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Talking with boys about the trouble with girl costumes

Avital Norman Nathman is a freelance writer whose work places a feminist lens on a variety of topics, including motherhood, maternal health, gender, and reproductive rights. Her work has been featured in Bitch magazine, Cosmopolitan.com,...

How do we talk with boys about the hypersexualization of costumes for girls?

My son loves to flip through costume catalogs like they're magazines. He can spend hours rifling through them, commenting on every single costume. Around the time he was 5, he started to notice the difference in offerings for boys and girls when it came to costumes... and it wasn't just about pink and blue.

Two years ago, my son was eating breakfast while reading his beloved costume catalog when he started asking me all sorts of questions.

The fact that my 5-year-old son was able to hone in on marketing and sexism with the wide-eyed innocence of a child really threw me. In the video above, you can easily see the difference between the costumes offered to boys and girls. The boy superheroes are all standing at attention, looking as if they're ready to fight some crime. The girls are wearing short skirts, with their knees bent in some sort of "cutesy" pose and a thought bubble above Batgirl proclaims, "I'll be the cutest girl in Gotham." While the boys' costumes are all about action and adventure, the girls' seem to focus more on looking cute or pretty.

Before this conversation with my son, I was already way too aware of the hypersexualization of girlhood — the way companies "sex up" clothing aimed at young girls. Halloween was always the worst. But up until that moment, I hadn't thought about my son's place in all of this. What value messages about girls and their roles in society was he absorbing? Just by looking at this catalog he realized that clearly these costumes were not the best set-up if one wants to be a superhero.

That's not to say that superheroes can't wear skirts. In the comics, Supergirl does in fact wear a skirt. And, yes, many girls do enjoy wearing skirts. As my son points out, it boils down to marketing then, doesn't it? But do companies need to have some of those skirts reach thigh high? Do the costumes themselves need to be sold on the premise of being pretty rather than heroic?

I am doing my best to raise my son to know that boys and girls are equal and both capable of so many great things. I'm raising him to respect himself and others. Because I know, at the end of the day, that a Batgirl costume in a Halloween catalog is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the way society looks at and presents girls and women. I worry about all of the subconscious sexism he is exposed to from media, advertisements and more. But I have to hope that if he can ask these types of questions at 5, that he'll continue to pushback, ask questions and dig deeper.

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