Sexy Halloween Costumes for Girls? Now That's Scary

Social scientists have found that the exposure to sexualized messages is associated with body dissatisfaction, disordered eating, low self-esteem and depression among adult women.
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Thousands of boys and girls across the country are now deciding what they want to be this Halloween. Boys have a multitude of Halloween costume options this year, ranging from scary to funny and from nerdy to powerful. Girls' costumes, on the other hand, are limited in variety and seem to increasingly feature the same, sexy silhouette: sleeveless, fitted bodice, short skirt and high heels.

Is a young girl's desire for a sexy Halloween costume a harmless whim or something more troubling? Should parents go along with their daughters' requests for those sexy, and often popular, costumes? Based on studies of pre- and early-adolescent girls, we think that parents should be worried about sexy Halloween costumes and guide their daughters toward less sexually alluring outfits.

Why? Social scientists have found that the exposure to sexualized messages is associated with body dissatisfaction, disordered eating, low self-esteem and depression among adult women. Although the solitary act of wearing a sexy costume is unlikely to affect adolescent girls' development, a generalized interest in being sexually alluring to boys does appear to be harmful.

As social scientists, we have been studying pre- and early-adolescent girls who believe that sexual attractiveness is an important aspect of their identity.

In multiple studies, we found that 10- to 15-year-old girls with higher levels of "internalized sexualization" differ from their peers in troubling ways. The first set of findings shows that such girls earn lower grades in school and score lower on standardized tests of academic achievement than their peers.

Another study showed that when young adolescent girls came into our lab to film a mock newscast, girls with higher and lower scores on the internalized sexualization measure prepared differently: girls with higher levels of sexualization spent more time putting on makeup, and less time practicing the script, than girls with lower levels of sexualization.

What this means is that those girls who believe that being sexually attractive to boys is important invested more of their time and effort into doing just that. Because everyone's resources are limited, the investment in sexiness comes at the expense of other things, including academics.

In yet another study, we found that the more that 11- to 15-year-old girls internalize the importance of being sexually attractive to boys, the more they wear tight clothing and skin- and cleavage-revealing clothing. That's a logical link. Although some feminists have claimed that sexual desirability might be a source of empowerment for women, we found the opposite. We found the girls with higher levels of sexualization in our study showed higher rates of body shame than their peers.

So what should parents do when their elementary- and middle-school-age daughters want a sexy costume? Parents should support their child's choice of costume theme, and then commit to a search for a less sexualized version.

Parents could also foster girls' creativity by encouraging them to make their own costumes. Parents can explicitly label the costume features (e.g., high heels, fishnet stockings) that they find objectionable, and explain that highlighting one's body by wearing skin-tight or revealing clothing distracts from what's really important about girls and women: their skills, interests and personal qualities.

Competence, rather than sexiness, is a Halloween guise worth adopting.