In the 2004 teen flick Mean Girls, there's a joke about teenage girls and Halloween. Lindsay Lohan's protagonist Cady makes the observation that Halloween is the one night a year when girls have an excuse to dress provocatively and “no other girls can say anything.”
Indeed, one only has to take a look at what's on offer in a typical costume shop to see what Cady was talking about -- most of the costumes aimed at young women are short, tight, frequently shiny and often involving fishnets. Whether a grown woman wants to squeeze herself into such an outfit is her prerogative -- but what if the person who's going to wear it is your teenage daughter?
A parent's first instinct upon seeing their child clad in a bustier and miniskirt might be to scream, “I forbid you to leave the house looking like that!” and then to cover her with a caftan. But is sexy Halloween gear a cause for concern or just something to view as an outfit for one night of silly fun?
Parenting expert Ann Douglas, author of The Mother of All Parenting Books, says it's our job to set boundaries for our kids and that includes rules about what they wear on Halloween night.
“Our kids are counting on us to set boundaries for them -- even while they're loudly protesting our right to set those boundaries,” says Douglas. “Teenage girls receive a lot of messages from our culture saying their looks matter more than anything else about them -- and those messages really get ramped up at Halloween.”
“If you allow your daughter to dress in a costume that perpetuates sexist stereotypes about women, you're condoning those stereotypes, even if it's just for one night. Is that a message you really want to send to your daughter?”
Douglas says parents can encourage their daughter to come up with a fun and creative alternative to too-sexy off-the-rack costumes. “A trip to your local thrift store may inspire all kinds of costume ideas.” This can be particularly effective if you get other parents to take a similar stand with their daughters, she says.
“There is strength in numbers. Arrange for a screening of Miss Representation in your community so you can get other parents to think about and speak out against the sexualization of girl culture,” says Douglas.
Alyson Schafer -- psychotherapist, parenting expert and author of Honey, I Wrecked the Kids -- agrees these sorts of issues are important to discuss with teen girls. But she doesn't necessarily think it needs to happen at Halloween.
“I think it's an ongoing conversation that has to happen about the portrayal of women and their bodies and those kinds of things, but to take to task the one night a year when we really have an alibi for dressing up like that, I think that's not the best time. It's like trying to teach a kid to eat healthy at Christmas, probably not the lesson for that time of year," she says.
Schafer recently did a panel discussion where the topic came up and made an observation about girls and Halloween costumes: “These are the three stages of Halloween -- First you go as pretty bride, then you go as dead bride, then you go as sexy bride,” she says. “I was joking but everyone agreed.”
Though it's not something parents want to see, Schafer says she thinks the “pretty-dead-sexy” costume evolution is a natural one.
“My kids went through it and I wanted to gulp and say, "What's happening [with] the sexualization of women?" and all that kind of thing,” she says. “But at the same time, it's one day a year to be silly and I know that my kids are empowered and they have high self-esteem. I get that it's just in fun and I completely just let it go. I let them have their shenanigans.”
Schafer says she believes what happens the other 364 days a year is a lot more important than what happens Halloween night and if parents are concerned about their daughter's revealing clothing choices, they can initiate conversations about how what someone wears affects how others see them.
“They do some of this in school -- do you believe in first impressions? What do you think this sort of attire is saying about this person? What sort of misinterpretations might someone make when you come across looking like this?” she says. “If you're watching Jersey Shore you can ask, "do you think [that character is] portraying herself well?"”
But if that “sexy nurse” costume is still really freaking you out, says Schafer, come up with a compromise.
“There's nothing wrong with putting skin-toned tights under things,” says Schafer. “The compromise could be, "As long as you wear your athletic shorts under that short skirt." They do have garments that [can let you and your daughter have the best of both worlds].”