‘Hot’ for halloween; Costumes have gone from girlish and ghoulish to racy and revealing

This story originally appeared in the Saturday, October 21, 2006 edition of The Kansas City Star

Halloween hasn’t changed much for boys: Gory getups and monster masks still sell.

But in the last few years costumes for girls have traded silly and sweet for skimpy and sexy.

It has gotten so bad, one mother on an Internet bulletin board suggested renaming the holiday Dress Like a Prostitute Day. "That’s an awful thing to say," the woman wrote. "But that’s what some of these costumes look like to me."

Look in costume shops and you’ll see what she means. They don’t sell scary witches so much as saucy witches. Costumes that once were merely daring now look more at home on Vegas showgirls. Outfits that were once "cool" are now "Hot! Hot! Hot!"

Many blame pop culture. Racy television shows and music videos teem with images of teenage girls. Child beauty pageants feature questionable costumes, while corporations make billions selling sexy products to girls too young to understand their significance.

Experts are concerned. But not everyone’s bothered.

This summer on "America’s Got Talent," when celebrity judge Brandy told young singers they had dressed too provocatively for their age, the audience shouted her down. Last season Shopping.com noted a 30 percent jump in searches for "sexy Halloween costumes." So are marketers really to blame, or are they just giving people what they want?

"Both are true," said Tomi-Ann Roberts, a psychology professor at Colorado College. "We learn what we want from the culture, then demand more of it."

A 16-year-old female from Shawnee is looking for a "hot costume" to wear to a friend’s party. "Adults worry too much," she said. "You can’t just wear a sheet. People dress up more today, and the costumes are way hotter. But it’s still just fun."

Christy Jahnke, assistant manager of Party City in Overland Park, said her store carries a bevy of sexy Halloween costumes for girls. "That’s the trend we’re going with this year," she said. "Hot! Hot! costumes." She knows many by heart.

"Miss Red Riding Hood, that’s sexy," Jahnke said. "And we have Dorothy (from "The Wizard of Oz"), but it’s a sexy Dorothy." This year the store also will offer costumes made by Playboy.

"They’re geared more for adults, but a lot of younger girls get them."

Sometimes, Jahnke said, mothers balk at the sexiness of the outfits. But other moms pick them out for their daughters.

Linda Cosgrove of Stilwell in Johnson County, whose 15-year-old daughter, Mandy, is wearing a skimpy "naughty nurse" outfit bought online, isn’t worried.

"Mandy knows who she is," she said. "And so do I. This is just her having some fun. For people to make any more out of it than that ... I mean, is this really such a big problem?"

Ask the American Psychological Association. In 2005 it appointed a task force to study the sexualization of girls. Roberts is one of six members of the task force, which will release its report in February. Roberts calls the trend "alarming." Even well-meaning efforts such as Take Your Daughter to Work Day don’t stand a chance against the pressure to be sexy.

"Afterward they come home, turn on the TV and every show is ‘America’s Top Model’ and ‘Desperate Housewives,’ and it’s like, ‘I want a rock star boyfriend and a smokin’ bod.’ "

In research for her upcoming book So Sexy So Soon, Diane Levin of Wheelock College in Boston points to deregulation of children’s television shows in the 1980s as a big cause of early sexualization.

"It became possible to use TV shows as ads to market products," she said. "Within a year, most of the best-selling toys had TV shows. He-Man, Power Rangers, Ninja Turtles for boys; Care Bears, Strawberry Shortcake and My Little Pony for girls."

The result: Stores began dividing toy sections by gender.

"It started with toys, then it became clothes, bedsheets, breakfast cereals," Levin said. "Licensing and branding became the way to market to children with no filter. They created a culture that undermines parental authority. In ads directed at children you never see (normal) adults. They’re invisible, obstructionist or stupid. It’s creating what I call a premature adolescent rebellion."

The next step for marketers: Flood the airwaves with their core message: sex for girls, violence for boys.

Today, she said, society is simply reaping the bitter fruit of decisions it made decades ago.

There is hope, she said.

In 2005 teenage girls in Pittsburgh successfully protested a line of Abercrombie Fitch T-shirts with messages across the chest including: "Who needs brains when you have these?"

Instead of a boycott, they organized a girlcott.

"Is society stooping so low as to make degrading yourself trendy?" one of the girls asked at a news conference.

Abercrombie pulled the shirts.

A separate protest got Hasbro to drop a line of "Pussycat Doll" toys. The dolls were takeoffs on the highly sexualized musical group by the same name, famous for its line "Don’t ya wish your girlfriend was hot like me?"

But more has to be done, experts say.

Sharon Lamb, a Vermont psychologist and author of Packaging Girlhood: Rescuing Our Daughters From Marketer’s Schemes, said the rapid sexualization of Halloween costumes for girls should cause parents to re-examine what’s going on and come up with ways to stop it.

"The real horror on Halloween is that on the one night when girls could let their imaginations run wild, they’re encouraged to be sexy divas or French maids," she said. "In effect, we’re telling girls to dream small and dream sexy. And that’s wrong."

To reach James A. Fussell, call (816) 234-4460 or e-mail jfussell@kcstar.com.