Not-so-sweet and too sexy: The Halloween costume dilemma

How to talk to your daughter about what’s age-appropriate

Halloween costumes for teen and tween girls run the gamut from Tinkerbell and other Disney princess costumes to zombies and superheroes like Batgirl. But a quick look at one popular Halloween party store website shows a commonality -- most teen costumes reveal skin and reflect glamorous, if not sexy, versions of popular storybook or cartoon characters. Moreover, other ones even sexualize food, including one called “Sexy French Fries,” which features the words “hot fries” on the mini skirt.

There’s no question that Halloween costumes marketed to children can scare parents with the messages they send. Teen girls are anxious to play the role to impress their friends and express their independence. But what may seem like harmless dress up, can in fact cause harm to teen girls unaware of the message they are sending with their costumes.

Katelyn Ordway at age 12 dressed up as a parochial school girl when she went trick-or-treating with friends 15 years ago along Salmon Falls Road in Rochester, her father following behind her in his truck. Now 27 and expecting her first child, she remembers the fear she felt when a man approached her and looped his arm around her waist when she walked down a side road to a house.    

“I immediately started screaming, obviously scared, and as I started to scream, my dad jumped out of the truck and the man dropped me,” she said. “I had no doubt in my mind that if I had been wearing an age-appropriate costume, he would have been less inclined to come after me. I’ll let my kids trick-or-treat like mine did; but their costumes will be appropriate.”

Teen girls are inspired to dress a certain way early on, thanks to popular cartoon characters promoted by the media who reinforce gender stereotypes. In Adie Nelson’s 2000 study, “The Pink Dragon is Female: Halloween Costumes and Gender Markers,” she analyzed more than 400 costumes, and found that Halloween costumes continued to reproduce messages about gender. Not surprisingly, feminine costumes from age infant through teen featured princess and beauty queen themes.

Megan Fedorowicz of Exeter said she is already experiencing challenges dressing her eight-year-old daughter for Halloween, who is years away from being a teen.

“When you look at the little witch costumes, they are short and include garters and things like that,” she said. “I just went to the Halloween store, and everything is tight and short — it’s mind-blowing.”

Talk to your teen

Before waging war with your teen on what is appropriate dress for Halloween, parents need to listen to their thoughts and have an open discussion about values, suggests Julie Jordan, a nurse practitioner at Derry Medical Center who regularly sees teens in her practice. Engaging in a conversation about what is OK to wear and what is not is the first step toward finding common ground with your teen.

“It starts with being a good role model — they are going to do what they see,” Jordan said. “For some parents, they are going to be okay with certain costumes — and others will not be. You need to talk about the values in your own household.”

Before shutting a teen down and saying “no” to a costume that you think shows too much skin, Jordan recommends finding common ground. It might make sense to adjust a costume to make it less provocative or revealing rather than rule it out.

For example, teens can wear leggings under a short skirt or a tank top under a skimpy top. It’s important for teens to feel like they can make independent choices, but those should conform to family values, she said.

Teens definitely dress risqué at Halloween to get attention, Jordan said, and some costumes may serve to give them attention they don’t feel they are getting at other times of the year. She adds that social media has amped up teens’ desire to impress their friends with Halloween costume and other clothing choices. Social media can amplify what might be a bad choice; kids can be called out for being too provocative with their choices, which can also be detrimental to self-esteem.

“You need to watch what they are watching on social media and see what they are looking at,” Jordan said. “Kids do feel singled out and can experience depression if they don’t feel like they fit in. You never want them to hide things from you; it’s very important to keep an open line of communication — this isn’t just about costume, but dressing provocatively beyond wearing a costume, too.”

Safety should be a major part of your discussion at Halloween and afterwards. Aside from debating the appropriateness of a costume, parents should also discuss what might happen if their child experiences any unwanted sexual advances, Jordan said.

“You need to ask them, how would you handle that? You need to remind them to be aware of their surroundings,” she said.

Ordway said she chose her costume years ago under pressure to be attractive, and the result was unwanted physical attention from a stranger. She was lucky, she said, that she was able to run away and avoid getting hurt.   

Krysten Godfrey Maddocks regularly writes for higher education and technology organizations in New Hampshire and Massachusetts.


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