
fact that women more and more are supposed to look like
girls and that girls are supposed to look like women
means there's a blurring of boundaries between what is a
child and what is a grown-up. These ambiguous sexual
connections are going to make it harder and harder for
men who have difficulty drawing those boundaries to make
It's also going to make little girls think that men of
all ages thinking you're cute -- cute and a little sexy
-- is perfectly appropriate. . . . The idea of having a
pretty body at 7 -- what does that mean? The body held
up to them is not the average body of an 8-year-old.
That concerns me.
What's a parent to do? If our little girls, our
tweens, our young teens think this is normal (which it
is) and want them, what's the best way to deal with
First, you have to understand the nature of the problem
and see how the pieces fit together.
I tend to think of kids as developing two boxes in their
head: There's the pop culture box -- that's all the
messages they're getting about what are the norms out
there in the world, how they should look, what they
should care about, what it means to be a girl or a boy,
attitudes about violence, sex and consumption.
And then there's the family/society box: From what's in
this box, they learn what it means to be caring,
connected, contributing members of society. Right now,
the boxes are pretty much disconnected.
The pop culture box is getting bigger and bigger, and
the home and family box is getting crowded out. Adults
don't try to connect to the popular culture except to
get upset at it, punish their kids for spending time in
it, and pretend it's not there. It's just so hard for
them to think what to do. The result is that kids are
seeing their parents as stupid, out of touch and
obstructionist at an earlier and earlier age and
considering them irrelevant.
We need to make the pop culture box as small as we can,
and to make the family and society box as big as we can,
and to draw connections between the two. We need to be
there to help children make sense of the pop culture
box: not just to give them the "right" answers, but to
hear what they have to say about it too.
Say you go to a store with your 8-year-old and she's
trying to get a sexy costume and you're insisting on
something more wholesome. It's becoming a battle. You
need to stop and ask, "What do you like about that
costume?" She may say, "Jenny and Susie all have
something like that and they'll think I'm a dork if I
don't." And then you say, "But my concern is that that
looks like a costume for an older person. It seems we
need to find a costume where you feel OK and I feel OK.
How about this one -- which looks a little sexy to me
but I feel OK with it?"
The idea is to let kids know we're there, we hear them,
we're going to influence what they're learning. But
we're also going to respect their thinking. So when kids
need our help, they're more likely to come to us.
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