Natalie Rea is bracing herself for yet another Halloween costume showdown with her 11-year-old daughter, Katherine. By age 10, she’d outgrown the cute ladybug days and entered what Rea lovingly calls “the slutty costume years” (but not in front of little ears!).
“Last October, my daughter’s friends were going out as cheerleaders, so of course she wanted to be a cheerleader, too,” she says. Imagining teeny-tiny kilts and crop tops, Rea admits she didn’t like the idea. “Katherine knows the rules: Even if it’s just one day, if it’s not appropriate, she can’t wear it.” At Rea’s house, crop tops and low necklines don’t fly.
The broader societal trends of highly gendered clothing has influenced what is offered to our kids, even on Halloween. Many of the costumes geared toward young girls are sexualized—think “sexy cat” or a short-skirted Riddler outfit. “This is just part of a culture that produces little girls’ clothing that isn’t practical and playful but instead emulates adult women,” explains Jen Marchbank, a gender, sexuality and women’s studies professor at Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, BC.
It’s normal for girls to use the occasion to try on a more grown-up persona, but there’s a fine line between enforcing family rules and shaming girls for their clothing choices. So how do you negotiate kids’ outfits without killing their Halloween fun?
Ask why When your daughter holds up a swimsuit-size cat costume, Marchbank suggests having a conversation about why she wants to wear that costume. Your tween probably won’t say it’s because she wants to look sexy; she’s more likely simply choosing something similar to what her peers are wearing or what she sees is available.
Watch your words Because your daughter probably isn’t thinking, I want to look hot, saying that something is too revealing might take you down a path you don’t want to go. “You might be cold,” or “Do you think you can you play in that?” are better considerations, suggests Marchbank.
Plan ahead If you’re going costume shopping together, agree on some ground rules ahead of time and have a brainstorming session about possible ideas. Emphasize costume quality and function. For example, “Let’s find a costume that will be comfortable when you’re sitting at your desk at school”.
Check school rules It helps to have someone else to blame when you’re saying no to your kid. “The dress code is the same as every day, whether it’s Halloween or not,” says Brent Irving, a grade six teacher in Edmonton. At his school, weapons, excessive gore and revealing outfits are against the rules. Ask your kid if she knows what is allowed; the guidelines are usually conveyed well in advance.
Suggest alternatives If you want a tasteful costume that also satisfies your kid’s desire to fit in, you might have to search further than your local costume store’s minimal offerings. You could check thrift stores, search online or get creative and make your own. Encourage spooky ideas rather than something pretty or cute. And remember, a cheaper costume will likely be small and flimsy, so fork over more money for quality if you can.
Consider bending the rules If your kid is nearing her teen years, she may knowingly dress a little more grown-up. Maybe that’s OK. If it doesn’t fall too far outside the family rules, and she feels comfortable and confident, parents might do better to lose this battle. (In this case, remember it really is only one night, and breathe deeply.)
As for Rea and her daughter, they took their quest online and found an authentic vintage cheerleader uniform they both loved. Rea agreed to the miniskirt, provided there was no belly showing. “We made a deal,” says Rea. Until another year, at least.
Keep in mind It’s not just girls who face costume selections that are gender-specific. “Boys have just as many options that are unachievable images of masculinity as girls have with choices that are hypersexualized,” says Jen Marchbank, a gender, sexuality and women’s studies professor at Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, BC. So if your son doesn’t identify with Superman, look beyond the usual fare to find something that suits his personality.