Why I Wear What I Wear on Halloween

In college I was told to wear a sexy costume on Halloween. Not by any one person of course, that’s not how it works. No one comes up to you and says, “Late October is the only acceptable time for you to express your sexuality.” But you see it on every television and in every magazine. You hear it from your friends and classmates. The message is clear, and it has no acceptable opposing point of view.

I never needed Halloween to show some skin in public. I had, in fact, become quite accustomed to it. It started some time in high school when I realized that most of my bathing suits covered me less than most of my underwear. If I was fine wearing the former in front of everyone at Wild Waves, I saw no problem wearing the latter for a play or a party. They’re just boobs, after all. Everyone at the beach can see them.

My comfort with being scantily clad in public made other people very uncomfortable. This pleased me to no end. Good, I thought. Be uncomfortable. If you’re so wrapped up in your own bizarre misconceptions about sex that you think a man’s bare chest is of no consequence and a woman’s bare chest signals the fall of civilization, then you deserve to feel uncomfortable.

In college I majored in drama and dance and often had to change my clothes between classes and activities. No bother, I thought, I’ll just do it right here. Right here in the theater, right here in the lounge, right here where other people may or may not be watching. These are my friends, and this is just skin. Proximity is not intimacy. I was very careful about who touched my bare skin, but I didn’t care who saw it.

Being comfortable in a bra makes you into something of a spectacle. There was always a bit of shock on the faces of the accidental observers. But every time someone saw me casually switch into yoga pants in the hall, their shock softened. It was working. Perhaps my classmates were still fetishizing women’s skin in general, but they were no longer fetishizing mine in particular. Familiarity with my bare stomach took away the associated stigma.

I started to wonder: What if my sexy Halloween costumes could be this confrontational? Halloween is normally the one night a year where women are allowed to be publicly sexy without being labeled as sluts. The fall air was filled with sexy pirates, sexy cops, sexy nuns. How could I compete with that?

This is how:

Full Body Leia

I spent months on the costume, and still didn’t have time to make all of the accessory pieces. But I did it. My top was made of wire and Crayola Model Magic. It didn’t hold my breasts in so much as it floated directly in front of them. I was very exposed, and people certainly noticed. It’s one thing to see Carrie Fisher be mostly naked in a movie, it’s another to see a friend of yours do it at a house party. I talked to party-goers about the outfit, the skin, the exposure. I was a one-woman political conversation piece. My plan had worked. I was on to something.

I created a set of rules:

  1. The costume had to be inherently skimpy, not just a sexy version of something. I didn’t want to be a “sexy witch” or a “sexy nurse.” I wanted to be as accurate and authentic to the original as possible.
  2. The outfit had to be well known. I didn’t want to spend the whole night explaining myself to people. If they didn’t recognize me, they would be the weird ones.
  3. There couldn’t be a cheap, easy, popular version of the costume readily available. No one likes to run into themselves at a party.

Princess Leia in the gold bikini was an easy pick for all three rules. The following year I was Tinkerbell in her signature mini-dress, a costume I’d always wanted to wear. She was a little tame, however, and I did run into another Tinkerbell. Clearly I needed to up my game.

LeeLoo from AboveThe third year of my new costume tradition I was Leeloo from The Fifth Element, wearing the white thermal bandages from when she first appears. It wasn’t easy creating straight lines on a curved figure, but by now I had a sewing machine and considerable determination. I spent hours watching clips of the film and sections of the costume test footage on the DVD extras. I spray-painted a wig. I showed some serious underboob. People applauded my efforts.

Years went by and I found new challenges. My pool of potential characters grew smaller. There are only so many costumes that fit every one of my rules, and over time I allowed myself to go lax on some of them. Lara Croft wasn’t very skimpy. Maid Marion from Robin Hood: Men in Tights wasn’t as recognizable. There was a good chance I’d run into another Wonder Woman, and very few people know about Molotov Cocktease.

But the point, and the reactions, were the same. Because let’s get real, I was dressing up as the symbols of my own oppression. These were the women our culture throws in front of us for the express purpose of being objectified. Han Solo is imprisoned in carbonite, Princess Leia is imprisoned in a bikini. Batman wears body armor, Wonder Woman wears a bustier. Molotov herself is a commentary on the ridiculous outfits we put our female characters in while still expecting them to backflip their way through lasers.

Maid MarionAnd we accept it. I believe the main reason we find it so acceptable is that we’ve trained ourselves to ignore the ridiculous. When we see a women in a video game sporting a bikini top and a semi-automatic, it’s not shocking. It’s nothing new, it’s nothing to question. And when we stop questioning it, we stop thinking it’s strange. That is, until that girl from your English class shows up to the party wearing nothing but metal panties and a wig. Suddenly it’s not just a character. It’s not just Hollywood. Because you, man or woman, no longer have the luxury of voyeurism. It’s not a far-off Her, but a right-here Me. I am standing in front of you, showing you just how ridiculous I can be. I have destroyed the suspension of disbelief. My body suit is taped directly onto my skin, I can’t go to the bathroom, and I am the most comfortable person in the room.

I think my overwhelming comfort may be the most shocking part for people. It’s not such a surprise to my friends anymore, after so many years and so many costumes, but I will still find the occasional stranger at a party. And I can see it in their eyes, their face, their body language. They cannot stand what I’m wearing, and they really can’t handle how casually I’m wearing it. Because even on Halloween, there’s a limit to how accepting a woman ought to be of her own body.

MolotovThis is why in high school I opted to play a vampire prostitute in front of the entire auditorium. This is why in college I would change my shirt wherever my shirt happened to be. This is why I have spent so many months of my life in front of a sewing machine. This is why I own moldable plastic pellets and a grommet maker and fabric button covers. Yes, I enjoy making costumes immensely. But if that were all it were about, I wouldn’t have to try so hard to find the most absurd outfits on earth. I do it because it is still the majority mindset that I should spend my life ashamed yet beautiful, except for the sanctioned times when I am required to be on display and ridiculous.

The famous burlesque dancer Gypsy Rose Lee once said of her nude performances: “I wasn’t naked, I was completely covered by a blue spotlight.” That’s how I feel when I’m in costume. I’m not naked – I’m wrapped head to toe in everyone else’s insecurities. I’ve made 10 Halloween costumes but I’m always wearing the same thing: a mirror.

I imagine there are some readers who have been able to get this far into my story and still believe that my Halloween costumes are vulgar and vain. That I shouldn’t be talking about something like this in such a public forum. That being sexual in one aspect of my life makes me incapable of being smart, reasonable, caring, and warm in other parts. That I’m really doing it all for male attention. If that’s you, then I imagine every photo in this article has made you cringe in your chair. That’s a good thing. You may need to feel offended and off-put a few more times before you let go of the idea that women belong to anyone but themselves, that other people get to dictate the entrance fee I place on my own skin. But don’t worry. I’m here to help. And I will be here – half-naked and making you feel uncomfortable – until you change your mind.Wonder Woman

Cultural Shift, Brought to You by GeekGirlCon

In the world of comic book, video game, and other nerdy conventions, there’s been an unfortunate harassment problem. Specifically it is harassment of women who come to cons dressed in costume, and it takes many forms: catcalls, groping, name calling, etc. One particularly problematic form it takes is people taking photos of women in costume without their consent. A common manifestation is the “up-skirt shot” where a harasser will do something like pretend to tie his shoe so he can take a photo of a woman’s crotch from underneath her skirt. While harassment is a problem at nearly all conventions, many do little or nothing to stop it. GeekGirlCon isn’t like that.Sailor Mars

GeekGirlCon is a Seattle convention with a specifically female-focus. While men are invited and encouraged to attend, it’s meant to be a celebration of “women contributing to science and technology; comics, arts, and literature; and game play and game design.”

While many conventions suggest that you should ask permission to take someone’s photo, GeekGirlCon insists upon it – and they mean what they say. Not only is the policy laid out explicitly in all their rules and codes of conduct, they stress consent in other ways. They make sure the official convention photographers are easy to identify so you can tell them apart from attendees. They give attendees the option to get special stickers indicating they don’t wish to be photographed at all. These stickers are honored even by those official photographers looking for candid shots. They also make it clear that if you ever see a photo of yourself on any official GeekGirlCon site and wish to have it removed, all you have to do is ask. It’s a very different atmosphere than the normal (though understandable) position of “we reserve the right to use your photo in all promotional material.”

Because of this kind of support, the rule of asking before photographing is well-followed. EXTREMELY well-followed in fact. Even if you are already posing for someone else’s photo people will ask if it is okay that they snap one as well. It’s a good policy and I’m glad they have it, but it’s had an even greater unintended consequence.

Outside of the harassment, there is a culture of benign yoyeurism at most cons. You walk by in a costume and people stare. Sometimes they try to be subtle and avert their eyes when you look over. Sometimes you hear people whisper to their friends, “Oh hey look, Sailor Moon.” Occasionally people will take your picture without asking, and when you catch them it’s clear that they just didn’t want to bother you, or didn’t think their personal photo was worth asking you to turn around. Sometimes you can tell the photo they got was pretty bad because of how you were positioned. They think it doesn’t matter because they’re the ones choosing to have a bad photo. I don’t think they realize how frustrating it can be for people who spend hours making a costume perfect to then have a bad picture taken.

Like I said, this voyeuism is benign. It’s not harassment, there’s no sexual overtone, and it doesn’t make the person in costume feel violated or unsafe. But it’s weird and sometimes annoying. You knew when you put on your costume that it would attract attention, but it’s still weird to have people stare and whisper from a few feet away.

GeekGirlCon has unintentionally abolished this voyeuristic con culture. Since you have to ask before taking someone’s picture at GeekGirlCon, you have to talk to people more. And once you start talking, you can’t stop. When I walked by in costume I didn’t hear any hushed conversations. Instead, people would tell me directly how much they loved my costume, the character, and/or the show. Even if it was just a short and simple, “Your costume is great,” it was always direct. There was nothing furtive, no whispers or sideways glances. People smiled and talked and engaged each other.

It’s a good reminder of how culture shifts happen. I’ve never even heard the voyeurism thing identified before, and I hadn’t really thought about it until I noticed its absence. It was so subtle, so light, and so accepted that no one even bothered to give it a name. All GeekGirlCon did was make a rule and stand behind it. They didn’t mean to change the culture, it happened on its own. I’m reminded of a story I heard recently about child custody laws in Oregon. Previously there had been a default of children going to the mother if there was no objection from the father, and the majority of children ended up with their mothers. The law was changed to make joint custody the default. Technically the fathers always had the right to ask for joint or full custody, but it was only after the default changed that they began to fully exercise that right. There was a huge shift in the number of fathers who requested joint or full custody after the law changed. Oregon didn’t force its fathers to stay active in the lives of their children. All it did was suggest that being a father means as much to men as being a mother does to women. And the culture shifted.

It felt great to be in costume at GeekGirlCon. I was proud of my outfit and the work I had put into it. I got to have conversations with people about the show I was representing and about the work that went in to creating my costume. I had a great time and talked with some wonderful people. And most importantly, I got to smile for every picture.Sailor Scouts


Planning and Surprises

When you do something for so long that you’re able to teach it to others, sometimes you end up under the mistaken impression that you’ve got it all figured out. Perhaps you know that there are still things to learn, but you certainly don’t think anything will ever surprise you.

Today, something surprised me.

I’ve been reading, practicing, and loving organization and productivity for a long time. I’ve been planning ahead for a long time. I’ve been making lists for a long time. Yet miraculously, today I managed to plan ahead and make a list in a way that made me outstandingly productive, and I never saw it coming.

I’m making a costume to wear to an upcoming convention, and I’d gotten to the point in my planning that it was time to go to the fabric store and buy supplies. I’ve made many costumes over the years, and for some reason every single one required about eight thousand trips to the store because I forgot to get something the last time. And I hate it. It bothers me to no end. I’m wasting time. I’m wasting gas. Most importantly, my costume creation gets brought to a standstill until I can get to the store to buy one more zipper, one more specialty needle, one more tube of fabric paint.

But today? Today I was the Goddess of Organization. Well, technically, I was the Goddess of Organization last night. That’s when I was making my lists and preliminary sketches and decided my shopping list needed a few more details.

Because in addition to forgetting items outright, I often go to the store only half-knowing what I need. It’s not enough to say I need a black zipper, because that doesn’t tell me if I need a 9-inch zipper or a 24-inch zipper. It’s not enough to say I need ribbon, because I can get a three yard spool or a ten yard spoon or I can take it to the counter and buy it by the yard. And I have a terrible habit of deciding how much fabric to purchase by eyeballing it at the cutting counter. I am horrific when it comes to estimating fabric, so I have no clue why I choose to do it so often. None of that nonsense this time, I decided. My list would include every part of the costume, head to toe.

The strange thing was that rather than feeling empowered at the store, it made me uneasy. I was looking at ribbon and I almost put it back down to come back and buy later, just so I didn’t have to decide between the shiny kind or the matte kind. Why? I suppose it’s because normally I forget those little accent things until I’ve already made the piece they’re accenting. By then it’s clear if the matte or shiny will look better. This time I had to choose based on what I hoped my costume would be like, not on something I knew it already was.

Despite my crises in the ribbon aisle, I did feel good when I got to the cash register. The final price was way less than I expected, probably because I didn’t buy twice as much fabric as I needed. I was excited for the weekend, when I’d get to start up on my costume, when I’d have all the supplies at my fingertips.

I got three paragraphs into this post before it hit me. I forgot the damn thread.