Sure, girls are told, be a ghost, firefighter, or mummy. But be a sexy one.
As a child, I remember time and again imagining myself as being someone or something else. During those seemingly endless hours of pretend play, I became lost in the reality of who or what I was depicting, and those times of standing outside myself, of tumbling into the depths of my imagination were elemental to my growth as a person. They not only allowed me to fashion fantastic stories within which I was powerful and in control, but they also compelled me to believe that I could become that thing I was imagining.
At 2 ½, my daughter has entered that portal into imaginative play, that magical place where she could become anything. So when she declared she wanted to be a firefighter for Halloween, I set out to do something I believed would be relatively easy: Buy her an authentic looking costume. But, within minutes of my online search, my screen burst with images of little girls donning sexy costumes and standing in seductive poses.
As the image of the little girl dressed in a “fireman” costume materialized on the screen, my daughter laughed and exclaimed: “Firefighters don’t wear dresses. That’s soooo silly.”
“You’re right, it’s very silly,” I said, promptly changing the Google search from “girls fireman costume” to “firefighter costume.”
In an instant, the image shifted from a coquettish little girl dressed in a short fire dress, high-heeled, red-vinyl thigh-high boots, and fishnet stockings to a multitude of smiling little boys dressed in perfectly replicated mini-fireman outfits—bib overalls, suspenders, jackets with clasps, reflectors, rubber boots, and helmets. Their hands were not propped on their hips, but rather they held props like axes or extinguishers or bullhorns.
The boys, unlike the girls, looked real, and my daughter knew it. Her face grew serious, as she studied the images. “I want that one, the black one with the jacket and pants. That one, no dress, that one,” she said, frantically pointing to a little boy in black firefighter suit.
“OK,” I said, and she slipped off the chair content that she would be receiving the “real” thing.
My daughter’s ability to dismiss the ridiculous “Child Girl Firefighter Costume” as something “silly,” of course, was the result of her age and her obsession with wanting to be a fireman. For her, re-imagining reality needed to be rooted in something at least mildly realistic, and a skirt-wearing fireman with a baseball hat and thigh-high boots wasn’t it.
However, dismissal wasn’t that easy for me. I simply could not disregard the image of the young “fire girl,” with her blonde curls and glossy lips, her thigh-high boots, and her hand resting on her right hip in that “I’m so adorably sexy, come hither” pose. And then there was the blurb describing the costume:
Wear the Child Girl Firefighter Costume and be a true hero this Halloween! The red dress with yellow stripes of this fire fighter girl costume is just what you need to let everyone know you have what it takes to be one of the bravest! You’ve got courage and style when you step out in this child Fire Fighter Costume!
For me, there was something deeply disturbing about the image and the description; both spoke volumes about our perception of little girls and their ability to imagine themselves as being something other than pretty and sexy, in other words, as smart and capable—here, “courage” equaled style, and style equated wearing a dress.
The sexualization of little girls in American culture is nothing new. Long before Miley Cyrus and Honey Boo-Boo, there was Shirley Temple, the adorable, banana-curled orphan with the tiny dresses who tap-danced her way into America’s hearts during the Great Depression. But, today’s sexy has moved beyond the innocence of The Good Ship Lollipop. At least back then, Shirley Temple was the outlier. Today, that type of hip-strutting, lisping sexuality is the norm, and it has permeated every aspect of girlhood from clothing to television shows (think Toddlers & Tiaras) to most girls’ Halloween costumes, which are not only provocative but undermine and limit the possibilities of young girls.
Witness Halloween City. Their “classic career” costume category for girls boasts the following choices: “Eskimo,” “Dream Catcher Cutie Native American,” “Tribal Spirit,” “Cutie Cupcake,” and “Car Hop.”
Now, click on the boys “career costumes,” and what you see is radically different: “Medical Doctor,” “SEAL Team,” Firefighter,” “Navy Admiral,” and “Top Gun.”
It’s evident that the costumes under career categories for boys are grounded in something real, something they can relate and aspire to and actually become, unlike the career options for girls, which tell a different story. These options as “careers,” unless you are a dominatrix playing dress-up, are absurd and degrading, allowing little room for imagining anything beyond a sad, debased understanding of what women are all about. What is a “Cutie Cupcake” career or an “Eskimo” career, and didn’t “car hops” fizzle out with drive-in movie theater?
But more disturbing is the subtle expectation that even in the world of fantasy play girls must be “sassy,” “sexy,” and suggestive. Sure, they are told, be a ghost or a mummy, but be a sexy one, or, if you were fortunate enough to buy Walmart’s leopard costume before public outcry had it removed, you could have been a “Naughty Leopard.” Sending young girls the message that anything, vampire or doctor, must have that sexy edge, is not only insulting, but can also set them up for a life of objectifying themselves, which, according to a report by the American Psychological Association on The Sexualization of Girls, can lead to unhealthy body image, low self-esteem, eating disorders, and depression.
While I realize the delight (and importance) in letting little girls (or boys) dress up and play with makeup and pretend to be grown up, I also understand that there is a difference between owning your sexuality and being sexualized. These costumes that show young girls in real professions (i.e., police officers or firefighters), but in unreal clothing—skirts and go-go boots—are sexualizing them.
So, if we really want our girls to think beyond the notion that empowerment lies in numbers associated with breasts and waists and thigh gaps and wagging tongues, then we must, as a society, stop restricting their imagination by showing them inane versions of their futures.
Maria Smilios is a writer living in Astoria, Queens. Her work as been published in Narrative.ly, Literary Mama, Feministing, Killing the Buddha Blog, The Grub Street Free Press, and Queens Mamas among others. You can visit her at her http://www.mariasmilios.com.