While few fathers would let their daughter’s date Jared Leto or The Joker, Harley Quinn was one of the most popular Halloween costumes for kids last year. The murderous former psychologist’s popularity with kids was unlikely the result of parental prodding. Few fathers, let alone mothers, are fervently in favor of bare midriff. But moms and dads who want to empower kids to choose their own costumes have to make compromises. Data suggest that girls as young as six years old prefer scantily-clad ones. Do they want to be sexy? Not exactly. They understand that there is something there and they’re eager to capitalize on that power.
“A major reason girls may want to look sexy is to portray their heroes, whether it’s movie stars, singers, or others,” Wyatt Fisher, a psychologist who treats families, tells Fatherly. Sure, that explains Harley Quinn’s appeal, but what about evergreen children’s costumes such as a naughty nurse, hot cop, and a Hooters waitress? Research indicates that almost all of these gestures are aspirational and not always coming from a gross place.
The study, published in the journal Sex Roles, had 60 girls between the ages of six and nine years old look at two paper dolls — one in revealing clothing and one that was still fashionable but covered up. When girls were asked to pick which doll they wanted to look like and which doll was the most popular in school, 68 percent wanted to look like the sexy doll and 72 percent pointed to her as more popular. In this case, girls are emulating who they admire, more popular peers or older siblings, Fisher (who was not involved in the study) explains.
The girls choosing the scantily clad doll were actually being savvy. An analysis of nearly 6,000 children’s clothing items reveals that 31 percent of clothes had sexualizing features, and of these, 86 percent combined sexy characteristics with childlike ones. Girls are influenced by all these factors 364 days a year, but on Halloween the stakes are raised because girls who might not be comfortable going for sexy yet are presented with an opportunity to flirt with that endgame, Susan Edelman, a psychiatrist and associate professor at Stanford University explains. This doesn’t always translate to sexy costumes, but for girls that are already being inundated with sexy images of women they admire, it’s not surprising that it does. It’s not surprising it does even when they’re still five or six.
(When I asked Edelman about why I wanted to dress like Jessica Rabbit as a kid, she pointed out that it could be that I just found her pretty and cool. I didn’t know what sexy meant, just like young kids today don’t know what it means in regards to pop stars or DC comic book characters. All I knew was that she was a cartoon babe who people noticed and I wanted to grow up to be like that.)
“This is how the sexualization of our culture teaches women to be sex objects, even when they don’t know what it means,” Edelman adds. “They just want to be normal or cool.”
Young girls also associate sexy costumes with being adults and wanting to wear them could come from an impulse to grow up and assert themselves as individuals. As healthy as this motivation may be, it produces unhealthy results that are not limited to creepy attention, but also a raised risk for mental health problems as adults. One recent study links self-objectification in young girls to future depression, and the American Psychological Association has found that sexualization of young girls in the media can cause everything from low self-esteem, anxiety, eating disorders, depression, and a limited ability to develop a healthy sexual self-image when they grow up.
“As a society, we need to replace all of these sexualized images with ones showing girls in positive settings–ones that show the uniqueness and competence of girls,” Eileen L. Zurbriggen, chair of the APA Task Force on the Sexualization of Girls, said in a statement.
For moms and dads who can’t control everything their daughters see, there’s no easy solution for their interest in sexy costumes. Still, understanding that the little Harley Quinns of the world may want more independence than fishnets may help parents brainstorm other options. This conversation can even be a great opportunity to encourage girls to get more creative than merely mirroring what they see, which will serve them better for the long-haul. That way, their dads won’t have to deal with as many jokers.