Stroll through any costume aisle in most big box stores and you'll see what I mean. They're usually separated in sections by gender, with girl costumes on one side — you can't miss the girls' section, since it's filled with eye-searing pink and a whole lot of sparkle.
Last year, my son and I poked around, trying to find a costume he'd like. He kept staring at one of the Superman costumes, as if trying to figure it out. When I asked him what was wrong, he turned to me and asked why one of the Superman costumes had a bunch of "fake, bumpy muscles" while the other one was just the regular suit and cape. Instead of answering right away, I asked which costume he preferred. He said he liked the classic version because the other one didn't look as comfortable and the muscles looked too fake.
I found myself exhaling a breath I didn't even know I was holding. Because, I too didn't really like the hypermasculinized version. And it wasn't just Superman. Spiderman, Batman — heck, even a Transformer (that's a robot/car hybrid!) — all had the fake muscle options. While I don't think these overly muscled costumes will be the end of society as we know it, I do think they contribute to the notion of what it means to be a man and what an ideal body "should" be. It's not talked about all that much, but eating disorders and body dysmorphic disorder impact millions of boys and men, and it's been shown that media has a big impact on them. Do kids really need overly muscled costumes that cost even more than the classic versions? No.
After poking through the superhero section, my son then turned to the end of the aisle that included some pretty gruesome and violent costumes. While I'm all about the fright fest that is Halloween, I was a bit disturbed to see just how violent and gory some of the costumes were. These went beyond your typical zombie or vampire and included ones with bloody guts hanging out, multiple realistic looking guns and weapons and other incredibly violent getups. A quick peek in the girls' section showed nothing scarier than a host of hypersexualized costumes, but that's a post for another time.
I'm really not trying to be the Grinch who stole Halloween. But, I can't help but wonder what messages children, including my son, are absorbing via these types of costumes. We pride ourselves on saying that our kids are these amazing sponges, but that also means that they pick up the dangerous and damaging stuff along with the good. Why use a holiday to feed into the hypermasculinized and violence-centric world already marketed to boys on a daily basis? We eagerly — and rightly — worry about the messages young girls are receiving from similar things, but rarely do we question the "alpha male" conditioning that is so markedly exemplified in the costume aisle.
On the off chance you think I'm trying to totally suck all the fun out of Halloween for my kid, I will say that he has been the one to choose his own costumes each year, and in the end they're a mix of store-bought and homemade. Last year he ended up being Harry Potter, no bloody guts or fake muscles to be seen.
This year, he's planning his own homemade costume, a version of Nightcrawler, which he assures me will require a ton of blue face paint. I will happily take all the blue face paint, especially if it means getting to avoid the costume aisle this year. I'll take my Halloween trickery in the form of ghosts and goblins, thank you very much.
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