Dr. Jennifer W. Shewmaker

A Very Sexy Halloween to You

Halloween has become a very sexy holiday. The costumes are reminiscent of the adult entertainment industry, promoting girls and women as sexual objects.

Let me tell you a few stories about Sexy Halloween:

A friend of mine took her high school aged daughter to a Halloween party. She was shocked to walk in and discover girls under the age of 18 dressed in hardly any clothing. This friend of mine is as loving and open-minded as anyone I know. She is never quick to judge or point the finger, but she and her daughter were shaken by what they saw.

A college student of mine texted me this week to ask if I had seen the kids Halloween costumes this year. Her words, “They’re appalling!” Walmart recently withdrew a “Naughty” child’s costume. And then there’s this round up shared by Gender Neutral Parenting .

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In a talk that I’ve given many times to rooms full of school psychologists, parents, and college students, every single group has gasped when I put the picture below on the screen, and it is nowhere close to the worst thing I’ve seen in the stores. From college students to parents to professionals, every one of these people has been shocked by the sexualized themes in Halloween costumes for girls and young women.

At the high school party I mentioned above, there were young girls wearing very abbreviated Hooters girl costumes that I cannot even believe they were able to get into. These girls were wearing fewer clothes than the model in the “sexy” costume pictured above. Others were dressed as “Dallas Cowboys” wearing a sheer jersey with only a bra and panties underneath.

These girls are taking cues from our pornified culture that tells them that to present themselves as sexual objects gives them power. They dress, move, and act like women they’ve seen in sexy movies.

But these are real life girls who will be sitting next to these boys in the classroom tomorrow. These are girls who will be taking tests, writing papers, answering academic questions tomorrow. These are girls who know these boys, it’s not a fantasy or a daydream.

These are girls who have bought into the belief that their social power comes from their sex appeal. They have bought into the belief that to make themselves into the object of male desire is a fun and exciting thing. But what they, and many women and girls, don’t know is that when this idea becomes a reality, it is far from empowering.

Susan J. Douglas reframes what has previously been called Postfeminism as Enlightened Sexism. In Douglas’ definition, enlightened sexism “insists that women have made plenty of progress because of feminism, indeed, full equality has allegedly been achieved, so now it’s okay, even amusing to resurrect sexist stereotypes of girls and women.” This point of view says to women that through the use of their bodies and sex appeal, they gain true power. On the surface, it looks like feminism by saying, “You can have power!” but spurns equality by reducing female power to sexuality.

You may be thinking, “But it’s all in good fun! What’s the harm in a girl or woman using her body to experience her power?” In fact, there are many who do argue that this type of self-objectification, of purposefully putting oneself on display for others to view and desire, is empowering. And in the moment there is a feeling of power, of being desired and stirring feelings within others.

But in the long run, there is a strong body of research that clearly shows that self-objectification is psychologically unhealthy. In fact, self-objectification has been linked to disordered eating both in college women and adolescent girls (Tiggemann & Slater, 2001; Slater & Tiggemann, 2002), to depression in both age groups (Teggemann & Kuring, 2004; Grabe, Hyde, & Lindberg, 2007; Meuklenkamp & Saris-Baglama, 2002), and to risk for self-harm (Meuklenkamp, Swanson, & Brausch, 2005).

In the study by Grabe and her colleagues, a link was found between self-objectification and depression for girls as young as 11 years of age. Self-objectification has also been shown to have a relationship with lowered cognitive and academic functioning in women and girls (Gay & Castano, 2010). Not so innocent is it? Not so much fun after all. In fact, self-objectification leads to some series emotional difficulties.

My friend’s daughter felt angry and confused by the way that some of the other girls at the Halloween party were objectifying themselves. She doesn’t understand why the world around her promotes this self-objectifying behavior as popular and fun and, as she said, “almost creates a hunger for it.”

This girl is seen as a leader on her high school campus for her integrity, strong character, and caring. In fact, she has started multiple programs both at her school and in her community to help those in need and speaks at every school in the district at assemblies about community service and volunteerism. She is a student athlete who strives for success while trying to be fair, ethical, and a good sport.  This amazing girl told her mother that after being at the party, she felt sad that those things aren’t valued and desired by others the way that flaunting ones body is.

Girls are getting some very contradictory messages about where their value lies and what they can do to gain power. We say, “You can do it all” and media and marketers add, “As long as you’re sexy while doing it!”

We must start talking about these conflicting messages openly with the kids in our lives. We have got to speak up and tell young girls that they do NOT have to use their bodies to gain social power, and we need to stand up to media and marketing campaigns that promote the idea that they do. Self-objectification is not healthy for girls and women, and it’s high time that all caring adults take a stand against the sexualized views that tell girls that their power and value can only be found in their sex appeal. Girls are so much more than eye candy, let’s start treating them that way.

Douglas, Susan J. (2010). Enlightened Sexism: The seductive message that feminism’s work is done. Times Books: New York.

Gay, R.K. & Castano, E. (2010). My body or my mind: The impact of state and trait objectification on women’s cognitive resources. European Journal of Social Psychology, 40, 695-703.

Grabe, S., Hyde, J.S., & Lindberg, S.M. (2007). Body objectification and depression in adolescents: the role of gender, shame, and rumination. Psychology of Women Quarterly, 31, 164–175.

Meuklenkamp, J.J. & Saris-Baglama, R.N. (2002). Self-objectification and its psychological outcome for college women. Psychology of Women Quarterly, 26, 371-379.

Mueklenkamp, J.J.,  Swanson, J.D. & Brausch, A.M. (2005). Self -objectification, risk taking, and self-harm in college women. Psychology of Women Quarterly, 29, 24-32.

Slater, A., & Tiggemann, M. (2002). A test of Objectification Theory in adolescent girls. Sex Roles, 46, 343349.

Tiggemann, M., & Kuring, J. K. (2004). The role of body objectification in disordered eating and depressed mood. British Journal of Clinical Psychology, 43, 299311.

Tiggemann, M.,&Slater, A. (2001). A test of objectification theory in former dancers and non-dancers. Psychology of Women Quarterly, 25, 5764.

7 comments on “A Very Sexy Halloween to You

  1. KellyO
    October 31, 2011

    Nice post. But it leaves me with questions about where the line is between self-objectification and healthy sexual expression. I am talking about adult women, not teens and children. Sexual attraction is a component of adult relationships and often times that energy is seen in the way we carry ourselves and the way we dress. Not trying argue. I am genuinely interested in how women handle expressing their sexuality (and “sexiness”) while avoiding the self-objectification pitfalls.

    • Jennifer Shewmaker
      October 31, 2011

      Kelly, this is an important question and distinction to draw. When it comes to the difference between healthy sexuality and sexualization/objectification, what I’ve seen in the literature is a that the first provides room for mutuality, relationships, and emotion while the latter primarily focuses on being the object of the male gaze. Of course, as you point out, being the object of the gaze of someone who one is intimate with is an important component of sexuality, both for males and females.

      It seems that girls are being offered only one component of a very complex part of sexuality, that being the performance as object. In my posts in the Exploring Objectification series you can read more about this issue. What is interesting is that adults often draw a line between what they see as objectification that puts the woman in a assertive versus submissive posture and think the first is empowering. But some research that’s being done on this issue shows that women who view the assertive objectification still begin to self-objectify, which leads to the mental health issues I discussed (disordered eating, depression, academic/cognitive performance difficulties, and risk for self-harm).

  2. Anne PowlesAnne Powles
    October 31, 2011

    A poem I wrote earlier this year embracing some of these issues
    POSTMODERNISM

    Where are you now postmodernists? Gazing at the collective navel?
    Or at your own? Pulling the lint – laying it out there on the table?
    No more form in Art, or goal in gender – ossifying and so elusive!
    Inspection of your navel lint more entertaining, more inclusive?

    Is it less iconoclastic to conjure up some images in verse?
    Does use of rhyming always make a lint dissemination worse?
    Does conceit allege that form must shun the metaphor and other tropes
    And that verse is mere pastiche, clichéd or just jumping through some hoops?

    And what of gender? Reject Lacan. But lose the solidarity of “the other”?
    Yes, don’t let Sigmund’s “penis envy” produce the doormat mother.
    Women are not monolithic, with needs based on general norms
    And it’s good to accept the “female” in all her different forms.

    But that didn’t germinate from your “one” and her “accessible reality”.
    And the “Mimic the mimes imposed on woman” became a real calamity.
    With pink and glitter, sequins, heels and nothing but, for daughters,
    The goal “self determined equality” just gurgled with bathwaters.

    See this disaster for what it’s been. See pathetic haikus and pathetic girls
    Spouting nonsense and teetering whilst sadly tossing coiffured curls.
    Take heed of past philosophers as we face the failure of your view.
    Embrace lessons of great thinkers that it’s “we” and “us”, not only “I” and “you”.

  3. julie k
    November 1, 2011

    Thank you for writing this. I’ll be sharing with my friends.

    I saw way too many Frankie Steins at my daughter’s elementary school. In fairness to their parents, they did de-emphasize the sexiness by ditching the fishnets and putting the girls in leggings and regular shoes.

    I don’t understand why the Monster High girls have to be so sexy. The effects of this cartoon don’t go away after Halloween. Girls are watching it all year long.

    • Jennifer Shewmaker
      November 15, 2011

      Agree, Julie. I don’t understand why they have to be dressed so sexily either. I think Mattel could’ve had a very interesting product line that did in fact celebrate diversity if they’d been a little more creative and a little less focused on making the next big thing a la Bratz.

  4. Pingback: More than a Body: Mind Perception and the Nature of Objectification (Research) | WCN TRANSMEDIA GROUP

  5. Pingback: Mirror, Mirror on the Wall: Reflections on Aging as a Woman | Dr. Jennifer Shewmaker

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