Last Sunday I came across the Halloween costume display at Target, which filled me with horror (and not the good kind). Down the aisle were package after package of costume “options” for girls – princesses and fairies mostly, each advertised with photos of young models with big heads and tiny bodies, twisted in curtsying and flirting poses. Little girls in the store were parsing the selection, studying the images before them, dreaming of the ways their classmates might see them for a day: skinny, sassy, beautiful, charming, and sexy.
I shouldn’t be shocked because I’ve worked in the “girl world” for over a decade. I lecture on the destructive impacts that these media images have on girls’ sense of self, how it limits their resiliency, and makes girls more vulnerable to depression and eating disorders in their adolescence. Yet witnessing real girls take in the messages in real time was something entirely different.
While I was tempted to shield their eyes, I realized that this media bonanza is actually an amazing opportunity for practicing media literacy with girls. According to the Knox College study that came out last summer, the biggest determining factor in whether girls buy into early sexualization isn’t the amount of exposure that girls have to sexualized images, but the conversations that adults (this study looked at mothers only) have with the girls when they are exposed to these images.
Here are some conversation starters that might help turn costume shopping from an assault on your daughter’s sense of self to a growth opportunity:
1. What are the character choices that the costume companies created for girls? For boys? What’s missing?
Before you even get into discussing the difference between a sexy witch and a scary witch, just take a moment with your daughter to explore her limited options. In my Target adventure last weekend girls could be princesses, fairies, princess vampires, southern belles, or Hello Kitty (is that actually a cat)? Boys could be action figures, doctors, policemen, firemen, and soldiers. There were no female police or fireperson options. In fact all costumes for kids older than toddlers were gendered for girls or boys, there were no “kid” options.
2. These girls are posed in funny ways. What patterns do you see in how the photographer asked them to stand? Have you ever seen me stand like that? Why not?
Girls might notice that most of the girls are standing with one knee bent, one leg off to the side, hands on hips or twirling hair. Most people don’t stand like that because it is awkward and uncomfortable. Try it out! It may be fun to laugh at how silly that body language feels in real life.
3. What about the body language of the boy costumes? What patterns do you see in how the photographer asked them to stand? Have you ever seen me stand like that? Why not?
The boys were posed with their legs spread far apart with one arm raised to hold a weapon ready for impact. People generally don’t stand like that because it is violent and ridiculous.
4. What must the costume companies think about boys and girls if this is how they try to sell you costumes? Is this true for the boys and girls that you know in real life?
They must think that girls want to be pretty and boys want to be violent. Most girls want to be pretty some times, but also want to be other things such as good athletes, clever and smart, or courageous. Where are those choices? Most boys aren’t violent and most don’t want to be violent. They also want to be silly and goofy or smart, or athletic.
5. If you could be any imaginary person or creature for one day, and NOT choose something that is being sold to you to make money, what would be the most fun thing to be?
Let your daughter close her eyes and imagine for a moment all the possible choices she truly has available. There is nothing wrong if she still chooses to be a princess, but you want this choice to come from listening to her inner voice, not passively consuming some very well marketed, very narrow version of girlhood.
What about after the conversation? What is she going to be for Halloween? As Peggy Orenstein says, “fight fun with fun”. No girl is going to be excited about what she can’t be for Halloween, the fun comes from discovery of all the new possibilities that are now open to her, including easy to purchase options from the boy’s aisle. I want to be clear that I am not promoting additional pressure to for parents to create some perfect, Martha Stewart-inspired, home-made costume.
The powerful shift in mindset comes from helping your daughter think of herself as the subject of her Halloween choice (what do I want to be for Halloween?), not the object (how do I want my classmates to see me?). To get her started down that path, help her think about what she likes to do. If she loves swimming, try aqua girl, or if she likes baking, she can be a chef. Maybe she will come away from this holiday with the knowledge that who she is the other 364 days of the year is pretty awesome too.
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