October 24, 2006

Kindergarten Cleavage

When I was a kid, I used to love Halloween. The week before the big day, we kids would all start coming up with ideas for costumes. I was never particular creative when it came to costumes, but my sisters were. Blonde Sister was particularly good at painting stuff on our faces, using just regular water color paints. She was way ahead of her time because face-painting had not yet become a trend. Pretty much everyone I knew wore homemade costumes, with bits and pieces that had come from garage sales or thrift stores, or sometimes cool hand-sewn costumes made by someone's parent and then passed down through many children. You could buy cheap costumes with plastic masks at the drugstore, but they always fell apart easily, and a mask is annoying to wear on a dark October night.

I've always thought of Halloween as a holiday for children, complete with seasonal candy, carving pumpkins, classroom parties, silly games like dunking for apples or eating donuts off a string, and the excitement of running around a neighborhood after dark, bravely knocking on doors to ask for candy. Since we lived on a country road, we used to visit Picnic Family's neighborhood on Halloween night. We kids would trick or treat for a few hours, then come back to spread our candy on the carpet, carefully sorting the candy bars and hard candy, ready to trade away anything we didn't like. The adults were always in the background, or more accurately, in the basement. Jazz music came drifting up from the jam session going on below us as we argued the worth of a candy bar.

One of the biggest changes I've seen in Halloween in my lifetime is the way that consumerism and adults have taken over the holiday. Instead of simple costumes they make themselves, for instance, many kids now wear elaborate store-bought costumes. It seems sad that kids often don't make their own costumes any more, since that sort of kills the creative element of the holiday, but the thing that most horrifies me is the kind of costumes that seem to be available. I mean, left to her own devices, would your average seven-year-old girl think to dress up as a slutty cheer leader? I doubt it.

I suppose it is unrealistic to think that corporations motivated only by profit would manufacture costumes for little girls that were original or creative or clever. I guess I shouldn't be surprised that the costumes tend to reinforce gender stereotypes, which for girls means that the emphasis is on sexuality. When I was a kid, I sometimes dressed as a cat, which meant black cloth covering my whole body, and cardboard ears, and whiskers that my sister painted onto my face, and a long tail. Nowadays, a cat costume means a bare midriff, a black tank top that emphasizes the chest, fishnet stockings, and eye shadow. How is it that a cat costume for a five-year-old can be so sexualized? Am I the only one who thinks it is a bit unhealthy to push that sex object stereotype on a child who won't have breasts for another eight years?

Last year, I saw numerous little girls dressed as comic book superheros, with full-body costumes that gave them cleavage, round breasts, skimpy shorts, and hooker boots, sort of a colorful version of a Hooters' waitress. One parent, with whom I was having a thoughtful discussion, defended the costume to me by saying, "Oh, but it's a progressive outfit. A superhero is powerful." Yes, the idea that a woman needs big breasts, long legs, high heels, and skimpy attire to be powerful – that is real progressive.

I suppose all these highly sexualized costumes for little girls is just one more example of unhealthy attitudes towards the body in our culture. Perhaps is the repression of adult sexuality that leads to the once-a-year Halloween slut. Many adult women in our culture feel uncomfortable with their bodies and their sexuality, and yet we foist an artificial sexuality on our little girls as some kind of cute Halloween joke.

Of course, I don't want to idealize Halloweens of the past too much. Certainly, in my childhood, some inappropriate costumes existed. In the sixties, kids still dressed like the stereotype of the Indian, for instance, a practice incredibly offensive. And I know that a few decades before that, a costume could include blackface, and few would question the racist implications of that. In the schools in this part of the country, at least, educators have begun the process of getting kids and parents to think about who they might offend if they choose to dress as a stereotype.

Yet, I think we still have a long way to go in examining the messages that costumes mass-produced by patriarchy give our children. Perhaps it is unrealistic for me to think that parents would refuse to buy costumes that make their little girls look like sex slaves. Perhaps it is inevitable that girls learn that their place in our culture is to serve as the object in a male fantasy. Perhaps I am old-fashioned in thinking that an elementary school's Halloween parade shouldn't look like a porn show.

29 comments:

BrightStar said...

Creativity is the whole point with Halloween, right? My favorite costume was the one I made for myself in graduate school. I had just moved to the Midwest after living most of my life in the Arizona desert. I couldn't believe all of the leaves and the changing colors. So I decided I would be a tree. I wore brown pants and shoes, a green long sleeved t-shirt, and I pinned leaves all over it (real leaves!) and I bought silk leaves (in autumn colors) from a craft store and made a wreath for my head.

ceresina said...

It's not just Halloween costumes. Bathing suits for toddlers (!) are bikinis; shoes for 6-8 year-olds have heels. I *hate* the sexualization of girls.
And it's not just the sexualization of girls; store-bought women's costumes seem about equi-posed between adult sexual fantasies (e.g. nurse) and child -- like the bad catholic school girl, or little red riding hood, etc.
In the interest of being fair, even though I don't want to, I will say that I just bought a costume for my child (because she outgrew the one I was making her), and there were a lot fewer sexualized costumes for children than I expected. They were still there, but I was expecting the sexualized ones to be the majority; I was relieved to find they were not.
It's sad that I have to find that sexualized costumes are the *minority* is a relief. We shouldn't have to find any at all.

Mary Stebbins Taitt said...

I'm entirely with you here!!! And I have to say, when I was a child and apparently too naive to question it, we often blacked our faces and dressed like minstrels or other "negro" characters. And Indians, in silly caricatures of them. I do find the sexually provocative costumes for children and adults to be upsetting!!

Luckily, Graham does seem to want to be creative with his costumes! YAY!

Yankee, Transferred said...

Sing it, jo(e)! My kids' home-made penguin, lobster, and bumblebee costumes, handed down from a friend who could sew, were so terrific. The sexualization of children drives me nuts. I fear for our society.

halloweenlover said...

Ugh, Jo(e), I am so with you. The costumes these days scare me to death. Halloween is turning into an excuse to dress provocatively. My mom's school cancelled any celebration of Halloween last year and this year, because boys were coming with weapons and dressed as ax murderers or gang members, and the girls were coming to school half naked. ELEMENTARY SCHOOL students, mind you.

I just don't get it. And Ceresina's comment regarding high heels and bikinis makes me sick too.

Anastasia said...

trying to find a non bikini bathing suit for my toddler was difficult. it's only going to get worse. the clothes are okay for her age (2) but as she gets older, I'm going to have to hunt for things that aren't low riding, midriff baring, cleavage creating, and all sorts of other inappropriateness.

I hadn't really thought about it in terms of halloween costumes. sigh.

betty said...

you know i have always said i hated halloween, that it was my least favorite holiday. and i never understood why except that i just 'hated dressing up'. but i think your post really described what i don't like - i don't like the pressure to look 'sexy' or 'crazy' and be someone that i'm not. i really despise it. i refuse to dress up because i just don't think it's fun. but i like giving candy out to kids - so i'm usually fine with staying home (although there are usually no trick-or-treaters at apartment complexes....)

Seeking Solace said...

I think it's part of the problem of kids not being allow to be kids. Society forces adult themes upon them.

I would love to dress up for Holloween. I will be giving out mid term grades so I thought I would dress up as the Grim Reaper!

Anonymous said...

I was disappointed this year, because my mom bought my son his halloween costume (Superman) while shopping for shoes with him.

I wanted to make him a Peter Pan outfit (since up until my mom went on the shopping trip with him that's what he said he wanted to be), but sigh...that's not going to happen this year.

The last 2 years, he was Captain Feathersword with a store-bought (actually concert-bought) hat and sword and an outfit put together out of a red quilted vest, yellow duct tape, black pants, white shirt, and rain boots.

Anonymous said...

Your stance is not old-fashioned; it's anti-sexism.

My sister has been an inspiration to me these last few years. She's a few years out of college, and goes to at least one halloween party each year with her friends. She and her roommates tend not to go the sexualized route -- one year they were the teenage mutant ninja turtles. This year Lizzie is She-Ra, but her costume is made almost entirely of used clothing bought at the garment district; no low-cut shirts or butt-baring skirts for her.

I almost never dress up -- I'm too shy. But I'll don a blue wig to hand out candy this year, in honor of my (whether she realizes it or not) patriarchy-fighting sister.

Anonymous said...

Soo with you on this, Joe. Except for the make your own costume part--as a patently un-creative person I would be terrified if I had to create costumes for my kids! I wouldn't even be able to steer them in the right direction or help them if they thought of something.
The kids pre-school has their Halloween parade on Halloween (duh); I'm interested to see what everybody dresses like.

Songbird said...

We try to come up with things that are already in the house, using touches that we make or acquire. Last year, The Princess was Hermione, and I must admit we spend September ordering school uniform pieces--madness! This year she will be a black cat, in her black leggins, a long-sleeved black shirt, hand-knit by mom tail and ears, face paint whiskers, and a pair of fuzzy black gloves. If she's cute, it will be all about her, not fishnet or patent leather. By God.

Anonymous said...

Amen, jo(e). A-frickin'-men.

Anonymous said...

You aren't alone.

ppolarbear said...

What Sister Phantom said.

Grace to You said...

Hallelujah - you're singing my song! I've been saying this for years, and it's not just Halloween - it's our whole society. When my college student son was in early elementary school he played flag football, and I was horrified to see the cheerleaders (same age) using sensual gyrations, including pelvic thrusts, in their cheers, and even more horrified to find out their moms were their coaches! What adult - what mom! - in their right mind would think that's a good idea??? More than you would believe, as I can verify from the conversations I've had with other parents about it. What is wrong with these people???

MJ said...

I first came across this when I went to buy shorts for my then 2-year-old boy/girl twins. The girls' shorts barely covered her diaper; the boys' shorts almost touched his knees. (They were--and are--the same height.) The girls' tops had "spaghetti" straps. (Forget about sexaulity--has anybody heard about skin cancer? Or tried putting sunscreen on a child?) The boys' tops were traditional t-shirts with sleeves.

For Hallowe'en, my children are dressing as a spider (boy) and a bird (girl). Both will be homemade, very non-sexual costumes...by this non-sewing mum. It's amazing what a few safety pins and elastic can accomplish!

kathy a said...

i was a martian for several years, beginning before college -- the key costume part [antennae] involves bending a wire dry-cleaning hanger to fit around the back of the head [in roughly an opposite position to a plastic headband, fitting under the hair], then into zig-zag bends, fitted at the ends with wads of aluminum foil. voila!

i made all my kids' costumes when they were little -- pirates, green glow-in-the-dark ghost, peter pan and tinkerbelle [out of green felt -- the wonder fabric for costumes!], princess [pink tulle with pink parka and a crown], etc. miss those good days.

kathy a said...

oh, and don't get me started on clothes. daughter wore a lot of big brother's hand-me-downs as a little one. i can't help what she wears now that she's nearly grown, but there are no thongs in the laundry, so i consider that a victory for reason. i'm a lady of a certain age, and have trouble finding jeans that aren't low-slung even for myself. sigh.

Queen of West Procrastination said...

Yes! Exactly!

And thank you for reminding me of the fun home-made costumes we had when I was a kid. When I have kids, I'm going to take a lot of cues from my mother. We dressed up as animals and clowns a lot. One Halloween, my sister was a cat (black pants, black shirt, painted face, and then home made ears and tail), I was a rabbit (footy sleeper with a cotton ball tail, and then a matching hoody to which we stapled cardboard ears) and my little brother was a bee.

Most of our costumes came from repurposed hand-me-downs, with a few hand-made pieces. (Like my cape and huge cardboard crown when I was a Queen. Yes, I had delusions of royalty from a young age.)

kabbage said...

Another person agreeing with you, jo(e). Little girls need to be little girls, not little tools of the patriarchy. Isn't it bad enough trying to find clothing or toys for them in something other than pink or purple (both colors I love, btw, but not all the time).

One year I dressed up as Gumby. If you pull the elastic cuffs of sweatpants so they're on the bottom of your feet instead of at your ankles, you can get the Gumby legs pretty easily. I glued my hair into the peak and then painted hair and face green. It was a tough year to wear glasses -- they slide down on grease paint!

Kyla said...

We aren't too creative over here...but I'd die before I let my little girl dress in MOST of the costumes out there. This year she is going to wear little scrubs from the Children's Hospital and be a doctor.

Anonymous said...

I've been fighting this battle for 11 years now. Just today I had to buy a "concert" outfit for my daughter (oboe) and I put it off 'till the last minute because I just couldn't face it.

Everything is low cut, or lurid pink, or cropped. She's small for her age (size 9 or so), so many things have those darn BRATZ adorned on them.

It took me 2 1/2 hours to find something she would wear without being embarrassed. I actually had to go to a MALL and SHOP AROUND. Even the pant options had things written on the rear, or dangling ornaments of some kind. UGH. It was much easier when I was 11.

YourFireAnt said...

Yes. And the difference between homemade and storebought is more than it might seem. The things kids find around the house to make costumes with are part of their life. Whether it be Mom's high heel shoes and floppy hat, Aunt Rita's old corset, older brother's scout uniform, Dad's combat boots or what. Even if it's your older sister's stripper outfit from college. When a costume is made for sale in a store the concept has already been colonized and thus it takes away the child's opportunity to use her imagination. Or to have the fun of creating. And it's someone else's fantasy, or "concept". Somebody paid to conceptualize such things and market them. Like TV does.

FA

ccw said...

Oh, I can relate. Trying to find a costume for an adult sized but not even a teen girl is so difficult. I would not let her wear most costumes even in the house.

She finally decided on being a Grecian lady. Beautiful and covered up.

Kristen said...

My son has been begging me to be a ghost this year. He desperately wants to make his own costume. I've been resistant for stupid and selfish reasons - we already have dress-up costumes he could use, I don't want to have to worry about how long the sheet should be, I don't know how to sew, etc. I was already starting to convince myself to let him do this, and I think you just confirmed that for me. Thanks.

Not-so-Sage Wisdom said...

Sigh.

This year my almost-two year-old daughter is going to be a boxer (as in pugilist). You can guess at the number of eyebrows that have been raised when I tell people that.

Her great-grandfather was a professional boxer and it's a costume I can put together out of things we have around the house. It originally started out as a plan to dress her as StrongBad (www.homestarrunner.com) but I think it's a little too elaborate for 20 months (well, and let's face it, 29 years).

I shudder to think of what will happen in four years when she wells up because she wants to dress up as the future Hilary Duff/Britney Spears/Lindsay Lohan personality.

Maybe I'll just raise her as a boy...oh, wait...people already accuse me of that.

landismom said...

Unfortunately, I don't think we've gotten that far away from the stereotyped costume either. Someone on Ricedaddies posted the other day about being offended that a white woman told him that she was dressing her daughter as a geisha for Halloween. It's sort of a two-fer--inappropriately sexual AND racist.

Anonymous said...

go jo(e)

I totally agree with you. No 5 year old girl would ever want to be a sex toy so why should we make them look like them.