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October 30, 2009 / Katie

My body is not your Halloween costume

An edited repost of this year-old post is available here.  I recommend reading that version instead, as it is clearer and has some editorial changes.  Comments are closed on this post, but open over there.  Thanks!

 

I’ve always kind of hated Halloween. Okay, not “always.” But ever since I was old enough to be conscious of the fact that other people thought my body took up too much space and was the wrong shape. Having to dress up meant drawing attention to my body in some way, and I started feeling very uncomfortable with that around 10 years old.

When I was in college I went through a brief phase where I enjoyed dressing up and while I never went for “sexy” particularly, I did go for “cute.” I’d go as a kitten or butterfly and enjoyed putting glitter on my face and cutesying myself up.

The last few years though, I’ve just felt a general distain for the the idea of dressing up and partying and was glad my spouse has no desire to engage in these social rituals himself. Last year we made pumpkin bread from scratch (like, literally completely from scratch—starting with a whole, fresh pumpkin and going from there). We roasted the seeds and watched So I Married An Axe Murderer and savored the delicious smells and tastes of the fresh pumpkin bread. This year we’re continuing the tradition.

Over the last few days, I have been reflecting on the general distain I have for the ritual of getting dressed up in costume. I wondered, is it because of the sexism in how all women’s costumes are prefaced with the word “sexy”? You’re not just a nurse, you’re a sexy nurse; you’re not just a librarian, you’re a sexy librarian. Well sure, that’s part of it, but it’s not all of it.

In this reflection I think I may have come to a new understanding of what else is bugging me. When people dress up—kids or adults—it’s an opportunity to try on a different way of being. To be “other” than one’s self, most often in ways that would normally be socially unacceptable (e.g. elementary school kids are not allowed to paint fake bloody scabs on their faces every day).

Kids trying on different identities and figuring out who they are is a normal process of growing up. And even with adults, to some extent the same is true as we continue to evolve and change, but it’s not quite the same as for kids, because to us the awareness of opportunities and limitations afforded to us socially based on our abilities, our body shape and size, our age, our height, the color of our skin, the perception of our gender, etc. have begun to take more solid shape in our consciousness. And it occurs to me that when your body is considered “normal” (thin, white, able-bodied, straight, cisgender upper-middle class young adults) then dressing up and being different can be a completely new experience. But what about those of us whose daily reality is that our bodies are considered “other”? All the time? Without respite?

My body is sold as a costume. People can dress up like me, pretending. Playing. Trying out what it’s like to be fat; getting a laugh out of it. How crazy and disgusting their body would be if they really looked like me. And then at the end of the evening they can take it off. My body is a costume for thin people.

My body isn’t the only body that’s a costume for privileged people.

The bodies and cultures of many persons of color are costumes for white people.

The bodies of “illegal” immigrants are a costume for American citizens.

The bodies of the mentally ill are costumes for the neurotypical.

The bodies of the old are costumes for the young.

The bodies of the poor and homeless are costumes for the wealthy (or at least middle class).

Not only, then, do the oppressed become costumes for the privileged, but it’s worse—these costumes are caricatures of us, designed to be shocking, ugly, “exotic” or otherwise striking in some way. Not only are we othered by the fact that our bodies are used as a costume, we are further othered in the way these costumes make us appear even less “normal” … less human.

And I am sure I only scratched the surface. But what’s happening here is that privileged people are trying on the identities of marginalized groups and it’s passed off as some sort of innocuous party ritual. It’s not. It is not okay when a thin person dresses up as a fat person; it is not okay when a white person wears a “Kung Fu Fighter” costume.

Now I do have a lot of respect for people who do like to dress up and get creative about it. My friend Jasie just posted pictures of some awesome costumes (most of which were hand made!) that she, her partner, and her son have worn over the years. A Jeopardy contestant? Brilliant! Animals and cartoon characters? Right on. If you do choose to dress up for Halloween tomorrow, please be awesome like Jasie and her family, or my sister Kim who is going as a “forest fairy.” Please don’t be a privileged ass and dress up as someone else’s lived experience. Please choose a costume that doesn’t purpetuate oppressive systems.

As for me and my family, we’ll be savoring salty roasted pumpkin seeds and sweet chocolate chip pumpkin bread fresh out of the oven, sipping on glasses of wine and watching The Ring Two.

Happy Halloween :)

23 Comments

  1. FilthyGrandeur / Oct 30 2009 5:46 pm

    yes. exactly. i’m going to a Halloween festival of sorts tomorrow, and am already cringing at how many offensive costumes i’m going to see. i’ll probably complain about it in a post afterward.

    I’m happy to say that i am making my own costume this year (I’ll be King Rat from China Mieville’s novel of the same name). i just couldn’t bring myself to be another sexy anything (and not just because the festival is outdoors, though that’s pretty high on the list).

  2. Mulberry / Oct 30 2009 8:19 pm

    If people only dressed as marginalized group members, I could see your point. But people also dress up as members of groups more privileged than they. They might dress up as royalty or celebrities, for example. Or just as someone who’s been in the news a lot. I think of it as equal opportunity tastelessness.

    • Katie / Oct 30 2009 8:51 pm

      what “point” of mine are you saying you don’t see? I didn’t say that all Halloween costumes were problematic, I just called people to a higher standard of choosing costumes that don’t further marginalize oppressed groups.

  3. tanz33 / Oct 30 2009 9:01 pm

    I can see what you’re saying, but I have to disagree. I think it’s taking things too far to say that someone who dresses up as someone else is making fun of them, and I (personally) don’t feel marginalised if someone wants to dress as me. If they want to try on my identity, go for it – it doesn’t affect me. And hey, they may decide they like it.

    • Katie / Oct 30 2009 9:05 pm

      I didn’t say that people were “making fun” of oppressed groups. I said that these costumes in and of themselves are racist, fatphobic, ageist, ableist, etc. and that when privileged groups wear them, it perpetuates oppression. So it doesn’t affect you–good for you? It affects me. It affects many other people I know and other people whose blogs I read. If it matters to us, it matters.

  4. Sydera / Oct 30 2009 9:11 pm

    Personally, I always like the costumes that involve “richer” clothes than I’m entitled to. The princess actually does have a sociological implication…

  5. Oliver Danni / Oct 30 2009 11:46 pm

    I’m totally with you on this one. Thank you for articulating so well all the things that bother me about how this holiday is celebrated. In addition, I hate spending money on a costume that I’m going to wear only for a few hours. The Halloween costume industry is really disconcerting to me. But I respect that it’s fun for a lot of people, and I really wish I could enjoy it more. There’s just something about being pressured to dress up as someone else that really creeps me out. And the objectification of marginalized groups always bothers me. The worst one — by which I mean the one that makes me most uncomfortable, not “worst” as in “more seriously oppressive than others” — is when men dress up as women and spend the whole day acting up a disgusting caricature of a woman, and the reason this is “funny” is because they’re enacting the stereotype of transwomen as “men dressed as women”. I have occasionally seen men dress up as women for Halloween and do it respectfully, but the only times I’ve seen that happen are when the person crossdresses regularly but rarely gets to do it in public (usually younger guys) or when the person openly identifies as genderqueer in real life.

    But I had also never seen white people dress up as black people before this year, and that made me nearly as uncomfortable as men dressed as women does. Where I grew up, you would never have seen a white person dressed as a black person; that was pretty universally understood as offensive, though it was totally acceptable to dress up as an “Indian” (nobody would have said they were dressed as a “Native American”, but “Indian chiefs” and “Indian princesses” were common costumes). This year people dressed up as Obama, and it was definitely eye-opening to see how people in an Obama mask acted VERY differently from people in a Bush mask or in a Clinton mask.

  6. hsofia / Oct 31 2009 12:12 am

    perfect!!!

  7. hsofia / Oct 31 2009 3:42 am

    perfect!!!
    OH! You’re my new favorite blogger fyi

  8. jerriselaina / Oct 31 2009 4:18 am

    This is a great post.

    My partner and I were in some Halloween store recently; you know the kind that set up in strip malls just until the holiday’s over, then close again? Anyway.

    Big head nods on all the super-uncool costumes you mentioned. I just couldn’t believe the “Tequila Man” costume. Um. It *can’t* be argued that something like that, or that *wearing* something like that, isn’t an exercise in white supremacy.

    And what creeped me out even more were the super hyper-sexualized costume versions of little girl characters. You’re right, women’s costumes are generally relegated to “sexy ________________” and ridiculous. But this is the first year that I’ve noted, like, sexy strawberry shortcake and sexy Alice in Wonderland.

    Ugh. :: Facepalm ::

  9. Twistie / Oct 31 2009 9:19 am

    There’s a reason that even as a child I shunned the pre-fab Halloween costumes (though that was helped immensely by having a mother who sewed really well and loved to help my brothers and me realize our very individual dreams) and most of the popular costume concepts. I have never in my life gone out as a ‘sexy’ anything on Halloween. I did go out as a gypsy when I was ten, but I did actual research before planning the costume. It didn’t look anything like the other little gypsies in my neighborhood.

    I never learned to sew, but I still love a good clever costume. I just have to come up with ones that don’t require a lot of sewing (or money) on my part. As an adult, the closest I’ve come to doing an ‘ethnic’ costume was the time I put on a bright headscarf, swishy skirt, lots of jewelry and a pair of fairy wings and went out as a gypsy moth.

    Other costumes of note: vest and trousers + rubber pig snout + fake money hanging out of all my pockets = Capitalist Pig. Homemade piratical outfit + videotapes everywhere = Video Pirate. Pale makeup (and believe me it’s hard to find makeup paler than I am! I had to use clown white!) + flowing dress + very long scarf = The Ghost of Isadora Duncan.

    I tend toward visual puns and oddball concepts, but I have a lot of fun with it. This year, though, I’ve been sick and we’re not going anywhere, so I won’t be dressing up. I will, however, put on a gloriously cheesy horror flick (possibly something in the Ed Wood vein), and hand out candy to the kids in the neighborhood. I’ll still have loads of fun. Plus I get to hold back the Reese’s until the end, so if there’s anything left over I get my faves.

    To my mind, though, it’s both offensive and a serious lack of imagination to go out in a costume where the whole point is either ‘but it’s a SEXY fill-in-the-blank’ or a blatant ethnic/body/sexuality/class slur.

    Have a slice of pumpkin bread for me!

  10. Vinnie / Oct 31 2009 10:17 am

    +1

    If you go out to bars or clubs or parties now it seems all the young thin girls are trying to out-whore one another. Who can dress more smutty and attract more attention to themselves. How do you expect men to treat you when you objectify your own self? I never really understood the crave for attention. Sure I am a social creature and wanted attention when I was younger but now I favor quality over quantity. I don’t want to be in a crowded room, surrounded by people feeling alone. I want to be in a mostly empty room surrounded by a few people that I am very intimate with. One quality relationship is worth more than a million peers.

    With that being said I think kids look adorable as little kittens and bunnies and stuff on halloween. I think the creative side of Halloween could be very good. Why not outdo one another with creativity rather than smuttiness or perversion? I do not find the day inherently evil as some Christians do but I take issue in what it has become. Halloween has become a socially acceptable way to make fun of people, a way to objectify entire groups of people and a way to draw attention to yourself . It does a lot of it unconsciously now as well which is even worse.

    Though I suppose to the masses at large, Christmas has lost its meaning in American society as well. So my expectations for ‘All Saints Day’ should have been in the gutter to begin with…

  11. Bekbek / Oct 31 2009 2:35 pm

    You know, from what I’ve heard, the original purpose of costuming oneself for Hallows was to fool the critters coming through the thin veil into thinking you were one of them, so you wouldn’t be attacked. So I turn my nose up at any non-monster costume! (also, scaring folks when I hand out candy is FAR superior in my book to being sexy. Go, power-of-ugly!)

  12. Coley / Oct 31 2009 3:12 pm

    I understand what you’re saying, and I think that competent adults should be more careful in selecting their costumes…but how do you explain to a six-year-old child that they can’t be Princess Jasmine for Halloween because they’re not Arab? It’s not about the color of the skin to a child, but the identity itself…and I think that is the purest form of tolerance and acceptance that there is.

    I agree that some of the costumes you linked to intend to mock certain people, but where do we draw the line? What about a thin person putting on fake muscles to be Superman? Is that not okay? Almost every costume involves gaining characteristics that are not your own, and that’s the point.

    I think that if fat acceptance ever truly because successful (which I sincerely hope it does), “fat” will just be another word to describe a body, like “tall.” And that would include people being able to wear costumes that make them appear fat. Being offended by it is only perpetuating that there’s a problem with being fat in the first place…

    Have you ever heard of “cosplay”? It usually describes a person who is dressing up as an anime (Japanese animation) character. Though these characters are cartoons, they are often very thin, attractive Japanese people yet eager fans of all colors and sizes dress up like them. Should there be offense taken at that? I don’t think so.

    • Katie / Oct 31 2009 5:45 pm

      Coley, my objection is to privileged people dressing up as oppressed people, so that’s the line I draw. A person putting on muscles to look like superman doesn’t cross that line, because Superman, as a fictional character, is not oppressed. Same with cartoon characters or any number of things (professions, for example, like a teacher or a doctor, or inanimate objects, animals, etc.).

      Your example of a white child wanting to dress up as Jasmine is an interesting one. But while it may be harder to explain issues of racism to children than to adults, I think children are more capable than we often give them credit for in understanding unjust systems. Kids often have a really strong “Fairness meter” that usually plays out in being very nitpicky about who got the biggest piece of cake but when can also be used to apply to broader systems. “Sometimes people don’t like folks that have different color skin than white, and sometimes they show that they don’t like them by pretending to be like them on Halloween. Do you think it might be a good idea for you to choose a princess that has the same skin color as you?” I don’t know for sure—I don’t have a daughter who wishes to dress up as Jasmine—but “kids won’t get it” doesn’t seem like a very good reason, to me, to abandon the idea that we should avoid culturally appropriative costumes.

      And you’re right, if the fat rights movement is successful, eventually “fat” will be just another descriptor like “tall.” But that’s true of any of the justice movements. Skin color will be no different than eye color, dis/abilities will be no different from whether or not someone has musical talent, sexual orientation will be a value-judgment free issue. But we are not living in that era. We are living today. And fat people are oppressed, and our bodies are mocked, ridiculed, and objectified when they are turned into Halloween costumes.

      • Coley / Nov 2 2009 3:12 pm

        I really do understand what you’re saying, it’s just a concept I’m struggling with myself!

        I don’t know that it’s fair to tell all the “privileged” people that they can’t dress up as the oppressed, but it’s okay for the oppressed to dress like the privileged. It’s a tricky subject, yes? I’m sure that they could be offended by the portrayal of rich, thin, white women in media (like Cruella de Vil, for example of a nasty one, or Scrooge as a rich, white man). So I think this is an issue of having the class not to choose an offensive costume altogether…but how do you enforce something like that?

        I think you have a good point with the issue of telling a child why they may not dress up as a princess who isn’t their skin color, and I think they would probably understand it as you put it. But I hate that we live in a world where that is necessary. Girls don’t have to be mermaids to dress up as Ariel, or lions to dress up as Nala…so why the emphasis on skin color above those diversities? (I guess because the lions aren’t offended…huh?)

        Also, it seems to be a bias that WHITE people can’t dress up as other ethnicities… My Mexican best friend dressed up as Jasime and no one took any notice because she looked “ethnic.” Isn’t that a little unfair? It was to me when I was ten, let me tell you!

        I think that you’re right in saying that while we are living today there are just some things that aren’t acceptable…but hopefully that will change in the future and then we can put this behind us…

  13. Video Girl / Nov 1 2009 8:26 am

    perfect!!!

  14. Anna / Nov 1 2009 5:19 pm

    Hmm…..this is a great post, I’ve never really thought of it that way.

    When I dress up, I don’t think of the other, and I don’t feel like I’m othering myself. But then again, my costumes are never mocking. I go as a race car driver, a cannibal, a pirate, the Queen of Hearts, a bunny, and Poison Ivy.

    I suppose because I don’t do edgy costumes, and neither do my friends. I was disgusted when a friend of a friend came as a child rape victim. When he explained his costume, I told him he was disgusting and walked off, refusing to be in the same room as him for the rest of party.

    Man, the more I think about it, the more fucked it is! What is wrong with people? Dressing as a fat person? As a mentally ill person? Taking serious social issues and turning them into a game?! WTF.

  15. human / Nov 2 2009 9:50 am

    I like this post! Some very good points and it’s a great articulation of this problem with race-based costumes.

    There is one aspect I have trouble understanding. To me there seems to be a qualitative difference between dressing as “a black person” and dressing as Barack Obama. Or dressing as “an Arab girl” and dressing as Jasmine. Obviously, it could wind up being a racist portrayal, if you act like an ass, but I don’t really get why it automatically would be.

    It’s probably me, though – I mean, I’m probably just missing something here.

    • Coley / Nov 2 2009 3:19 pm

      I think this is a wonderful point. If you dress up as “a fat person” or “a black person,” “an Arab person,” THOSE things are certainly offensive because you’re declaring their existence as your Halloween costume. I get that.

      But if you’re assuming an identity, why is it racist? A little girl dressing up as Princess Jasmine really shouldn’t be that offensive… She’s not mocking anyone, just mimicking her favorite princess. Should princesses be offended that there are costumes of them? Should Wiccans be offended at our portrayal of witches? Now we’re getting to the only safe Halloween costumes being animals, who don’t know to be offended…

      I don’t think it’s possible to assume a fake identity on Halloween without changing some part of yourself. That’s the point of Halloween. So it’s okay to change how we dress, act, and maybe our hair color…but not our skin color or overall size and features?

      I don’t know.

      • Coley / Nov 2 2009 3:21 pm

        Now that I think about it, Halloween as a whole may be a bad idea… :(

  16. Brady / Nov 2 2009 5:47 pm

    I loved Halloween as a child! This year, my husband and I have just moved into a new apartment, so the day was spent running errands (although we did eat from-scratch pumpkin risotto and I did get to hand out candy to trick or treaters while we were picking up a cragislisted entertainment center).

    I love the idea of trying on new personalities, of allowing different perspectives of yourself to come out and play, of literally trying on another person’s shoes. If I had the time, patience and creativity to make a costume (and I still may as there’s a costume party next week), I would go as a sexy genius with a big mustache, crazy hair, a labcoat and fishnests. I’ve been fascinated with the idea of wearing a mustache lately, and exploring the gender divide of all those “sexy” costumes….while wearing a mustache!

    I really appreciate the points you make about how racist, fatphobic and generally horrible many of the commercially available costumes are. It bugs me too. My dad has a reward system with candy bars: where he gives full bars to the truly creative costumes. And in my last year of trick or treating, I spiked my hair and wore my leather jacket and went as a feminist: and I got double the candy!

    I think Halloween can be a wonderful celebration when people handle it properly. And I do believe that the media is to blame for perpetuating these obvious oversimplifications of stereotype.

    I was Princess Jasmine as a girl, and I look as white as they come, but I am part Arabic and I thought it was so cool to be an Arabic princess. My mom sewed the costume, and it looked like her costume in the movie, not any “real” princess: and she thought that was okay: I was dressing as a fictionalized portrayal, rather than aping any real person. That night, trick or treating with the local Lebanese couple, I heard about all of the controversy about the film and began to think that it might not have been the best idea.

    When I was in fifth grade I did a report on Sojourner Truth. We were supposed to do a report on a famous American and I thought her story was so inspiring (especially her speech, which now some historians believe to be fictional, oh well). We were supposed to dress up as that person. I wanted to use self-tanner, as suggested by a Japanese girl in my class. I asked all of the black girls if they thought that was okay, and they agreed. My mom would not allow it. All of 10, I couldn’t understand it. She kept telling me that blackface was wrong historically. I kept saying that all the black people said it was okay. She kept repeating that it didnt’make it right. I’m grateful to her now. But I don’t think it’s the easiest thing to explain to kids.

    I hate the sexy costumes so damn much. I hate the racist ones even worse. But I hadn’t thought critically about the “fat” ones until this post. Thank you for broadening my scope.

    And ps..you wrote distain above when I think you intended disdain…fyi

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  1. My Body is Not Your Halloween Costume — Edited Repost « Kataphatic

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