“Halloween is the one night a year when a girl can dress like a total slut and no other girl can say anything about it.”
I’m sure most of us are familiar with this Mean Girls quote. The 2004 movie about catty high school girls has managed to maintain its cult classic status for well over a decade, in no small part because of its funny-but-true social commentary. Sexualized costumes are a staple of Halloween for many women, and this is particularly true among high school and college students.
Though it may seem benign to some, the trend of being pressured to ‘dress sexy’ for the holiday is rooted in the objectification of women and problematic gender norms.
Popular culture is littered with references to high school girls dressing in provocative costumes and sexualized takes on traditionally non-sexual characters. Virtually every well-known show about high school life — Gossip Girl, The Vampire Diaries, and Pretty Little Liars, to name a few — present a sexy costume as a rite of passage for gaining both social acceptance and the attention of primarily male romantic prospects.
The sexy costume trend is especially troubling because it begins at an early age. For many girls, this is a fun and exciting transition to adulthood. Yet for others, it’s a push to give up childhood too early and narrow down their costume choices, all the while being intensely uncomfortable in a too-fitted latex dress.
On the other hand, young men are not pressured to the same extent to dress up in a way that highlights their bodies. This is how we end up with the frustrating discrepancy in fabric coverage between a man’s and a woman’s costume, when both intend to dress up as the same thing.
Girls who do not embrace the trend with open arms are often afraid of being seen by their peers as childish or prudish, violating social norms that dictate how they are expected to look, despite the irrationality of these expectations.
In high school, when self-esteem is extremely dependent on peer validation, the easiest thing to do is to go with the flow.
Unfortunately, going with the flow is hardly a harmless option, considering the ways in which women’s sexuality is manipulated by society. Despite sexy costumes being more or less the norm, for instance, many individuals believe that when a woman dresses sexy, she is granting them the license to sexually target, objectify, or otherwise solicit her.
Women in revealing costumes are catcalled, harassed, and subjected to persistent and unwanted attention. When they attempt to get out of such situations, they are told far too often that they ‘must have wanted it’, because they wore such a costume in the first place.
For a long time, judging women’s costumes and their presumed promiscuity has been considered fair game. As evident in both the media and societal interactions, when a woman wears a sexy costume, observers feel entitled to comment, labelling her publicly and privately as a ‘slutty’ version of whatever she is supposed to be. Such gendered slurs are extremely common accompaniments to any costume that exposes a woman’s body.
Then follows the problem of next-day judging. In the television show How I Met Your Mother, the characters Ted and Marshall have an annual tradition of sitting on a curb on November 1 to watch women do their ‘walk of shame’ in their ‘slutty’ costumes. Despite shaming women for their outfits and what they choose to do in their sexual lives, this is seen as a funny, innocuous tradition. In a similar vein, many of us have likely overheard or engaged in such commentary.
At this point, many will object: if a woman has a problem with being objectified and sexualized during Halloween, could she not just choose a costume that isn’t overtly revealing? This raises a catch-22 that many women are all too familiar with, but Mean Girls hits the nail on the head: when Cady shows up in a ‘vampire bride’ costume, she is incredibly out of place next to the women around her, who are mostly dressed in lingerie and animal ears. Women who don’t comply with the trend are perceived as anomalies, perhaps even as ruiners of the alleged ‘spirit’ of the holiday.
Essentially, young women are in a lose-lose situation: flaunt a sexy costume and risk the slut-shaming that may come with it, or turn to a fairly limited number of non-provocative costumes and be seen as a prude.
Furthermore, it’s important to remember that even women who exercise agency, who feel no pressure to dress in a sexualized manner but do so for their own pleasure, are subject to the same degrading treatment and judgment. Sexy costumes can and should be a fun, daring way to celebrate a holiday, and what a woman wears should be solely based on her choice and discretion. It’s time to leave age-old sexist norms at the coat check and embrace the knowledge that a woman’s clothing does not define her character, sexuality, or self.
Daryna Kutsyna is a fourth-year student at Trinity College studying International Relations and History.