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Halloween and the Sexualization of Girls

Posted: 10/20/10 02:04 PM ET

In a perverse appropriation of "girl power," mini versions of sexy women will be winding their way through the streets of America this Halloween. They'll have bought their French maid outfits, pink pussycat heels, and midriff-baring Bad Girl University sweaters online or at a big box store near you.

That Halloween has gone from scary to sexy in recent years is a reflection of a profound and problematic societal issue: the sexualization of girls. Such portrayals of young girls are so familiar to us and to girls themselves that it seems normal, harmless, and simply the way that girls are nowadays. In fact, it passes as liberation -- just look at all the power girls have now: the power to shop, to look cute, to be "sassy."

A 2007 American Psychological Association Task Force on the sexualization of girls found compelling evidence that when girls and young women are sexualized -- and worse, when they learn to sexualize themselves -- they have difficulty thinking clearly, have lower self-esteem, higher levels of depressed mood, and discomfort with their own bodies, undermining their ability to participate as full citizens.

Despite three years and over a million site hits since the APA Report was published, the multi-billion dollar business of costuming girls has increased its supply of sexy offerings. The demand is fueled by the proliferation of sexualized images -- how "cool" and desirable girls and women dress and behave -- and the lack of alternatives in the public imagination and landscape. If girls don't show some leg, some midriff, some cleavage, they run the risk of being out-dated schoolgirls, targeted for teasing, for not being cool, or worse, prudish. Because even little girls are offered only two choices -- sexy or prude -- that sexy tween version of Little Bo Peep, with a corseted bodice and black fishnets, can seem like the lesser of two evils.

What is obfuscated in this scenario, of course, is that these extremes are manufactured. The constant visual cues suggesting there are only two options for what girls can be, not just on Halloween but every other day of the year, reflect a media and marketing machine that pits one type against the other, even as it sides with the consumer version of sexy. The reality, of course, is that there really are more choices. Girls can be whatever they want to be, but they have to be encouraged to find out what that is, and the media messages with which they are bombarded make that a harder task each passing day.

But for various reasons, we as parents have not said "no" to the retailers, because too often in this ever more consumer-driven society, we do not say "no" to our children. We're afraid of what can happen when our children don't conform or we resist too much, like the six year-old kicked off her cheerleading team in Michigan because her parents protested a sexualized cheer.

It's easy for moralizers to blame parents for saying yes and to blame girls for wanting and wearing. Placing the blame on individuals deflects attention from the rampant commercialization of childhood and the pornification of products marketers peddle to younger and younger children. Sure, we can say no. Many of us do. But we're up against corporations willing to invest billions to cultivate our child's desire for the right look and heighten their anxiety about not matching up.

Halloween can be just one more reminder that a girl has to be all sexy or she's nothing, or it can be an opportunity to explore what lies between the extremes. Help her discover all the amazing options available. Challenge her to come up with the most fun, fascinating, silly, scary costumes she can imagine. Unleash her creativity. Make it a contest, make it a party, make it a school challenge. Like the Connecticut cheerleaders who refused to wear skimpy uniforms that undermined their ability to perform, like the Texas teens who decided not to wear makeup to school, encourage her to make news with a protest, a petition, or a video that can go viral.

Raising a daughter with a chance at sexual health and sexual literacy is difficult enough; when sex is overused to oversell, it can feel like a Sisyphean task. It is more urgent than ever that we encourage girls to use their power to pull back the curtain on the paucity of what has been marketed as "choice" and reclaim what it means to be a girl.