A defense of “sexy” Halloween costumes

OK, so first things first: Let’s get the criticisms out of the way.
There are many problems with the nature of Halloween costumes that are considered “sexy.” The sexualization of youth and young girls, for one thing, is of course a big problem, such as the iconic “sexy schoolgirl” costume, or the sexualization of children’s characters (sexy Hermione, of the Harry Potter franchise, is a rather telling example). This is also related to the sexualization of submission (sexy French maid) and, in turn, the sexualization of pink-collar professions (think sexy nurse, sexy librarian) and, on the reverse, sexualization of positions of authority (sexy cop) or “bad girl” stereotypes (sexy pirate). These things are problematic because they point to the old-fashioned ideas about what sexiness is and/or what it should be, and because they define women’s sexuality in narrow, black-and-white terms.
There are also problems with selection; there are very few options for adult women’s Halloween costumes that aren’t in the sexy category. Almost every costume is a “sexy” spin on something and if you aren’t comfortable or interested in wearing provocative clothing, and don’t have the time, technical skill or energy to make your own, you can be hard-pressed to find a costume. And that isn’t fair, because Halloween shouldn’t be explicitly about one kind of dress-up. The selection available to you even if you do want to go the “sexy” route can be an issue as well; if you are above a size 14 or so (and, in my experience, really that means a 12 or even 10, because the sizes of costumes almost always fit very snugly) then good luck finding something as easily as your slighter friends can. I think the (un)availability of alternative costumes, including costumes in a wider range of sizes, definitely points to a problem in our society with how we perceive women’s roles. We are not all here to be size 6 sex kittens, but costume manufacturers would have you think otherwise.
However, I love dressing sexy at Halloween. I really do. And until this year, I’ve always felt that was in conflict with my feminism–until I decided to make the choice to not think that way.


It’s not a conflict, because my feminism is only what I want it to be. I love finding creative ways of expressing sexuality, and to me that’s often what Halloween allows us; when you break away from the mundane nurse-schoolgirl-cop routine, you have the opportunity to say, “Look, there is sex and erotica all around us, in everything–let’s embrace that!” Sometimes this is funny, like when people dress up as “Sexy ____” (fill in the blank with your everyday inanimate object). Or it can be repulsive in a way that reminds us sex isn’t always pretty; sexy zombie is a good example of that one. But sex is funny, and sex is gross, and sex is beautiful; it is so many things. Tacking “sexy” as a prefix to your Halloween costume should not mean anything more than what you want it to mean–that that night, at that party, you want to be sexy. And you damn well should be, if that’s what you want.
Every year around Halloween, I see some columnist or blogger or other talk about how “Halloween is just an excuse for girls and women to whore it up all night.” But every time I read that, I think to myself, so what? What’s wrong with having a night where we can say “This is my body, and I’m not ashamed of it, or of using it to express my sexuality.” In fact, the only about that that seems wrong to me is the fact that it’s limited to one day, when the other 364 days of the year turn that idea on its head.
I read a column today that was leaning on the side of defending sexy costumes, which was refreshing. The author stated that costumes give us a chance to be bolder, and friendlier with one another, if only because they serve as conversation-starters while simultaneoulsy providing a sort of inhibition-squashing camouflage. This is a good thing. This is a needed outlet. I’d love to see the day when we have all lightened up and don’t need to limit our sexual boldness to a single day, but in the time being, I’m glad that at least we have this.
For the record, I’m not going sexy this year; simply because I decided on a different idea. I’ve dressed sexy in the past some years, and not other years. I’m sure that I will dress in a sexy costume again in the future, because year to year my ideas for costumes change. I love Halloween, and I don’t restrict the idea of dressing up to mean one thing or another. It doesn’t HAVE to be scary, or sweet, or sexy, or girly. It can be anything, and that’s part of the fun. I’ve dressed up as Morticia Adams and a zombie prom queen, in the typical goth tradition; I’ve dressed up as a dominatrix (with my boyfriend playing my sex slave) and a sexy Robin Hood. I’ve dressed up as an 80′s girl and this year, I’m going with a tried-and-true feminist cliché and dressing up as Rosie the Riveter. It doesn’t matter to me how revealing the outfit or how silly the person or thing is that I’m sexualizing (or not sexualizing), as long as I have fun with it.
So, there it is, my ode to sexy Halloween costumes. Please feel free to leave your thoughts, but please do not use the comment space to make others who choose to wear sexy costumes fell less of themselves. That is their choice, as much as your choice is your own.
Happy Halloween everyone!

and tagged . Bookmark the permalink. Post a comment or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

16 Comments

  1. Sleepy
    Posted October 23, 2009 at 10:42 am | Permalink

    This is a good analysis of this topic. I appreciate the nuance.
    Ideally, men OR women could wear revealing costumes just to different for a day. But of course we are far from the ideal. Patriarchy sucks the fun out of things.

  2. Milena
    Posted October 23, 2009 at 11:19 am | Permalink

    Thanks for writing this. I think slut-shaming women who want to dress in sexy costumes is as bad as limiting our choices to sexy costumes only. I’m going as a sexy nun this year (made the costume myself) and I’m not doing it to tittilate others (although it would be a nice bonus if I did). It is an excuse to really express my sexuality. We get enough conflicting messages about how we, as women, are allowed to be sexual and which practices are too transgressive. It’s sometimes nice to let loose and really go all out with your sexuality without worrying that you’ll get shamed for it.

  3. FrumiousB
    Posted October 23, 2009 at 12:05 pm | Permalink

    creative ways of expressing sexuality
    “Sexy ______ ” costumes are not a creative way of expressing sexuality. Those costumes express the single, limited view of women’s sexuality that is allowed in our culture. It’s the same vision of sexuality expressed by burlesque, pole dancing, and pretty much every ad out there. Women’s sexuality is defined by a male defined culture to be expressed via skimpy clothing, pouty lips, and arched backs. Hardly creative. De rigueur is more like it.
    Ask yourself why women’s sexuality is something that needs to be expressed, whereas male sexuality just is. Ask yourself why the only way to express your sexuality, since you must, is via a short skirt and visible garters. Ask yourself why you need to show your body to start a conversation.
    How about for Halloween, you try NOT “expressing” your sexuality. You will find that you have to be a lot more creative to achieve that.

  4. Lilith Luffles
    Posted October 23, 2009 at 12:12 pm | Permalink

    I think women should have the ability to express their sexuality in more ways that wearing revealing clothing. I’m gonna be Lilith, which I think is sexy because I’m a character that said “fuck you, I’d rather live in Hell” to Adam when she learned he wanted her to be subservient. To me, equality is sexy. Expressing sexuality can be wearing a tiny outfit, it can be covering up completely, or it can be wearing whatever *you* feel sexy in. Shit, I was almost gonna be a sexy clitoris but I didn’t want to go around explaining myself.
    Obviously women can express their sexuality however they want, but I think we can all agree that a lot of women, especially non-feminist minded women, dress up mindlessly because they have been told their whole life it is their duty as women to be sexy for men. Also, what women perceive as ‘sexy’ is strictly what is sexy to men, as women are taught to see themselves through men’s eyes. I’m not judging anyone, I too like to sometimes go out in cute somewhat revealing outfits, but we must remember that not every woman has her own definition of sexy for her, only the definition that men have told her.
    So while I do agree and an individual dressing sexy is not problematic, the plethora of women dressing sexy on Halloween and the limited selection of costumes available should be critically examined, without shaming of individual women. All I’m saying is let’s not be like the patriarchy and limit “expressing sexuality” to “dressing up all sexy like in the men’s magazines.”

  5. Spiffy McBang
    Posted October 23, 2009 at 12:18 pm | Permalink

    “There are also problems with selection; there are very few options for adult women’s Halloween costumes that aren’t in the sexy category.”
    This is the major issue; I doubt anyone much cares what you specifically do. People would look at costumes like “Sexy Nurse” and just say “meh” if next to it were six other varieties of nurse costumes that didn’t involve eight feet of cleavage and a skirt that could double as a headband.

  6. alixana
    Posted October 23, 2009 at 1:00 pm | Permalink

    Agreed with Lilith and Spiffy.
    I’ve noticed as Halloween rolls forward that there’s been a little bit of defensiveness about the whole sexy costume thing. I think it’s far more interesting/productive to consider the issue from a bigger-picture standpoint, though, at what’s made Halloween the sexy costume holiday that it is, and how women are being squeezed into this tiny category of accepted expressions of holiday cheer. The OP does talk about this in the first few paragraphs, so thumbs up.
    I could take more seriously the idea that Halloween is a night to creatively express your positive sexuality and be bold and uninhibited if it weren’t all so cookie-cutter. Everyone who goes this route is doing it in exactly the same way, because that’s all the costume manufacturers are offering. Deep cleavage. High skirt. Big heels. Is this REALLY the only way to be sexy? Is this REALLY the way that each woman who does it feels inside when she thinks about her sexuality? Or are people just performing the role that patriarchy has approved for the evening?

  7. rebekah
    Posted October 23, 2009 at 2:10 pm | Permalink

    okay so what if women make their own sexy costumes? costumes that yes are still revealing and yes have shorter skirts, but that are original and not so mainstream? Is that okay? Is our problem with the sexy costumes not that its a sexy costume but that it lacks originality and therefore provides no CHOICE to women? because that is something I can get behind. Telling women not to wear sexy costumes on halloween because you feel that that adds fuel to the fire over the objectification of women? can’t really get behind that simply because its further limiting what a woman can and can’t do, and the patriarchy does that enough on its own. We shouldn’t be a part of that

  8. alixana
    Posted October 23, 2009 at 2:24 pm | Permalink

    I wasn’t talking about the cookie-cutterness of costumes, but the cookie-cutterness of “sexy.” To use your own comment as an example, why are you equating “revealing” and “shorter skirts” with “sexy”? And why is this the ONLY definition that seems to be used on Halloween?

  9. rebekah
    Posted October 23, 2009 at 2:44 pm | Permalink

    The thing about being sexy is that ultimately we don’t do it for ourselves. We do it for others to look at us, and whatever an individual person gets from that is their business. because of the fact that our being “sexy” is determined by others is the way that should be. We can’t define what others find to be sexy. I don’t see a problem with men saying what is sexy in a woman, as long as I am allowed to say what is sexy in a man. And since the last time I checked I was allowed to decide what was sexy in a man, he should be able to decide what is sexy about a woman.

  10. Emily H.
    Posted October 23, 2009 at 9:32 pm | Permalink

    “Ask yourself why women’s sexuality is something that needs to be expressed, whereas male sexuality just is.” I can’t speak for the original poster, but I think it’s because men’s sexuality has been normalized, whereas women’s sexuality has been seen as something taboo, disgusting or dangerous (because overly sexual women don’t fit with middle class notions of propriety, won’t be faithful to their husbands, etc.). Any behavior by a woman that could be construed as sexual has been cast as slutty and whorish, and so feminists have tried to reframe that behavior as the normal and healthy act of “expressing one’s sexuality.” A guy who dresses to attract women, talks about what kind of women he’s attracted to, suggests a new sex position he’d like to try with his girlfriend, or whatever, is also “expressing his sexuality.” We just don’t think of it that way because it seems so unremarkable. (That’s why, in contrast, we tend to think of gay male sexuality as something that can be “expressed” or kept under wraps — because being gay isn’t the “norm.”)
    So by those standards, women expressing their sexuality needs to become more normal, not less Wearing sexy clothes isn’t the only or most important part of that, but I don’t see anything wrong with a woman feeling good about her body and liking to show it off sometimes.

  11. Emily H.
    Posted October 23, 2009 at 9:36 pm | Permalink

    “Ask yourself why women’s sexuality is something that needs to be expressed, whereas male sexuality just is.” I can’t speak for the original poster, but I think it’s because men’s sexuality has been normalized, whereas women’s sexuality has been seen as something taboo, disgusting or dangerous (because overly sexual women don’t fit with middle class notions of propriety, won’t be faithful to their husbands, etc.). Any behavior by a woman that could be construed as sexual has been cast as slutty and whorish, and so feminists have tried to reframe that behavior as the normal and healthy act of “expressing one’s sexuality.” A guy who dresses to attract women, talks about what kind of women he’s attracted to, suggests a new sex position he’d like to try with his girlfriend, or whatever, is also “expressing his sexuality.” We just don’t think of it that way because it seems so unremarkable. (That’s why, in contrast, we tend to think of gay male sexuality as something that can be “expressed” or kept under wraps — because being gay isn’t the “norm.”)
    So by those standards, women expressing their sexuality needs to become more normal, not less Wearing sexy clothes isn’t the only or most important part of that, but I don’t see anything wrong with a woman feeling good about her body and liking to show it off sometimes.

  12. clarityinprint
    Posted October 23, 2009 at 11:49 pm | Permalink

    I don’t mean to sound rude, but I find your statement that…
    “the thing about being sexy is that ultimately we don’t do it for ourselves/ We do it for others to look at us”…
    VERY problematic. That might be the reason YOU dress/behave “sexy,” but it is simply not a good assumption to say that is everyones reason. Many people dress or behave sexy for themselves, not for other people. I just caution your use of universals like that.

  13. Spiffy McBang
    Posted October 24, 2009 at 3:13 am | Permalink

    I think what she’s getting at is that, even though there certainly are people who will dress sexy primarily to make themselves happy, that enjoyment is derived from the concept of being desirable to others. One doesn’t necessarily need to go out and show off to do this; you can stay at home, preen in the mirror, and say, “Damn, I look fine.” But the underlying purpose behind trying to look good is so other people will want to look at you.
    I suppose this may not be true for someone who walks around staring at themselves in mirrors all day; however, I tend to think that is a very small minority of the population.

  14. alixana
    Posted October 24, 2009 at 5:02 pm | Permalink

    I feel like you’re having a different conversation than I am, but I’ll try to reroute it back to where I was coming from -
    It doesn’t matter what YOU find sexy in a man, or what a single man finds sexy in you. I’m not even sure how you got there. We can, in fact, define what others think is sexy. This happens on a culture-wide level. Our culture is teaching us what to find sexy in the people we’re attracted to. Looking at a Halloween store’s offerings demonstrates what our society considers sexy.
    The OP talks about Halloween being a time to express one’s sexuality. So bringing up wanting to perform for the male gaze runs contrary to the OP’s thesis. How many women feel that the “sexy” that our society is bottling and selling on Halloween is their authentic expression of sexuality? Is Halloween therefore really a night of inhibited expression and freedom, or is it just another patriarchal performance?

  15. Honeybee
    Posted October 24, 2009 at 7:43 pm | Permalink

    I agree with you. And I’ve heard all the arguments before, including those in this thread. But I don’t buy them. If I want to dress sexy why can’t I? You’re telling me that even on Halloween I STILL have to feel guilty about it? WHY??? How is that helping me. If I honestly enjoy it, why are some feminists trying to restrict me. You’re replacing one straightjacket with another. No thank you.

  16. Yekaterina
    Posted October 26, 2009 at 9:50 pm | Permalink

    As this year’s sexy leopard, I really appreciate this post. I do see many problems with the “sexy” costumes – lack of creativity, social pressures, the slut/virgin dichotomy, gender stereotyping. However, I find it completely acceptable to make the choice to be a sexy _______. I will, after all, go to parties in this costume, and I will dress in the same vein as I would normally when going to a party/bar/club. Halloween for me, personally, is a day to incorporate a fun character into my normal dress, not to ‘get away’ with my ‘sluttiness’.
    I will not wear anything more revealing on Halloween than on any other night out because I don’t have to – if I want to wear something open and sexy, I do not need an excuse or permission to do so any day of the year.

Post a Comment

You must be logged in to post a comment.

207 queries. 0.694 seconds