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October 28, 2010 / Katie

My Body is Not Your Halloween Costume — Edited Repost

I posted last year for Halloween when I was frustrated by the appropriation and bigotry associated with privileged people dressing up as oppressed people for Halloween.  That old post has gotten 70 hits this week and has been found through searches like “racist halloween costume,” “gypsy costume racist,” “is it wrong for a white person to dress [up as a person of color, presumably],” and “fat person costume.”  So I thought a reprint, with a few slight edits (some editorial, some because my writing tone has changed a bit, some to take the passive voice out of the use of the bodies of the oppressed by the privileged) was in order:

I always loved trick-or-treating, pumpkin carving, and scary movies.  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, I haven’t enjoyed wearing costumes. 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 disdain for the the idea of dressing up and partying and was glad my spouse has no desire to engage in these social rituals himself.  For our first Halloween, we started a tradition that has stayed with us since then.  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 silly or scary movies and savored the delicious smells and tastes of fresh, hot pumpkin bread.

Over the last few days, I have been reflecting on the general disdain 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. You’re not just a Chilean miner, you’re a sexy Chilean miner.  Well sure, that sexism is 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.

Kids trying on different identities—whether it’s as a vampire or rock star, fairy princess or doctor—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 part of becoming a mature human adult is coming to terms with the privileges afforded to us and oppressions suffocating us based on our abilities, our body shape and size, our age, our gender, our height, the color of our skin, etc.  When your body is considered “normal” (thin, white, male, able-bodied, straight, upper-middle class adults) then dressing up and being “other” 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.  Shed that extra weight of the costume with a sigh, and a “thank God I’m not really that fat.”  Or, maybe not even think about it, the way I think about how my life would be different if I weren’t fat, every day.   My body is treated as a costume by thin people.

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

The bodies and cultures of many persons of color are used as costumes by white people.

The bodies of “illegal” immigrants are used as costumes by American (particularly white) citizens.

The bodies of the mentally ill are used as costumes by the neurotypical.

The bodies of the old are used as costumes by the young.

The bodies of the poor and homeless are used as costumes by the wealthy.

The privileged use the bodies of the oppressed as costumes, but they don’t stop there.  The costumes are not usually realistic at all.  They don’t communicate any sense that the wearer (the appropriator, the rapist, the conqueror, the colonizer) has any sense of the humanity of the person whose body they are exploiting.  These costumes are caricatures of us, designed to be shocking, ugly, “exotic” to highlight the “other-ness” and even the “not-human-ness” of our bodies. Not only are we othered by the fact that our bodies are used as a costume, we are dehumanized by them.

Privileged people are trying on the identities of marginalized groups and passing it off as some sort of innocuous party ritual.

It’s not.

It is not innocuous when a thin person dresses up as a fat person.  It is not “fun” for a white person to wear a “Kung Fu Fighter” costume and make goofy “Asian-ish” sounds/fake words.  It is not okay for a rich person to dress up as a “hobo” in deliberately dirtied-looking face makeup and “scrubby” clothes.

Now I do have a lot of respect for people who do like to dress up and get creative about it. My friend Jasie posted pictures last year 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.  I’m not a fan of wearing costumes personally, but if you do like to dress up and get creative, and find ways to dress up that don’t further the oppression and dehumanization of oppressed groups, more power to you!  But please do not colonize someone else’s body for your privileged enjoyment.  Frankly, doing so makes you an asshole.

My family and I will probably spend the evening the way we have in years past—savoring salty roasted pumpkin seeds and sweet pumpkin bread, watching something silly or scary on the box, cuddled up on the couch together.

Happy Halloween :)

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2 Comments

Leave a Comment
  1. tolonda / Nov 1 2010 6:33 am

    third paragraph, do you mean Halloween instead of Thanksgiving?

    • Katie / Nov 2 2010 10:20 am

      um. yes. I should hire you to proofread my posts lol!

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