Psychology of Halloween costumes: How does choice affect self-image?

saludifyBy Danielle Restuccia, Saludify

Think back to your Halloween costumes: were you ever a princess? Superman? A witch, vampire, or pirate?

Certain costumes seem to endure over the years, but it’s worth asking how these perennial favorites affect children and teens’ self-image.

When your daughter dresses up as a scantily clad nurse or vixen– two of the most popular Halloween costumes of all time, according to the LA Times– is she internalizing a negative female stereotype? Conversely, if your little boy chooses a zombie or knight costume, does that change his view of violence?

Two psychologists spoke to Saludify about this issue, shedding some light on how Halloween costumes may affect children.

The psychology of Halloween costumes

Gender Roles

Eileen Zurbriggen is a Professor of Psychology at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and the chair of the APA Task Force on the Sexualization of Girls. She states that whether for Halloween or otherwise, “most costumes have a clear gender association” and that young children are “likely to choose costumes with strong gender cues.”

While Zurbriggen cautions against overstating the role of Halloween costumes, saying that “it’s unlikely that any individual choice of a Halloween costume will have a long-term impact on children,” she also believes that “When girls get the message, day-in and day-out, that what is important for them is how they look rather than who they are or what they can do, they internalize that message.”

In a similar vein, she warns that “when boys are repeatedly taught that their impulses to be gentle and to nurture and care for another are not acceptable and that a tough, aggressive, and even violent response is what real men do, they internalize that message, as well.” With time, it’s possible that this will become part of a boy’s self-image.

Sharon Lamb, Ed.D., a professor of counseling and school psychology at the University of Massachusetts in Boston, also spoke to Voxxi about boys’ costumes. She believes that “boys choose those costumes (knights, monsters, etc) because they see violence is valued among other boys.”

Lamb also stated that both boys and girls often choose costumes because they’re seeking peer attention. In the case of girls dressing like sexy women, whether that takes the form of a nurse, devil, vixen, or schoolteacher, Lamb suggests that girls may also “feel more grown up” and may be “picking up that they will be more valued in they play up this aspect of who they are.” lends support to this idea, pointing out that children and teens are constantly testing out future adult identities. A Halloween costume that gives a boy Batman’s muscles or a girl Cinderella’s heels may nurture the idea that growing up means being physically or cosmetically perfect, potentially changing a child’s view of him or herself.

Self-Image Affecting a Costume Choice

Looking at this topic from another angle, your child’s self-image may actually be the reason he or she chooses a certain costume.

Professor Lamb emphasized this idea, stating that self-image can be “expressed through a costume choice.”  She believes that this is the bigger issue surrounding Halloween costumes: “I personally don’t agree with the premise that one’s choice affects one’s self-image. I believe it’s the other way around.”

Given that, it may be wise to consider whether the costumes your child chooses represent strong role models, as well as whether there are any other indicators that your child’s self-image isn’t as strong as it could be.

A Grain of Salt

Though it’s true that Halloween costumes have the potential to affect your child’s self-image, keep in mind that “imaginative play is healthy for children,” according to Dr. Zurbriggen, even if that Halloween dress-up includes typical villains or heroes.

Choosing a witch costume, for instance, doesn’t necessarily mean your daughter thinks poorly of herself; if your son decides to be a zombie, it doesn’t mean he sees violence as positive.

In the same vein, it’s important not to make assumptions about boys who choose typically feminine costumes for Halloween. Zurbriggen points out that “women’s clothes, tutus, etc, are usually colorful and beautiful and are often attractive to young children of both genders.”

So while you’d do well to monitor your child’s view of him or herself, take Halloween costume choices with a grain of salt. If you are concerned about your child’s decision and feel it promotes a poor self-image, you may want to use Halloween as an opportunity to start a conversation about gender roles and stereotypes rather than simply banning a costume.

This article was originally published in Saludify.

[Photo by stevendepolo]

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