Selling sexy to girls

Healy is a Times staff writer.

Diane E. Levin, a professor of education at Wheelock College in Boston, is the co-author, with Jean Kilbourne, of “So Sexy So Soon: The New Sexualized Childhood and What Parents Can Do to Protect Their Kids.” With Halloween approaching, Levin spoke with The Times’ Health section about girls’ -- and boys’ -- costumes on offer this year, and what they mean.


There’s a recurring theme in Halloween costumes for girls this year, and it’s kind of spooky. What’s going on?

Halloween costumes for 7- and 8-year-old girls and even younger have become downright titillating, and for tweens and teens, the vast majority of those sold in stores and on the Internet are unabashedly sexually alluring.


Little girls and their big sisters are being encouraged to get dressed up, in many cases, like child prostitutes. Then, they wander the night judging and being judged by their friends as to how well they meet the provocative standard and begging for candy from strangers.

It can be very hard for parents to find an alternative to letting them do it, short of having a war in the family or making their kids miserable.

This is a continuation of what’s been going on for quite a while: Halloween costumes are reflecting an increasingly sexualized childhood. They often reflect the stars and starlets and popular culture role models that girls have, starting with Disney princesses or Hannah Montana when girls are young. But even traditional favorites, like witches and pirates are sexier every year. And French maids are quite the thing for tweens and teens.


What’s the most outlandish example out there that you’ve seen in this or recent years?

The sexy princess costumes, sexy witch costumes seem to be most ubiquitous and most dramatic. For girls 8 and up, the skirt will have a big slit on one side. By the time girls are 12, the costumes are low cut. This year, the wigs and boots and makeup and all kinds of stuff to be grown up and sexy seem to have become part of every costume.


But kids are drawn to try out new personas, and Halloween has always been about imagining yourself transformed in some edgy, scary way. Is this any different?

That’s always been one of the exciting things about Halloween. But there was once a time when children were trying out personas that were of their own making. When they decided they wanted to be a knight or something, they had to figure out what the knight did. It wasn’t a matter of having grown-ups -- marketers -- saying, “Here. This will make you look like such and such a character. You don’t need to do anything.” This isn’t about imagination. This is about marketers trying to hijack kids’ imaginations.


How did we go from witch, devil and nurse to vampy witch, sexy devil and seductive nurse?

Since television was deregulated in the early 1980s, marketing strategies have taken over all aspects of kids’ lives. From bedsheets to clothes and shoes to the lunch box they carry -- they’re all linked to media, to popular culture. The message is, this is what’s desirable, this is what you should be.

And look at what they were offered: For boys, there was GI Joe, He-Man, Transformers, Ninja Turtles, Mighty Morphin Power Rangers. For girls, there was My Little Pony, Care Bears, Disney’s princesses. Gender roles were very much part of that marketing. There was a whole new escalation in gender division when children began to become a market.

Kids are trying to figure out from an early age, “What does it mean to be a girl, or to be a boy?” They look at the most dramatic examples they can find to figure that out. Marketers are making it the most extreme they possibly can for that reason. Sexy is part of that marketing to girls -- just as macho and violent has become the way to market things to boys.


What about boys? Are they under any similar pressures that you see reflected in Halloween costumes?

First of all, the girls’ costumes set up certain expectations in boys as well as in the girls who wear them or want them. What are boys’ reactions, looking at girls when they’re all dressed up in these sexy costumes? They think, “That must be what girls look like to be pretty, and being pretty is the important thing.” The equivalent of sexy costumes for girls are the violent, macho characters for boys. Mimicking these characters is about being ready to fight, to be macho. For boys, choosing these costumes, the ideal is an image of toughness. It’s not about human feelings, connections; it’s about being tough and macho.

When that becomes the ideal, as expressed in Halloween costumes, that’s how boys judge each other, so it’s no surprise there’s more and more bullying between boys, especially when one doesn’t satisfy that image. There’s a similar dynamic for girls: How they look and what they buy affects their view of themselves. But it also becomes the basis for how they treat other girls. It’s harder and harder to have relationships.

To me, this is objectification of both boys and girls -- allowing little human beings to be treated as if they were objects. Girls learn to judge boys by how well they meet that objective definition of mindless, unfeeling machoism. And boys learn to judge girls by how sexy they are. This is why we may be seeing a generation in which relationships are often played out as interactions between caricatures of sexual stereotypes, why you can have friends with benefits and “hooking up.”


Do you think there’s a connection here with child sex abuse?

There could be -- we need to learn more about this. The fact that women more and more are supposed to look like girls and that girls are supposed to look like women means there’s a blurring of boundaries between what is a child and what is a grown-up. These ambiguous sexual connections are going to make it harder and harder for men who have difficulty drawing those boundaries to make distinctions too.

It’s also going to make little girls think that men of all ages thinking you’re cute -- cute and a little sexy -- is perfectly appropriate. . . . The idea of having a pretty body at 7 -- what does that mean? The body held up to them is not the average body of an 8-year-old. That concerns me.


What’s a parent to do? If our little girls, our tweens, our young teens think this is normal (which it is) and want them, what’s the best way to deal with that?

First, you have to understand the nature of the problem and see how the pieces fit together.

I tend to think of kids as developing two boxes in their head: There’s the pop culture box -- that’s all the messages they’re getting about what are the norms out there in the world, how they should look, what they should care about, what it means to be a girl or a boy, attitudes about violence, sex and consumption.

And then there’s the family/society box: From what’s in this box, they learn what it means to be caring, connected, contributing members of society. Right now, the boxes are pretty much disconnected.

The pop culture box is getting bigger and bigger, and the home and family box is getting crowded out. Adults don’t try to connect to the popular culture except to get upset at it, punish their kids for spending time in it, and pretend it’s not there. It’s just so hard for them to think what to do. The result is that kids are seeing their parents as stupid, out of touch and obstructionist at an earlier and earlier age and considering them irrelevant.

We need to make the pop culture box as small as we can, and to make the family and society box as big as we can, and to draw connections between the two. We need to be there to help children make sense of the pop culture box: not just to give them the “right” answers, but to hear what they have to say about it too.

Say you go to a store with your 8-year-old and she’s trying to get a sexy costume and you’re insisting on something more wholesome. It’s becoming a battle. You need to stop and ask, “What do you like about that costume?” She may say, “Jenny and Susie all have something like that and they’ll think I’m a dork if I don’t.” And then you say, “But my concern is that that looks like a costume for an older person. It seems we need to find a costume where you feel OK and I feel OK. How about this one -- which looks a little sexy to me but I feel OK with it?”

The idea is to let kids know we’re there, we hear them, we’re going to influence what they’re learning. But we’re also going to respect their thinking. So when kids need our help, they’re more likely to come to us.