Suggestions for Socially Responsible Halloween Costumes
Temperatures are sporadically dropping, aromatic spice mixtures are clouding nearby coffee shops, and warm tones are lovingly decorating homes and bodies: the seasons are changing, and in addition to the many comforts of fall comes the haunting anticipation of Halloween! This holiday of horror and habiliments is often accompanied by the question of how to dress for the occasion. While this can be a fun practice for an individual or a group, there are certain things to keep in mind before donning an alternate persona.
Number 1: Cultural appropriation
Playing with character is one of the many joys of the Halloween season, as it presents people with an opportunity to live outside of their normal self for a night. Maintaining cultural and political awareness is an incredibly important aspect of this, especially if you are planning on testing out the attire of a culture other than your own.
Before getting into examples of appropriation, I’d like to outline four important cultural concepts: closed cultural practices, cultural mixing, cultural appreciation, and cultural appropriation. This TikTok by debate coach Rachel Suwadi (@notyourquirkyblackfriend) is one of the clearest delineations of these four common cultural interactions that I’ve seen – I would highly recommend watching it and supporting the creator, it’s a great resource with tangible examples of each concept. However, for the sake of this article, I’ve summarized the basic definitions of these concepts.
- Closed cultural practices – Practices that are not open to being shared, whether that be because of demonization and/or attempted theft by other cultures or because that culture gets joy and community from the practice and doesn’t want it shared. Whatever the reason, it is harmful to communities to infringe upon these boundaries.
- Cultural mixing – Intentional mixing of cultural practices out of curiosity and shared desire for new ideas. Could also refer to cultural coexistence.
- Cultural appreciation – Research. Asking for and obtaining the consent of the communities of origin for the practice to be shared and taught properly. Culture and history are intentionally conveyed and brought into the teaching of the practices. Credits and compensates the source.
- Cultural appropriation – Critique, theft, and nonconsensual adaptation of a practice. Making something “palpable” to society and not crediting or asking permission from the source. Does not acknowledge culture or history.
If you walk through a costume store or browse catalogs, you’re bound to see some form of cultural appropriation. Native American communities in particular have spoken up against the appropriation of their culture, noting how stereotypes are a deeply essential and harmful aspect of these perverse caricatures of culture. The floral skeletons of Día de los Muertos, carefully painted faces of geishas, and religiously-significant layers of clothing worn by Muslims can also be seen populating the ignorant and culturally-removed shelves of Halloween stores. All of these costumes have been stolen from nonconsenting cultures and turned into a source of profit.
Before deciding on a costume with cultural significance be sure to research and ask questions. Consulting the communities from which your costume attire originates and receiving cultural consent is the most respectful and definitive way of knowing if you’re appropriating or not. Here are a few links to other articles about cultural appropriation written by NPR, The Breeze (a student-led newspaper at James Madison University), and LocalLove.ca (a community-oriented hub of content based in Toronto).
Number 2: Unnecessary Sexualization of Women
Just about anyone who has shopped for feminine Halloween costumes has likely noticed the frequency of plunging necklines, revealing cutouts, and skirts that barely touch the top of your thighs. The themes of these costumes are often questionable as well: sexualizing professions, cultures (that have usually been appropriated), and even schoolgirls. Ick. While sexual empowerment in women is something important in feminist fights against patriarchy, correlating women to sexuality – especially in order to gain profit – can be incredibly harmful.
Societal sexualization of women is the product of the male gaze, a visual tool used in media to empower men and objectify women (not to mention the complete lack of regard for gender variance and fluidity). This creates a sense of hypervisibility around femininity and feminine performance, which contributes to contingent issues such as fatphobia, body dysmorphia, and fear and shame around women’s sexuality (and non-heteronormative sexuality). There is extensive writing about the philosophically-rooted associations between men and rationality/the mind and women and sensitivity/the body, but for the sake of this article I’ll summarize. These sorts of widespread sexualizations work both to discredit the validity of women as agents in society as well as permeate psychological trauma to keep women performing their femininity.
The purpose of this section is not to discourage people from confidently expressing their sexuality and their body. I do, however, want to call more attention to the societal implications of these widespread trends in costuming. Whatever your goals in dressing up this Halloween – whether you want to flaunt or haunt, or some combination of both – have fun and express yourself for *your* sake.
Number 3: Disability as a Costume
Zombie makeup, chainsaws, and fake blood (oh my!) are props, among many others, that can often be found enhancing a Halloween costume. While props are fun and can truly complete the effect of a look, mobility aids and other representations of disability (such as crutches, eye patches, or even mental illnesses) can be harmful to the disabled community.
Disabilities are not a costume. Treating disabilities like they are a performance is disrespectful to those who live with them, as well as permeates ableist ideas around “faking” disability. Those who use walking aids, like myself, are frequently asked if we really “need” them, something that happens more often around Halloween time. Those with mental illness are transformed into exaggerations of symptoms they cannot control. When disability is used as a prop, it is either to portray grotesque ideas of the body or make light of real people’s struggles. This article goes into much further detail about the implications of mobility aids and illnesses when they are used as costumes.
If you plan on modifying your body in some way or using a prop in your costume, do not use those that are used by disabled individuals or that perform disability in any way.
Halloween, with all of its surprises and scares, also comes with the implications of living in a society with other people. Respect for people of different racial and ethnic backgrounds, genders, and bodily abilities is an essential aspect of an equitable society. So whether you’re browsing the aisles of Spirit Halloween, rummaging through the racks of Goodwill, or scrolling through a website, be sure you keep in mind the importance of socially responsible costuming!