In Defense of Slut-O-Ween
Americans, particularly younger and left-leaning ones, turn redder than a KitKat wrapper at the mention of sexy Halloween costumes. From Jezebel to The Daily Show, news outlets of varying stripes have lamented and mocked the array of sexy (some would say slutty) Halloween costumes for women.
Sure, there is the sexy witch and the sexy nurse, but for those who want to be a bit more esoteric, there is the sexy dark Roman goddess. For the outdoorsy type, there is the sexy lady lumberjack. And if you think clowns are the demonic creatures I have always found them to be, then the sexy vintage circus clown costume manages both to terrify and titillate.
Certainly, these costumes are easy to laugh at, but the time to rail against them has come and gone. People love slamming the sexy costume genre as much as they love complaining about how much time they binge on Netflix or debating the merits and pitfalls of Uber, which is to say too much. Not only is the debate tired and blasé, it’s harmful to women.
If you are a card-carrying feminist and don’t want the world to think you’re a bimbo or a slut, the message is clear: Do not wear something sexy on Halloween. Unfortunately, once thoughtful discussions about the pressure on women to dress sexily for Halloween have devolved into the reductive habit of judging women based on what they wear.
Our knee-jerk revulsion toward sexy Halloween costumes has hit the point where I see my female peers apologizing for buying sexy dresses or tights, as if their fashion choices automatically make some official statement about their political or social views or, worse, mean they deserve shame or censure.
My wildly intelligent and ardently feminist friend Talia wrote a thoughtful and conflicted Facebook post about buying a “Sexy Sailor” costume. “[H]ave I betrayed my principles by acquiescing to the notion that male costumes get to be weather-and-family-gathering-appropriate, while lady-costumes for purchase are all sexed up to the Nth degree?” she asked. My friend happens to be dressing up as a sexy Captain Ahab from Moby-Dick, so she will be couching her cleavage in humor and high literature. But even if she weren’t, she shouldn’t have to justify or defend her decision to want to be sexy on Halloween—or, for that matter, any other day of the year.
As much as women are pressured to shape themselves into “perfect” breasts, butts, and legs, they face even greater censure for showing off and flaunting their bodies, lest they be labeled as skanky, slutty, and sexually unacceptable.
Halloween is, or at least was, one of the few socially acceptable opportunities to dress up and try out a different appearance and persona, even if it’s only for a night.
As with many topics covered in Tina Fey’s ever-sage Mean Girls, the rationale behind the voluntary decision to go for the T&A look is swiftly elucidated in a way no psychologist, sociologist, or parent ever could: “Halloween is the one night a year when a girl can dress like a total slut and no other girls can say anything about it.”
Replace “girl” with “woman,” because that hard truth holds beyond high school. Women are berated—and berate themselves—for dressing too sexily. They are worried they won’t be respected by bosses, colleagues, dates, and friends for dressing provocatively, for showing skin, for reveling in their bodies. Halloween is the one day of the year when it is relatively acceptable to wear something outrageous and purely, shamelessly sexy for the sake of flamboyantly showing off our bodies.
Mean Girls made fun of Halloween’s new purpose as a free pass to dress as a skank in high school. I think back to my own high school and remember it was the one day of the year when we were allowed to break the dress code and dress more scantily, which I am not sure was the best decision for 16- and 17-year-olds.
I must admit the aging prude in me blushes at the sexy sailors (they called themselves “seamen”) and sexy park rangers that abounded in our cafeteria. But there’s no reason for adult women to feel guilty or defensive about showing skin on Halloween. We aren’t students anymore, and we shouldn’t feel like there is an unspoken social dress code we must follow.
While I recognize that many women and men object to the pressure to dress in a sexy way for Halloween, I would argue the pressure is much stronger during the 364 other days of the year to stifle overtly sexy garb. That can be a good pressure in many settings, but I think the vast majority of grown women have the good judgment not to wear a sexy French maid costume when they go to their offices or visit their grandmothers in nursing homes.
If choosing a sexy costume is not your thing, I think you can handle one day of the year when other women embrace these lavish and flamboyantly sexy outfits. Anyway, while there are an abundance of sexy costume options, it’s not as if those are the only ones available. If you want to be a scary—and not a sexy—witch, then slap on a ghoulish green nose bespeckled with giant warts and hold your head high.
Walmart’s recent snafu over its online women’s Halloween section neatly proves that we need a holiday where women feel comfortable embracing their sexiness and flaunting their bodies in ways that are not permissible in ordinary day-to-day life.
The largest retail chain in the United States created a “Fat Girl” Halloween costume section on its website. Walmart subsequently apologized and stated the “Fat Girls” section “never should have been on our site,” implying it was a mistaken post.
Still, the fact that some jackasses at Walmart were making cracks about women who are bigger than a size 12 daring to wear fun, flirty costumes—or just enjoy Halloween—reveals the nuances of the sexy costume problem. The pressure isn’t on women to look sexy as much as to look a specific kind of sexy and to alter and work their body into that acceptable form of sexy, or risk being mocked or shamed.
Our Puritancial tirade against sexy costumes is crossing the line into slut-shaming and body-shaming. We need to stop bashing sexy costumes, because in doing so, we’re actually bashing women who choose to buy them and embrace their own sexiness. Dressing up as sexy Eiffel Tower or sexy Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle doesn’t make a woman any less intelligent, strong, or feminist-minded, but criticizing her for it does.