DENVER—This isn’t my first time writing about Halloween costumes. If you’re not familiar with the holiday, Halloween is observed on October 31 and originated in Ireland. In the U.S., kids dress in costumes (preferably scary ones) and go door to door to ask for treats. My whole life I have struggled with Halloween costumes (the candy part is okay), and it took me decades to figure out why.
The short answer is internalized sexism. Halloween costume options for girls are often sexist and each October shines a spotlight (or perhaps a blacklight–mwahahaha) on the internal and external battles I have with gender norms and pressure from society to conform. Now, as the mother of a nine-year-old girl, I’m experiencing the distinct displeasure of watching my daughter struggle with the same thing and, frankly, it’s haunting.
Do you remember the first Halloween costume that made you self-conscious? You know, the one that made you think maybe you should have picked something else. Mine was a black witch costume. My Nana, a short but fierce woman with a tribal attitude toward family, made it for me. I was around nine, the age my daughter is now.
As we drove to the local fabric store in my Nana’s wood-paneled station wagon, I felt giddy. At the store, we chatted as she took my measurements. “Be your own person,” she told me. “Don’t listen to anyone else.” I was overflowing with ideas on how to make the costume extra scary. It had to have jagged edges—absolutely nothing smooth or symmetrical about it.
When Halloween came, I slipped into my jagged-edged dress, pulled my pointy witch’s hat on top of my head, and grabbed my broom. The broom was just a broom from my mother’s cleaning closet, but if it was going to fly this was the night.
Downstairs, I surveyed my sister’s frilly princess dress and her conical hat and wand that were both neatly wrapped in shiny aluminum foil. Our Nana gasped when she saw us and asked where her granddaughters had gone and who were the witch and princess in front of her. It was corny, but she had a knack for making me feel brave.
Later, though, when I stood next to my sister for pictures, and everyone who wasn’t my Nana oohed and ahhed at the princess’s camera-lens-breaking cuteness, completely ignoring me, I felt crushed. “What a beautiful costume.” “Look at the pretty princess.” “That’s a costume to save for generations.” Then, as an afterthought, out of obligation, they’d look at me at me and say something obvious but vague like “Oh, a witch.” Dang, I thought, I should have gone the princess route. Princess costume equals lots of love.
My daughter has never wanted to be a princess, or a cheerleader or any of the other barfy, objectifying versions of costumes available to girls. For that, I am grateful. Grateful might actually be an understatement. I’ve been downright smug about it. I raised her right, I thought, she was an independent thinker. My Nana would be proud.
But time is the great equalizer. This fall, after a particularly rough patch of being the target of some mean girls at school, my daughter came to me with a question that unraveled any delusions I had that she was above feeling pressured to conform to social gender norms or internalized sexism.
“You mean a dark princess,” I responded, hopeful, starting to design a gruesome masterpiece in my head.
“No. You know. A real princess. The big pouffy dress.”
“Why?” I said, trying to sound casual.
“I don’t know.”
“You’ve never wanted to be one before,” I said, then out of desperation added, “Aren’t you too old for that?”
“Why do you have to ask so many questions?” she yelled then stomped down the hallway to her room, slamming the door behind her.
I let it go because I had already learned to walk the fine line between a Wicked Witch of the West meltdown and a Nellie Oleson meltdown the hard way. But it needled me for days. It was too close to the problems with girls at school to be a coincidence. It seemed clear to me that her self-confidence was rattled and she was grasping at straws for ways to be more popular, more loved.
Later, she decided on a different costume, but I’m still haunted. How do I spare my girl all the confusing, difficult years I spent trying on one of the prescribed roles for girls that media and culture at large shove down our throats? The costume choices for girls tend to fall into one of two categories: good and evil. Good costumes align with what society tells a girl she’s supposed to be—feminine, kind (to the point of sacrificing her own desires), more focused on looks than brains, in a nutshell an object designed for a man’s pleasure. Evil costumes align with everything a girl is not supposed to be—focused on her wants and needs, more worried about what’s in her head than what she’s wearing, willing to go against the norm, in a nutshell scary.
There are, of course, outliers in the world of Halloween costumes. Marvel has a number of badass heroines—Wonder Woman and the Wasp to name two—and of course there’s Harry Potter’s Hermione Granger, a witch who defies everything we know and believe about witches. However, sadly in my experience the average girl doesn’t jump with joy when her Mom mentions them.
Blowback from family and friends seems to be the norm when I bring this up. Stop overthinking things, they tell me. But what costume you wear on Halloween says something about you and your culture. Halloween is a tradition that has so many layers of meaning to unpack, especially for women and girls. And it’s an opportunity to talk about social norms, gender norms, religious norms and difference. So, ladies, what Halloween costume are you and your girl wearing this year?
Photos: Header photo and third photo courtesy Shutterstock First and second photos courtesy Kristin Kirsch Feldkamp. First photo is some of the loot her kids brought home last Halloween. Second photo is a clown costume made by her badass Nana; sadly, she doesn’t have a photo of the witch costume.