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"Sexy" Halloween Costumes for Girls: Good or Bad?

Halloween costumes and the sexualization of young women.

Halloween today has lost much of its original pagan significance and later religious meaning. It has become a secular and commercialized holiday known for costumes—and for girls, sexy Halloween costumes. Is this a good thing or a bad thing?

The positives

In the 2004 movie Mean Girls, Cady (played by Lindsay Lohan) says, in voiceover, “In the real world, Halloween is when kids dress up in costumes and beg for candy. In Girl World, Halloween is the one day a year when a girl can dress up like a total slut and no other girls can say anything else about it.”

Leeann Duggan of InStyle, in an article entitled, “In Defense of Sexy Halloween Costumes,” sees the positive in young women wearing sexy costumes:

The sex-positive strain of feminism has grown much in the last few years, with the growing conversation around consent, and the #MeToo revolution in women refusing to be shamed, and demanding accountability for those who assault and harass. In 2018 more than ever, our culture understands that, duh, of course women can be both sexual and powerful (let’s call it the “Beyoncé effect”). And I believe that, for women coming of age now, it’s these more inclusive definitions of womanhood and sexuality that guide their choices.

Others suggest there is a “fine line between witty, zeitgeisty, and still quite sexy cultural references, and costumes that are crass, culturally insensitive, unnecessarily objectifying, or just plain baffling"—such as the sexy "Handmaid's Tale" costume by Yandy.

The Negatives

Commenting on the Yandy costume, Dr. Gail Saltz notes that many female Halloween costumes have become sexualized, that “even in attempting to be a policeman, a firefighter, an animal, a witch or some other nonsexual entity, many store-bought costumes have been made to look vampy by cinching in the waist, and making it low-cut and super short.”

According to the American Psychological Association (APA), sexualization occurs when one or more of the following conditions are present (see pdf file):

1. A person’s value comes only from his or her sexual appeal or behavior, to the exclusion of other characteristics.

2. A person is held to a standard that equates physical attractiveness (narrowly defined) with being sexy.

3. A person is sexually objectified—that is, made into a thing for others’ sexual use, rather than seen as a person with the capacity for independent action and decision making.

4. Sexuality is inappropriately imposed upon a person.1

Of course, Halloween can be a time to try on new identities, including sexy ones. But noting the association between “oversexualization of girls” and various mental health issues (e.g., eating disorders), Saltz argues that when a girl puts on a revealing or sexy costume, "even for the purpose of ‘joining her friends,’ it sends a message to the world around her, and it may not be the message she wishes or is equipped to manage.”

And as previous research has concluded,2 objectification often results when a person wears revealing clothing—though recent research points to suggestive postures as perhaps a bigger element of objectification.

Pavel Ilyukhin/Shutterstock
Source: Pavel Ilyukhin/Shutterstock

Concluding thoughts

It is difficult to discuss sexy costumes for girls as a generalization. We need to be specific. For instance, a girl of what age? What type of costume? And was it really her choice and decision?

Consider a young girl who feels uncomfortable putting on a revealing costume but still does so because of peer pressure or a culture that values women only as sex objects. Or are we talking about an older girl coming to discover her sexuality and the power associated with it, and who is using Halloween as a chance to test out and incorporate new aspects of her sexual nature into her identity?

Are we talking about someone who knows what she is doing, or is being pushed and pulled by peers, cultural norms, or business interests? We are talking about power, freedom, and choice, so age and understanding matter.

There is no simple answer to these questions, but asking gets us closer to more comprehensive answers. Let us also not forget that today is a time for celebration and fun. Let young ones try on humor and horror, silliness and sexiness, and the bizarre—as long as they are safe. Happy Halloween.


1. American Psychological Association (2007) Report of the APA Task Force on the sexualization of girls. Washington, DC: APA. Available at:

2. Fredrickson, B. L., & Roberts, T-A. (1997). Objectification theory. Toward understanding women’s lived experiences and mental health risks. Psychology of Women Quarterly, 21, 173-206.

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