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 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 :)