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How Halloween costumes can promote gender bias
Erin Stewart as a surgeon for Halloween in kindergarten. - photo by Erin Stewart
Oh, Halloween. A magical time when pumpkin spice creeps its way into everything, and store shelves offer heaping mounds of candy along with egregiously outdated gender stereotypes.

Dont believe me? Meander down any costume aisle right now. Now imagine youre a young girl, trying to decide what you want to wear to trick-or-treat, and you want to be a doctor this year.

A doctor? Oh no, honey, thats in the boys section. How about this pink princess costume? Its adorable. Just. Like. You.

Or picture a young boy, his heart set on being a nurse. But all the nurse outfits are skirts, or pink and have a picture of a girl with pigtails on the package. Wouldnt you rather be something more manly?

A quick glance at any retailers website shows a Halloween stereotype weve all become accustomed to, and we all kind of collectively agree to ignore because hey, its all in fun, right?

On one site, in the professional costumes section, all the astronauts are boys. There are a few police girl uniforms although I cant recall the last time I saw an actual police officer wearing a skirt and high-heeled go-go boots (yeah, this outfit was for a 6 year old). There are plenty of nurse options for girls, and even one girl in a doctor costume, but the scrubs were pink, and, oh no, wait, its a veterinarian. Close enough?

Not by a long shot.

Im sure many people will simply say, Just buy from the boys' section then. But that doesnt get to the heart of the issue. Why cant there be a gender-neutral career section where girls can be astronauts and boys can be nurses without having to pick a costume from the wrong side of the aisle, an act that in and of itself sends a message.

When we tell young, impressionable girls and boys that they should want to be a certain thing because thats the norm, we enforce stereotypes in small, subtle ways that stick with kids long after Halloween is over.

A friend of mine in California recently came face to face with a pretty egregious example of this kind of thinking when her kindergarten daughter came home with the proofs from her school portraits. The company had brought several dress-up outfits for the kids. For the girls: Safari explorer in khaki, an Asian girl in a pink dress and parasol, and princess featuring a purple feather boa and tiara. For boys: Safari explorer, doctor and astronaut.

The kids did not get a choice. They did, however, each get a sticker that said PRETTY for girls and SMART for boys.

OK, so that last part wasnt true but it might as well have been. Isnt that the message this company was sending? How is it possible that a company like this still exists?

Well, look no further than the Halloween aisle for the answer. These stereotypes exist because we buy into them. We walk down those aisles, directing our daughters to the girl costumes because some store manager or manufacturer has proclaimed it so.

Now I know costume retailers arent responsible for gender equality in the world. Their job is to sell costumes, so they market it to the most likely audience. The work, then, falls to us, the parents, who need to walk down that aisle with our children and help them see past the propaganda.

I was lucky to be raised by a mother who did this. The sky was the limit on Halloween costumes, and gender never entered the equation. One year I went as grapes. Yes, as in the fruit. Another year I was a can can girl, which in retrospect was a little weird because I dressed like a scandalous French cabaret dancer in fishnet stockings to my second-grade Halloween party. The next year, I traded in my garter (oh yes, you bet I wore one!) for a mask and became Batman.

And in kindergarten, I was a doctor.

What a cute nurse! was the comment of the day that year. My mom, who is awesome and raised me to believe I could be or do just about anything I wanted in life, corrected them. And she didnt just tell them I was a doctor. Oh no. She made sure they knew I was a surgeon.

I chose to be a surgeon that year just like I chose to be Rainbow Brite the year before.

Gender equality is all about choice. Let your kids choose the costume that makes them happy. Dont let marketing or stereotypes make up their minds for them. Point out costumes from both sides of the gender aisle, and please, please, please dont say things like thats a boys costume or thats for girls. Maybe even send a note or a photo to the company of your child in a costume traditionally advertised to the opposite gender.

Because its not just about a costume and one night of trick or treating. Its a small chance to show our children that gender shouldnt be limiting. Sure, its a small thing a holiday based on fun and candy and pumpkins.

But Ill tell you this, as a 5-year-old girl dressed up as a surgeon, hearing my mother defend my choice to be whatever I wanted to be, it didnt feel small. It felt like everything.
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