On Halloween weekend my boyfriend and I found ourselves driving down the street in Isla Vista -- the residential neighborhood near U.C. Santa Barbara -- stuck behind a row of five stumbling, mostly naked girls, their flesh glowing white in our headlights.
Around us, the sidewalks were packed with bare thighs and midriffs, fluffy ruffled mini skirts, microscopic shorts, knee-highs, fishnets, bikini tops and bras. Girls in panties and football t-shirts ambled beside girls in panties and bunny ears. Boys, most fully dressed, wove dizzily in between them, crazy-eyed and over-stimulated.
We could barely maneuver our car down the block as hundreds of kids marched toward Halloween's Mecca, Del Playa Drive in Isla Vista. The weekend street party drew 30,000 people this year from all over the country, according to local news headlines.
The sight of so many young girls looking like sex toys disturbed me. There were gaggles of slutty pirates, slutty nurses, slutty milkmaids, slutty Snow Whites, slutty schoolgirls, slutty referees. A few girls skipped costumes altogether and went straight to lacy lingerie and sheer teddies. Some shorts rose so high that fleshy rear-ends peaked out below. Some skirts fell so low on the hips that they had stopped serving their purpose as clothing.
Weren't they aware that they were standing around cold and naked just for the sake of appealing to some particularly dull looking men? After all, these are ostensibly smart co-eds. Too smart, I thought, to trick-or-treat for compliments and catcalls.
I wanted to know what was going on in their heads. So I put on my jacket, scarf and hat (it was cold outside, after all) and my boyfriend and I set out into the night to hear what our un-dressed revelers had to say for themselves.
The first group of girls we came upon -- walking en masse toward Isle Vista -- was a mixture of milkmaids, policewomen and girls in underwear.
"I'm dressed more conservatively than other girls, I like to be appropriate," explained a UCSB freshman in a low cut Dorothy from the Wizard of Oz outfit -- a short ruffled skirt and white knee highs. "I mean, I am a Sunday school teacher. I like to keep it P.G., to have fun but still be mature."
Behind Dorothy walked a more provocatively dressed girl named Katie, a recent UCSB grad. She wore a man's button-down shirt opened to reveal a black lace bra. The shirt ended at her upper thighs and she wore no pants.
"I'm dressed as 'the walk of shame'," Katie said, explaining that it is a regular phenomenon at Santa Barbara (and most college campuses), when girls walk home from all-nighters at parties or boy's bedrooms, often wearing the boy's shirts.
"The objective is to be as skimpy as you can on Halloween. It's the one night that you can get away with it," she said. "I mean, look at me. I'm not a slut, but I look like a prostitute right now. I'm walking down the street in underwear with my hands full of mixers, sucking on a lollipop...and my feet are killing me."
I appreciated her honesty, but her theory was incomplete. Why do girls want the opportunity to "get away with" looking like prostitutes? The logic implies that women have an inner need to impress boys (and other girls) by over-sexing their bodies, and it's only because of societal conservatism that they don't do it more often. Call me an optimist, but I suspect women like to be valued for more than just their cleavage.
"What about the boys?" I asked Katie. "Are they supposed to be skimpy too?"
"No! That means they are arrogant," said exclaimed. "You want them to be creative and funny."
"But you know, a penis [costume] is so over," interjected her friend. "I've already seen three of them today."
Even though the friends were showing quite a bit of flesh themselves, they lamented girls who bared even more, such as those who swathed themselves in Saran wrap and caution tape, which apparently is a popular costume.
"I'm not sure what they are supposed to be," said Katie. "It's like 'Hi, I'm Saran wrap, I really want to be naked, but I'd get a ticket.'"
Meanwhile, a group of guys walked by wearing sombreros and ponchos ("Mexican", apparently, is also a popular Halloween costume), talking about how they were jumping fences just like "real Mexicans" and screaming "Arriba!"
We left the girls to go find some better examples of Slutty Halloween. We came across two girls dressed as police -- or prostitutes dressing as police. They wore matching mini skirts and short-sleeved, black crop jackets over white bikini tops. Shiny metal handcuffs dangled from their hems. Their faces were young and round, their torsos and legs lanky with youth. From afar they looked as if they are naked with black bands blotting out their private parts. Yes, they were prime specimens.
I asked them about their costumes -- what made them choose skimpy policewoman?
"The cop is really the most classic costume to go with," said Jordan, matter-of-factly. "We could have gone with the firefighter, but we decided to go with the one that was the most classic and then make it better than how other girls are doing it."
Jordan said that she and her friend were 18, but something in her pause made me assume that they could be even younger. She gave me a glassy look when I asked if her costume was comfortable. Was she cold, at least?
"No, we're drunk," she said.
We came across two boys standing in front of a house party who got very excited when we approached them.
"This is my fourth year here," exclaimed John, 21 and from San Diego. What keeps him coming back? "It's the interaction we have every year with other people. It's fun."
His friend Mike, 21 and a UCSB student, jumped in: "Like, the first year we were detectives and we would ask girls to put their hands up and then we would frisk them," he said, demonstrating with his hands.
They excitedly showed off their costumes. John dressed as a character from the television show Scrubs, and Mike wore a large balloon-like piece of foam.
"We'll demonstrate for you," John said, and Mike lay down on the ground. John sat on him, and Mike made a farting noise for too long a time. "See!" John said. "He's a whoopee cushion!"
I asked them how costumes have changed over the years. Skye, Mike's girlfriend, walked over and answered for them.
"Guys costumes change with the cool things that come out every year, and girls are the same slutty things from year to year, and aren't original," said Skye, dressed in a mini (mini) skirt and a more modest orange tank top. "I'm not saying that to degrade them, I mean, I'm one of them. It's just how it is."
"Girls want to flaunt what they got, even if they don't got much," she continued. "If I were a witch and wore a long nose and painted my face green, I'd just be really ugly. You want to be cute and now you can."
The boys went off to act out the whoopee cushion costume in the middle of the street and Skye ran along beside them.
Across the street we met up with Karin and Kat. Karin wore a 1980's style, very revealing pink leotard -- no tights -- and Kat was Amelia Earhart in an appropriately collared jacket, but with a twist: she wore no pants.
As they explained their costumes, a boy dressed as Garth from Wayne's World ran up and rammed his pelvis into Karin's leg. "Schwing! Schwing!" he laughed and ran off.
"Do you know him?" I ask.
"No!" the girls exclaimed, looking annoyed. "But that stuff has been happening all night."
"Halloween is becoming more promiscuous every year," observed Karin. "There's really a lack of creatively among the girls, which is disappointing."
She was right. Most of the costumes that night were the same ones displayed in windows of store after store in Downtown Santa Barbara. Many girls were wearing the exact same version of Slutty Referee or Slutty Pirate.
I asked the girls why boys seemed to be able to wear more creative costumes -- like dressing up as whoopee cushions.
"Because they have penises!" blurted Kat.
Karin flashed Kat a look and tried to elaborate.
"Girls can only find costumes that are sexual, that's all they sell," she said.
"And guys can be covered up, so they can be more creative," said Kat, adding that her favorite costume of the night was a boy who dressed up as a lamp on a table.
"He was a one-night-stand!" she laughed.
"Like, girls can't dress up as a penis, because they'd be too covered," Karin added. "If girls were covered, they wouldn't get any attention. It's just not the standard."
The sluttiness, I realized then, is due in part to a herd mentality that's pushing a downward spiral toward nakedness. Girls want to get attention from boys, and they see that the least-dressed girls are getting the most looks. They mistake this sexual attention as affirmation that those girls are pretty or interesting. So they too begin to wear less and less on Halloween night. According to these calculations, by 2010 in Isla Vista, every girl on Halloween will be completely naked.
Kat and Karin's friend Scott joined us. He was fully dressed in a suit with an earpiece, which made him a secret service agent.
He readily admitted that girls have to be scantily clad to get any attention from guys.
But there's another standard too, he said.
"There are thousands of nurses and thousands of referees out there, but the girls that make a difference are the ones in the original costumes. They stand out."
He had a point: In a world where every girl is pretty and naked, you'd have to raise the bar somehow just to not be overwhelmed.
We left Isla Vista soon after. I was impressed with the girls' thoughtfulness about their plight, but also found their inability to act on it disappointing. The girls seemed resigned to their role as slutty instead of smart, material instead of substantive, even if they wanted to be dressed more creatively, even if they were cold, and even if they were showing far too much skin to ever interact with a boy on a level of mutual respect.
They had an inkling that they were playing into some manufactured role for women, but they didn't have the confidence or awareness to stop it and put on some pants. Or, perhaps, a penis costume ... now that would be some Halloween irony.