Practical Tips to Combat Halloween Horrors of “Wicked Innocence”

sexualized media messages coverUpdate Oct. 25, 2015 Hard to believe I wrote this 8 years ago trying to give “parenting tips to combat the sexualization cues to kids in our culture”‘ considering society has now dialed down the demographic of sexualization from middleschoolers to wee ones in K-5, in spite of fresh studies on the damage of internalized sexualization and public health harm. Sheesh.

The good news? Critical thinking seems to be filtering down a tad, as outspoken moms like Lin Kramer sound off to behemoths like Party City receiving some viral traction and media coverage. And body image portrayal of boys is finally getting some media traction too, LONG after our 2009 Packaging Boyhood series and “What About Boys Halloween Costumes?” offering the buffed boy ‘hottie factor’ circa 2008 and later the  ‘equal opportunity destroyer’ lens back in 2012. Guess mass media and the digital deluge just needs to catch up with those of us having these conversations for a decade now…

Also, heads up, I’ll soon be writing a parenting update interviewing Dr. Jennifer Shewmaker on her new 2015 book teaching kids to be smart media critics and consumers, “Sexualized Media Messages & Our Children” which came out earlier this spring. 

Meanwhile, let’s continue to Take Back Halloween…deconstructing the tropes and tricks being used to market to the masses, and offer ideas for “A Mighty Girl” Halloween instead.

Industry is manufacturing a “so sexy so soon” need that simply isn’t there with wee ones; the cultural context for K-5 is reckless and upending, making even a simple ‘cat’ costume into a ‘woo woo’ moment of peer judgment and body shaming on the freakin’ playground. eek.

The ‘top 10’ Packaging Girlhood tips in the shadow box below are even more valid today targeting single-digit 0-9 age groups than they were in 2007.


triad-costumes.jpgOriginal Post: Packaging Girlhood Is your little pumpkin hankering for some “not on your life baby” duds to wear to the middle-school masquerade this season?

Trust me, you’re not alone…as you can see by the pervasiveness in this “Good Girls Go Bad for a Day” NYTimes article last year and this Psychology of Women Quarterly article titled, “The Pink Dragon is Female,” a content analysis of 469 children’s Halloween costumes exploring the extent to which children’s fantasy dress reproduces and reiterates more conventional messages about gender.

NYT’s Stephanie Rosenbloom writes in pithy prose, “In her thigh-highs and ruby miniskirt, Little Red Riding Hood does not appear to be en route to her grandmother’s house. And Goldilocks, in a snug bodice and platform heels, gives the impression she has been sleeping in everyone’s bed. There is a witch wearing little more than a Laker Girl uniform, a fairy who appears to shop at Victoria’s Secret and a cowgirl with a skirt the size of a tea towel.”

Yup. Tell me something I don’t know.

Hopefully the girls in YOUR lives are not asking to costume themselves as “Bom-Chicka-Wah-Wah” babes or Pussycat Dolls for Halloween, but if I were you, if she asks to be “Little Miss Muffett”or a fairy tale find like “Goldilocks” I’d do an online eyeball check, as most of them look like tween merry maids gone S&M or Boy Toy wannabes…as you can see by this Two Knives post, “Time to scream about girls’ Halloween…again.”

So what’s a preteen parent to do?

I turned to my reliable tipsters and Shaping Youth advisory board pros at Packaging Girlhood (Halloween book excerpts here) since they did a great list of tips for Dads & Daughters last year…(also included at the end of this piece)

The good doctors at Packaging Girlhood focused on deconstructing stereotypes and coming up with healthier options but the final entry on their list negated my whole strategy to my opportunistic tween when #10 read, “Halloween is all about being what you aren’t.”

Hmn. My parental radar kicked in, “That can and will be used against me,” I thought to myself.

Mind you, I know exactly what Sharon and Lyn were saying, in terms of stretching the imagination and boundaries, but gosh, that leaves the door wide open for marketers to justify new ways for tween costumes with names like “wicked innocence” to be branded with a wink and a nod in the “pshaw, no worries, it’s just dress up” category.

The American Psychological Association (APA) studies continue to remind us these early sexualization cues are taking their toll time and again. And yet…it just keeps on comin’….

Then there’s the Harvard University Press edition that sums it up in a nutshell in their “must-read” work, “The Dilemmas of Desire: Teenage Girls Talk About Sexuality.”

All kids are different in their motivations, but the tween developmental stage seems to have a lot of “getting noticed among peers at Halloween” for cool costume cache. (even though, paradoxically, they seem to clone-out in a sea of hoodies and jeans at the lunch tables to ‘blend’ the rest of the year)

Up until now, I’ve been fortunate to be the high bidder on those hilarious inflatable ‘body balloons’ you find on ebay which are a hoot. (they have a little battery-operated power-pack fan inside, and voilá, the kids become blow-up-walking- outdoor displays in ripstop nylon comfort that’s cumbersome, cute, and oh so attention getting)

Cost? Anywhere from $10-20 based on your bidding prowess.

For our purposes, the inflatable shark is always a hit each year when we go to the “MBA members night” at Monterey Bay Aquarium’s “Spooktacular” Halloween. (They close the place down and trick out the tanks with glow in the dark pumpkins and cool costumed creatures floating around for surprise appearances. The kids wander station to station to trick or treat at the exhibits, and it’s a low key, elegant party to support a good cause.)

She’s been an inflatable polar bear too, and done the whole ‘global warming’ schtick…

But last year we swapped out for a toucan and the beak kept flopping in her face and she got impatiently annoyed and surly. (not a good combo in a hormonal prepubescent tween)

So? That’s how we ended up with her wanting to look at “something easy like Goldilocks.” Ugh.

The NYTimes piece summed here at TruthDig, calls out the stereotyped toxicity:

“Men’s costumes are generally goofy or grotesque ensembles with “Animal House”-inspired names like Atomic Wedgie and Chug-A-Lug Beer Can. And when they dress up as police officers, firefighters and soldiers, they actually look like people in those professions. The same costumes for women are so tight and low-cut they are better suited for popping out of a cake than outlasting an emergency. —Obviously, however, many women see nothing wrong with making Halloween less about Snickers bars and SweeTarts and more about eye candy.” Ugh, again.

On the flip side, when it comes to kids, I urge you to listen to the dads out there, like this one who blogs at Dadventure in this title feature, “Why Do We Dress Our Daughters Like Skanks?” And this “Creative-Type Dad” who posts “An Open Letter To A Parent That Buys A Hooker Halloween Costume For Their Daughter.” Ahem, point well taken, and bravo, gents. Join our consortium of concerned parents, please…

Meanwhile, I keep trying to think of a way we can make that toucan fly right this year, with a nip and a tuck, even though it’s a bit too ‘Froot Loops’ for my taste…We actually bought it to remind us of our trip to Belize and Roatan, Honduras where toucans live in sanctuary, rescued from the exotic bird trafficking trade. Very, very cool. (their big ol’ beaks are as fragile as eggshells, even though they LOOK like they could snap your finger in half)

See what happens when we judge by appearances?

Sigh…I digress…

Aside from all the sexuality interplay, I can’t emphasize enough the common sense element…

‘Reduce, Reuse, recycle’ because cute costumes like this are barely touched…

They resell well on ebay, in consignment stores, and local ‘next to new’ hot spots this time of year. Why pay big bucks for once a wear garb?

Every year I run our island’s “poolside parade” of little ghosties with old-fashioned games like bobbing for apples, pin the nose on the pumpkin and ‘ishy squishy brains’—The older kids ACT like they could care less, but they’re proud to help the wee ones, and always hang back later for ‘extra prizes’ so you know they’re into it but just doing the ol’ “too cool for school” teens as sitters approach… (btw, Oriental Trading Company always has kitsch, affordable, Halloween, glow-in-the-dark gear that appeals to all ages if you’re doing a carnival of games party)

We’ll see what happens when we venture out on our Halloween hunt again tomorrow, but suffice it to say…

I keep trying to veer her into crafty stuff, and ‘group ideas’ and themes that step out with three or more, en masse, to recruit some gal pals from her volleyball team and find a simple concept that works…(although, again, it was the volleyball crew that thought it would be fun if they all went as fairytale characters as a group…sounded great, ’til I saw the garb)

A creative group theme of some sort seems much healthier than making use of her shiny long blonde locks to go bed-hopping with bears…

Sigh. I long for the days when wholesome porridge didn’t equate to sweet lil’ tartlets…

Ideas? Advice? Man, that toucan is looking mighty good to me…

Ten Tips from Packaging Girlhood

Shared via Dads & Daughters

1. She can be anyone or anything on Halloween, so help her think outside the box (especially boxes of store-bought costumes). Imagination and creativity can help girls break out of gender stereotypes…and are great practice for reality.

2. Encourage your daughter to be anyone or anything for Halloween–and for the rest of her life. Encourage her to be inspired by real women doing wild, brave and phenomenal things.

3. Listen to her ideas and encourage all the possibilities. She is bombarded with pink princesses, sexy divas and pop stars, but don’t assume anything–let her costume choice surprise you!

4. Discussing and working on Halloween costumes is a great learning and bonding experience. Help her recall the best costumes she ever saw, and share some favorites from your childhood.

5. If she goes for pink and glitter, encourage her to add her own twist and have her pink and glitter DO something. Help her imagine a feisty fairy taking on the evil dragon, a butterfly that saves the insect world, or a queen who uses her sheath and sword to fight for her crown. She can be a glittered firefighter, or even a sparkly skeleton!

6. Sit down with a paper and pencil and let your daughter create her own character and story. She can raid the family closets or dress up box to become the wildest or coolest character ever!

7. If your daughter loves scary stories and the history of Halloween, help her go “traditional” and be a witch, Frankenstein, or a ghost. Avoid those sexy diva witch costumes; use your own imagination to create the scary, ugly, and awful look.

8. Draw on your daughter’s favorite book or character. Re-read the book with her to plan what she’ll need to “be” Anne of Green Gables, Dorothy, or Hermione Granger. And don’t rule out boy characters: Dracula, Harry Potter, or even Dumbledore!

9. Is your daughter an athlete or history buff? (see A Mighty Girl’s empowering costume ideas by age and stage!) Halloween is a chance to become Lorena Ochoa, Mia Hamm, Danica Patrick, Sheryl Swoopes, Se Ri Pak, Rosa Parks, Amelia Earhart, Joan of Arc, Harriet Tubman, Sally Ride, Golda Meir–the list is endless (and can include males)! Her Jane Goodall can carry a stuffed gorilla; her Van Gogh can wear a bandage on his ear–once you start brainstorming, ideas will flood in.

10. Halloween is all about being what you aren’t…help her stretch her imagination. Teach her that it’s false advertising for stores to label cowpoke, police officer and firefighter costumes as “for boys.” (Then introduce her to the female police officers and fire fighters in your community!)

Halloween is a day of imagination–a perfect opportunity to show her that she can be anyone, any profession, any role.


2007 Footnote: By the way, Nancy Gruver has stepped down to return to New Moon Girls Publishing as CEO full-time, so there’s a new Exec. Dir for Dads and Daughters…special welcome to child and public policy advocate Julian Palmer!

Julian is former Communications Director of the National Center for Children in Poverty at Columbia University and Executive Director of Common Cause/New York. He earned his MPA from Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government, a diploma in Social Sciences from Stockholm University, and a BA from the University of Pennsylvania. He will lead DADs from the New York City area, where he lives with his wife and two daughters, coaches a girls’ basketball team and is a certified EPIC parent group facilitator.

Welcome, Julian! It’s a great organization and we love it! You’ve got big shoes to fill, but with two teenage daughters, I have confidence you ‘get it’…and will carry on in the “put your daughter’s face in this ad” sanity check show-stopper when you talk ‘man to man/dad to dad’ with those hotshot toy execs. 

Related Articles:

Salacious Halloween Costumes Cause Stir

Sexy Halloween Styles For Girls Frighten Adults

Halloween: At What Age Does the Schoolgirl Become Sexy?

Up For Debate: Sexy Halloween Costumes

“Hot” for Halloween: From Girlish and Ghoulish To Racy to Revealing

Visual Snapshot from: Feminist Law Professors

Spooky to Skanky: For Halloween Costumes, Less Is More

The News Observer: They’re Tramps For A Night, But Why?

Alpha Mom: Buzz Off, What Not to Wear This Halloween

Kindergarten Cleavage (from last year but still au courant)

Prostitute Costumes for Tots (Toronto Star, ’04)



  1. How can our youth want to be anything but crude. That’s all they see everywhere they go. I always felt Playboy was the beginning of promiscuity for our young women, people as Britney Spears and their groups (sorry if I spelled her name wrong) teach our girls to let it all hang out, and it’s alright. The no underwear thing, really got to me..this girl is really out of control.. And if you don’t your not in the crowd..

    Kids are dating younger, dressing older, and acting like adults before what we considered puberty..and it’s no exaggeration.. If parents deny this they haven’t been in middle schools lately…

    Keep up the good work, however, I’m not sure we’re making much progress….can you tell I’m having a down week..?

    Dorothy from grammology
    call your grandma

  2. yeah, I get mopey on it all sometimes…but there’s a LOT of positive messaging out there too…we just have to reinforce it and flip the focus so that it takes the spotlight instead. (e.g. Youth Brower awards, incredible mobilization on the eco-front, Girls For a Change, Girls Are, etc.)

    I try to add a ‘solutions-based’ approach so we don’t all end up wallowing in a parental pity party or a collective shoulder shrug of overwhelm, but I’ll admit, sometimes I’m sorely lacking on the “how-to” front.

    Reinforcing self-worth is huge, but even when they KNOW and even VALUE/take pride in their own contributions to the world, the cues being sent continue to toss in discordance as if to say, pick one…you’re either cast as “Girls Gone Wild or Girls Gone Mild” no in between…that’s a VERY limiting box to duct tape people inside of…bleh. I say collapse the box, fold it up to recycle, and reconfigure roles into an entirely new form…

  3. From Dorothy at Grammology (link above:)

    Amy one of my young friends, (she’s 30) told me about an experience she had while visiting a bar near Buffalo, New York..She was with two other friends and thank goodness two of them were given the date rape drug..however, the gal who didn’t get drugged was able to take care of the girls.. I wanted to tell you about the post so you would suggest it for this site. I’ve been so busy with my mom being sick, and some unexpected travel that I never got here. You may want to suggest your readers check the post out or I have permission to post it any where I want. I could send it to your interested? I’d heard about this however, I think I just didn’t believe it until she told me her story. Let me know, you have my email address.

  4. Dorothy, I re-posted your comment above, but don’t really have a proper ‘suggest this’ story area so I’m going to plop it onto this Halloween post, since it’s a nightmarish situation…

    Feel free to send me the link to your post and I’ll check it out…or post it here in the comments for all to see. Sounds like you’re trying to convey a warning out there to youth/teens/moms, and all of humanity to stay aware, etc. Clearly, ‘scary stuff’ for Halloween and beyond…

  5. Great job! I love how easily you convey your information and make it such a quick read!

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