So Your Daughter Wants to Dress Like a Hooker. What Do You Do?

It’s Halloween. You’re a parent. Your young daughter wants to dress like a slut. What do you do?

Eleanor Barkhorn over at The Atlantic has a great piece about discouraging sexy Halloween costumes among young girls:

A female contributor to the feminist website Feministing made a similar argument [in 2009]: “What’s wrong with having a night where we can say ‘This is my body, and I’m not ashamed of it, or of using it to express my sexuality?’ In fact, the only [thing] about that that seems wrong to me is the fact that it’s limited to one day, when the other 364 days of the year turn that idea on its head.”

The only problem with these defenses of sexy Halloween [costumes] is that they don’t work with girls and teenagers. Sure, grown women can use Halloween as an excuse to put on the corset or tight dress they’d be too embarrassed to wear the rest of the year. But youth should be a time when girls don’t have to express their sexuality. As one mother put it in a CNN article, “Dressing up as a sexpot is not part of my vision for a happy, healthy childhood.”

Dealing with sexy Halloween costumes is a major problem for parents–perhaps even a milestone in the parenting of adolescent girls. If your relationship with your daughter survives the Halloween showdowns between ages twelve and sixteen years old, then your relationship with her can probably survive anything (cue: Modern Family).

Just the other day, a friend of mine who is a father asked me and my friends what he can do to discourage his pre-teen daughter from dressing like, in his words, “a hooker”:

I’d like to consult ya’ll on how to parent my pre-teen with respect to dressing . . . because (1) you’re young enough to relate and (2) you’re old and wise enough to be useful. I’m not uptight but my daughter’s desire to dress like a hooker is concerning. Maybe it’s the fashion, I don’t know; but she would wear a bikini everywhere if she could. If I forbid her to wear what she wants then she will rebel and do it anyway, making it worse. I want her to see that women are not objects. I tell her all the time that she doesnt have to get married if she doesnt want, men dont make her complete, she is strong and can stand alone, reach for goals, etc. What’s a dad to do?

This is what I told my friend:

When I was in the seventh grade, I went through a huge Madonna phase. Embarrassing, I know. But I think it was part of the developmental process that all girls who are sexually maturing undergo. Part of forming their identities is getting in touch with this new part of their selves. That, at least, is my story and I’m sticking to it.

So, of course, Halloween came around and I decided that I wanted to dress up as Madonna, cone bra and all. Not only that, but during that same period, my seventh-grade English class was assigned to write about who our role models were, and I decided that I would write about Madonna.

I don’t know what went through my parents heads when I declared my intention to be Madonna, body and mind, to them that fall–but I can only imagine. I have to give them major props, though, because they handled it in a totally reasonable way, which won me over. Basically, they initiated a conversation with me about how Madonna, whose music may be catchy and fun, is a silly publicity-seeking self-promoter. Dressing like Madonna and writing about her–taking her seriously on an intellectual level–wasn’t sending any kind of provocative message. Rather, it was just turning myself into a billboard that advertised her brand. Not cool. I also thought about the kind of image that I would be sending to my teacher (sigh, I was a major teacher’s pet, I admit it, and I wanted my teacher to respect me).

So I went back to the drawing board and ended up writing about and dressing up as a more fiery, interesting, and intriguing femme fatale: Cleopatra. This was a classier and more constructive choice–and definitely more subtle.

That experience may have been the first time I realized the value of “less is more” in the arena of sexuality. Emma Watson, the actress who played Hermione in Harry Potter, hit on this point beautifully not too long ago as she dealt with how to manage her own sexual persona. Here’s what Watson said:

I find the whole concept of being “sexy” embarrassing and confusing. If I do a photo-shoot people desperately want to change me—dye my hair blonder, pluck my eyebrows, give me a fringe. Then there’s the choice of clothes. I know everyone wants a picture of me in a mini-skirt. But that’s not me. I feel uncomfortable. I’d never go out in a mini-skirt. It’s nothing to do with protecting the Hermione image. I wouldn’t do that.

Personally, I don’t actually think it’s even that sexy. What’s sexy about saying, “I’m here with my boobs out and a short skirt. . . . have a look at everything I’ve got”? My idea of sexy is that less is more. The less you reveal the more people can wonder.

Watson is a real class act. If she had been around when I was a little girl, maybe I would have had a different Halloween story to tell–one about showing up to school dressed as Hermione.