I think the eighties was the decade when the definition of appropriate clothing for young girls changed radically. Madonna was the primary pop culture culprit. She pranced and posed through her music video of "Like a Virgin," capturing the hearts of men and boys, but also providing a new kind of role model for girls, including very young girls who probably didn't know what "virgin" meant.
Some twenty-five years later, I suppose they'd now have to be very, very young girls to be that uninformed. It should be no great surprise that most young girls are not only more sophisticated and more aware of their sexuality than in decades past, but they also have to deal with pressure to behave as if they were more experienced than what is likely to be comfortable for their emotional maturity level.
Then, along comes Halloween, the holiday that justifies dressing up as any fantasy character that's appealing. It used to be Snow White, or a ballerina, or maybe a princess costume that younger girls gravitated to most often, but that's not the case any more. And it's certainly not the case for the manufacturers and marketers of Halloween costumes.
Diane E. Levin is professor of education at Wheelock College in Boston and the co-author, with Jean Kilbourne, of So Sexy So Soon: The New Sexualized Childhood and What Parents Can Do to Protect Their Kids. She shared her observations in an LA Times interview that I strongly recommend reading in its entirety. Here are a few excerpts :
"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 alluring. Little girls and their big sisters are being encouraged to get dressed up, in many cases, like child prostitutes. . . .
"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."
The results of this early sexualization of girls, according to Dr. Levin, are complex:
". . . 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.' . . . How [girls] look and what they buy [also] affects their view of themselves. But it also becomes the basis for how they treat other girls. It's harder and harder to have [girl friendship] relationships. . . .
"This is why we may be seeing a generation in which [social] relationships are often played out as interactions between caricatures of sexual stereotypes, why you can have 'friends with benefits' and 'hooking up.'"
We're a conflicted society when it comes to sex and violence. We don't seem to mind depictions of violence, thus the many gory Halloween costumes for little boys, including terrifying characters from films that they are too young to see without an adult present. (I've never figured out how simply having an adult present somehow immunizes a child against the disturbing emotional effects of grotesque and gratuitous carnage, but that's the accepted cultural standard.) Yet children are almost fanatically protected against seeing any depiction of sexuality in film.
Personally, I'm not enthusiastic about exposing young kids to either sex or violence on screen, but, of the two, allowing children to see graphic movie violence is far more disturbing to me.
I am quite certain that, as a society, we abhor real life violence directed against children and we certainly don't want children engaging in sexual behavior when they're still emotionally and psychologically too immature for the experience. But somehow, in spite of this, it's become all right to sexualize the appearance of our little girls in real life, long before they understand or are prepared to deal with what that means.
A Newsweek.com article (take a look at the photos on this link!) on this phenomenon reported:
"Witches are 'wayward' and grammar-school pirates are 'wenches.' A girl isn't an Army cadet, she's a 'Major Flirt,' and who knew female firefighters wore fishnet stockings? Even Little Bo Peep comes with a corset, short skirt and lacy petticoat. . . .
"Dr. Eileen Zurbriggen, [is] a professor of psychology at the University of California, Santa Cruz, who last year chaired the American Psychological Association's (APA) Task Force on the Sexualization of Girls. Their report, issued in February, declared that, 'Throughout U.S. culture, and particularly in mainstream media, women and girls are depicted in a sexualized manner.' . . .
[There is] increasing evidence of the negative impact an overemphasis on body image has on girls' lives. The APA task force's team of psychologists linked oversexualization with three of the most common mental health problems for women 18 and older: eating disorders, low self-esteem and depression. And there is evidence that the effect is trickling down the age brackets. 'Clinicians are reporting that younger and younger girls are presenting with eating disorders and are on diets,' says Zurbriggen.
Later in the same article, Dr. Sharon Lamb, another APA task force member who coauthored, 'Packaging Girlhood: Rescuing Our Daughters From Marketing Schemes,' was interviewed:
". . . most Web sites selling kids Halloween costumes divide merchandise along gender lines, and typically offer more choices for boys than girls (boys get to be doctors, police officers as well as gory monsters and 'Star Wars' characters). Of the 22 girl costumes featured on one Web site Lamb looked at, 15 were cheerleaders, divas and rock stars. 'That really limits girls' imaginations,' says Lamb, who surveyed 600 young girls for the book, many of whom admitted to dressing up as something sexy for Halloween in order to get attention."
I recall seeing a documentary some years ago that explained that children have a clear understanding of culturally defined gender role differences by the age of five. What was considered appropriate for girls versus appropriate for boys in those young minds included every societal stereotype imaginable, from girls not being athletic to boys not being allowed to cry. It was quite surprising, and rather depressing, to discover how effectively these models had been internalized by that early age.
What kind of models are being internalized by five year old children now?
The popularity of sexually provocative Halloween costumes for young girls reflects of some of today's confused societal norms. But who knew that costumes for boys have been affected, too?
An article for the Canadian CBC News reported:
"Not only girls are targeted with sexualized costumes. Boys can choose packages of pimp paraphernalia as part of their costumes."
Oh, fabulous. Girls dressing like little hookers and boys with "pimp paraphernalia." Parents, brace yourselves. (But don't you wonder what exactly is included in the paraphernalia?)
I'm grateful to know that there are still some children that have fun at Halloween without sexual referencing in their costumes. Otherwise, we might as well just redefine the meaning of "Trick or Treat!"
© 2008 Cynthia Friedlob