I didn’t realize that around age 11, when my mom helped me rummage through thrift store racks for my prized burlap sack-shaped, black, turtlenecked floor-length dress, but I realize it now.
That costume was wrapped up quickly with a little book of poems in one hand, a barren locket on my neck and a tightly parted ponytail. Voila.
I didn’t realize it wasn’t sexy because I didn’t care; I loved Emily Dickinson at the time. I’m not sure “sexy” was even in my vocabulary then; I specifically remember going to school in my costume and glancing sort of longingly at a classmate clad in a Princess Jasmine bikini-esque robin egg blue top — her young, doughy adolescent midriff on display for the world to see. Something in those store-bought costumes was different, but I wasn’t sure what exactly it was.
During my trick-or-treating years, my obsession with neatness and uniformity led me to envy the girls with store-bought costumes; how perfect their clothes seemed to fit and match. Musty thrift-store items and mom’s oversized hand-me-downs just weren’t as exciting as anything glittery and polyester.
And still, I’ve never bought a prepackaged costume; not because I’m vehemently opposed to the idea of Halloween as a commercial holiday or because I’m DIY-obsessed. It’s because there is no room for even the slightly body-conscious in those packages.
Eleven-year-old Hannah would have never exposed her midriff for fear of how her stomach looked, and 22-year-old Hannah isn’t any different — she feels funny about exposing her legs in miniskirts and bikini bottoms and tiny tutus.
So she’ll keep on making her own.
I recently stumbled upon “F@$* No Sexist Halloween Costumes,” a new Tumblr cataloging comparisons of different versions of the same costume by gender. Nothing is a surprise; a shapeless, kitschy version of a male’s Scooby Doo costume is shrunk down to little more than a tiny, cut brown leotard and a blue collar for women; a realistic-looking SWAT uniform complete with a padded vest switches over to a dominatrix-esque black tie-up bikini with four-inch platform heels and some kind of whip that looks like it came from the nearest Hustler store.
Not the sorts of things I want to be wearing on a cold October night. Or any other night.
Gender inequity in clothing — let alone Halloween costumes — is nothing new. Breath-sucking, skin-tight, organ-suppressing corsets were made to normalize an excruciatingly “feminine” appearance for male gaze during Victorian times; in the same era, women could only wear moo-moo like “bathing dresses” with thick black stockings when swimming to cover up any exposure of skin.
A woman must be tempting, society tells us, but not too tempting. The balance is a fine one; crossing that “threshold” — whatever it is — has led to slut-shaming and women-bashing rape apologia in a way that renders trying to understand that balance completely futile.
We, as humans, all like feeling appealing to the opposite sex sometimes. That’s often why we buy expensive perfume (and cologne), lacy lingerie and work out our glamour muscles.
And I think that’s OK. Whether we like it or not, we’re part of a superficial, appearance-obsessed culture. Our semblance is often a big part of the way we purposely portay ourselves to strangers. What’s not OK is that this tradition of females dressing provocatively on Halloween has become a part of commercial culture that’s nearly impossible to escape — it defines Halloween. Don’t we, as women, feel enough pressure to be sexy everywhere else we look?
The other day, I asked my 4-year-old cousin, Lucy, what she was going to be for Halloween. “A cupcake!” she told me, with a big, toothy smile on her face. “Because I love cupcakes.”
I’m not sure what a cupcake costume looks like, but I imagine it will be decidedly bulky and unflattering and adorable, as a cupcake should be.
I can’t stand the thought of her walking the streets in her cupcake costume and seeing women just like her big cousin, who she looks up to, wearing almost nothing and feeling excluded because that’s not what she’s chosen to do.
I wonder what Lucy will say when I ask her the same question in 10 or 11 years. I’m hoping it’s another cupcake.
CONTACT HANNAH MCCARTNEY: firstname.lastname@example.org