It seems odd that the debate over the bounds of decency on Halloween, particularly with regards to women’s costumes, is reignited year after year. Halloween is enjoyable for most people precisely because it is an opportunity when we are free to break social conventions and to fulfill fantasies of being someone or something else, without any worries of reprisal. It should not be surprising that on a college campus like Harvard’s, where all are hyper-aware of social pressures regarding appearance, this manifests itself on “Halloweekend” in the form of overtly sexual costumes.
As would be true at any time of the year, costumes that explicitly aim to mock racial or cultural groups are lacking in judgment. This is because in this case the costume functions less as a form of imaginative self-expression, and more as a form of reinforcing damaging prejudices and power dynamics. The costume is in no way liberating—it is harmful both to its wearer and its viewers.
On the other hand, suggestive costumes are just as valid an expression of creative wish fulfillment as frightening ones are. The choice to dress up as a sexy cop involves a person’s desire to inhabit a new identity for just one night. In a society where bodies and physical appearance are subject to high levels of scrutiny, it may be a positively liberating experience for many. Such a costume choice is a conscious decision to flout a suffocating and restrictive society.
Journalist Sarah Seltzer voiced this sentiment recently, pointing out how “Women in contemporary society navigate tricky rules for our appearances: we are instructed to be sexually appealing, but not overtly sexy, and never unkempt. Too much makeup or cleavage throws us in an unflattering light—too little and we’re unfeminine or ‘don’t take care of ourselves.’” As a result, the freedom granted to women during Halloween offers the opportunity “to abandon all pretenses at beauty by becoming literally monstrous, or alternately to reach campy skin-bearing heights that would be frowned-upon in the light of day.”
It is our continual urge to moralize on the subject of sexualized costumes that should give us pause, rather than the costumes themselves. Of course, the objectification of women is bad, but choosing an extroverted appearance on the one night of the year when women hope they won’t be judged does not count. It is a society well conditioned to repression, and well accustomed to patriarchal moralizing, that attempts to clamp down on Halloween attire. If the holiday becomes subject to the same social strictures that bind our everyday behavior, it will not be of pleasure to children, college students, or adults. The lack of shame felt when dressing freely on Halloween ought to be protected to the utmost. Perhaps most worrisome is that such freedom only exists on one day of the year.