Why Are Little Girls' Halloween Costumes Still So Sexy?

The Hot-and-Sexy trend for girls' Halloween costumes and why it's concerning

Posted Oct 02, 2015

Katie K/Flickr
Source: Katie K/Flickr

I just read about the concerned mom who wrote a protest letter to Party City, outraged about this year's Halloween costumes for little girls. She was particularly furious about a sexy police girl costume (according to Party City, it is evidently one of their best sellers). You can read about it here: http://www.womansday.com/life/real-women/news/a52098/mom-writes-furious-post-about-party-citys-sexy-cop-halloween-costume-for-girls/

I so identify with this mom's concern and admire her willingness to take action. It’s October, so like most parents with elementary age children, I too am being inundated with requests from my two children to buy their Halloween costumes. For my son, this is easy and even fun. But for my daughter and for all girls, the choices can be shocking. Provocative, sexy outfits for toddlers and preschoolers. The hot-and-sexy witch, the sexy kitten, the glammed up Monster High doll costume.  Every year I stare at the walls of costumes and wonder how this “hot and sexy” trend for young girls will impact their futures.

We know it isn’t just Halloween costumes; the examples are endless:

  • Stores regularly sell lingerie and thongs for young girls; there are onesies with slogans like “Hello my name is Hottie”; girls own Playboy and Hooters T-shirts in little girls’ sizes; large retailers sell padded bralettes for girls as young as age 5 and padded plunge bras for girls sizes 7-14; you can find padded, cheeky cut string bikinis for elementary school girls available in every clothing outlet.
  • Toys marketed to very young girls include Barbie (now in a Tattoo Barbie and Lingerie Barbie line); Bratz dolls are complete with long hair, heavy makeup, short skirts, fishnet stockings, stiletto heels, and feather boas; Monster High dolls also feature heavy makeup, sexualized fashions, but they are also monsters (note: Researchers examined today’s dolls and rated them according to their sexualized characteristics. The “winner”? Monster High dolls[i]).

So Why Does “Hot and Sexy” Matter?

Of course it isn’t just one Halloween costume that can cause a problem; it is the accumulation of a strong wave of pressures for girls to be “hot and sexy” at a young age that is of concern. While the American Psychological Association brought widespread attention to this issue in its Task Force Report on the Sexualization of Girls in 2007 and 2010, pressure for young girls to be hot and sexy has only intensified and in many ways has worsened. As a counselor and a parent, I have been observing this trend for over a decade now, and what is most concerning to me is how things that were considered shocking a decade ago are currently considered the norm for young girls’ clothes, toys, shows, and media.

This is problematic in that when trends become normalized, we become desensitized to their impact; we stop asking, “Does it matter if young girls dress and act like hot and sexy women? “ Rather than answering this question with a dogmatic “yes” or “no,” it’s more important to frame the issue around the potential consequences to girls’ physical, cognitive, and socio-emotional health. I will discuss two of the potential consequences here.

Consequence One: Misperceptions by Others

Because she is bombarded with media images of the hot and sexy ideal, any girl can look around and see that there are benefits to dressing and acting in a sexy manner, such as appearing older, becoming more popular, and receiving more attention. However, she can only see the rewards of looking this way—she is not yet able to foresee any negative consequences[ii]. A young girl simply doesn’t have the developmental capability or life experience to understand that her appearance could be negatively perceived or misinterpreted by others. Or if she does have ideas about this, they will likely be about attention and romance; she is not yet able to have a clear understanding of the dangers that might be associated with unwanted sexual attention.

I found one study about others’ perceptions to be eye-opening: Researchers showed college students some images of a 5th grade girl who was presented in either childlike clothes, somewhat sexualized clothes, or highly sexualized clothes. The girl in the sexiest clothes was seen as the least intelligent, least competent, least determined, and least capable. The girl was also rated relatively low in self-respect and morality. Somehow the students were equating a 5th grader’s clothing choice with her moral character![iii] This is only one study, and the ratings were performed by college students, but it provides us with some initial evidence that even elementary age girls can be viewed as less competent when they dress in a hot and sexy manner, and if they are treated that way by others, they may adopt this same view of themselves.

Consequence Two: Self-Objectification

In addition to negative misperceptions by others, aspiring to have a hot and sexy appearance has implications for a girl’s view of herself.  When a girl believes she has to look as hot and sexy as possible to be noticed and accepted, she will be so focused on how she appears to others that she won’t take the time to consider how she feels, what she wants, whether or not she approves of herself. This process is referred to as self-objectification, a concept that explains how girls internalize cultural pressures. If she learns to self-objectify, she will carry around the burden of feeling ”checked out” by others instead of going about her day, enjoying whatever it may bring. If a girl becomes preoccupied in this way, she will be distracted and less able to focus in the moment, potentially affecting both her academic and even future professional performance. Further, when her sense of worth is tied to others’ approval of her, she will feel like she can never quite measure up. In fact, research shows that self-objectification is linked to many mental health problems in girls, such as negative body image, eating disorders, anxiety, and depression.[iv] 

So yes, it does matter over time when girls are playing with toys that emulate hot and sexy women. It matters when young girls become self-conscious because they have to adjust their padded bras or when they can’t run and play in short, tight skirts. And yes, it matters when preschool girls get a lot of attention for dressing in high heels and a “sexy police girl” costume for Halloween.

When you are wearing hot-and-sexy clothes, you are more likely to think about yourself and how you look; it’s harder to turn this part of your brain off and focus on other interests. Instead of this intense focus on beauty, girls deserve a childhood free of appearance-related concerns. A childhood that is free from carrying the burden of worrying about what other people think about their looks or their bodies. Girls deserve a childhood in which they are free to discover who they truly are, not who society expects them to be.  So this Halloween, consider having a discussion with your daughter in advance of the shopping, before she is bombarded with hundreds of “hot and sexy” costumes. Ask her about what she would like to dress as this year, and why. If she wants to be a cat, work to find a realistic cat costume, not the “sexy kitten” package.  If you brainstorm together you can find ways to help her express her beautiful and unique self--but without the hot-and-sexy edge.

For more ideas and discussion about cultural pressures for girls and what parents can do to promote their daughters’ resilience, see my new book from Oxford Press:
Swimming Upstream: Parenting Girls for Resilience in a Toxic Culture.

http://www.amazon.com/Swimming-Upstream-Parenting-Resilience-Culture/dp/0199391130

[i] Boyd, H., & Murnen, S. K. (2011) How sexy are girls’ dolls? A content analysis of the

sexualized characteristics of age 3–11 girls’ dolls. Paper presented at the Ohio

Undergraduate Psychology Conference. Gambier: Kenyon College.

[ii] Graff, K., Murnen, S. K., & Smolak, L. (2012). Too sexualized to be taken seriously?

Perceptions of a girl in childlike vs. sexual clothing. Sex Roles, 66, 764-775. doi:

10.1007/s11199-012-0145-3

[iii] Ibid

[iv] Frederickson, B. L., Roberts, T. A., Noll, S. M., Quinn, D.M., & Twenge, J.M. (1998). That swimsuit becomes you: Sex differences in self-objectification, restrained eating, and math performance. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 75, 269-284. doi:10/1037/0022-3514.75.1.269; Lindberg, S. M., Grabe, S., & Hyde, J. S. (2007). Gender, pubertal development, and peer sexual harassment predict objectified body consciousness in early adolescence. Journal on Research on Adolescence , 17, 723-742. doi:10.1111/j.1532-7795.2007.00544.x