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

Feminism and The Castro

Castro TheaterAs part of my whirlwind public transportation tour of San Francisco I rode the street car over to The Castro. These days every major city has a gay district of some kind, but The Castro was one of the first. It is a banner they wear with pride (no pun intended), and you can sense it walking down the street. Every single shop has a direct tie to gay culture. There’s a men’s only day spa, and a nail salon called “Hand Job.” I saw a little kid’s shirt for sale that read, “If Dad says no, ask Dad.” I stopped in a bakery called Hot Cookie and ordered a Butch Bar. The sex shop has the widest collection of same-sex specific items I’ve ever seen, and they hide the heterosexual stuff in the back. Even the sign at Walgreens that reads, “Beauty” shows a picture of a man shaving rather than the typical woman putting on mascara.

After a while I started to notice how comfortable I felt. I realized it was the safest I’d ever felt walking down a city street. It took me a second to piece it together. After all, I’d been in plenty of very safe neighborhoods before. What made this one, a place where I am so specifically in the minority, feel so different? I cringed when it hit me.

Men.

Like most people, I don’t walk around in everyday life terrified of everyone and everything around me. But like so many, I am more at ease at home than in public. And I realized that the thing that makes me nervous in normal life is men. Heterosexual men to be specific. I don’t mean that I view every man as a potential assailant, rather that if I am going to have trouble of any kind with anybody, it’s probably going to be one of them. I’d consider it less of a fear and more of a Yellow Alert. Many would call it street harassment, but I feel like that term is limited to catcalling and this is larger than that. It includes things as seemingly harmless as when strangers ask me to smile. I hate when strangers ask me to smile. I’ve hated it ever since I realized that no one ever does that to guys. Men’s emotions are their own, but my happiness is something people are entitled to demand at their discretion.

I have honestly never thought of it this way before. Not until The Castro. But there are virtually no straight men on that street. There is no one who has any interest in bothering me whatsoever. There is no uncomfortable interaction I will have to deal with. So when a man smiles at me, I’m not concerned that it’s going to lead to a come-on that I will have to politely refuse and then be accused of bitchiness or racism (I’ve heard both). He’s actually just a friendly stranger who is being polite. Most importantly, the interaction will stop there. I don’t need to be preemptive in my treatment of this person. That’s a kind of certainty that I don’t normally have.

I’m not quite sure how to handle this new piece of personal insight. It’s still a bit unsettling that deep inside me is a quiet fear of almost half the population. A fear that I know the other half doesn’t share. A part of me says it’s my fault, that there’s no reason to be worried since in the end, these interactions are just bothersome and almost never dangerous. I should just get over it. But when I hear that in my head, the voice sounds so familiar. So much like the voice that tells me to be polite when being hassled, or worry about my hair, or laugh at guys’ jokes even though most of them aren’t funny. What an awful voice that is, and what grief it’s caused me over the years.

The other part of me says this is a problem with men, that we need to stop raising boys to believe it’s okay to hassle women. Teach them that they are not entitled to another person’s attention. But it sounds so accusatory and negative, I don’t much care for that voice either.

I’m reminded of “The Heidi Chronicles” by Wendy Wasserstein. Early in the play, Heidi talks about how she keeps letting her boyfriend account for so much of what she thinks of herself, even though she knows she shouldn’t. She asks another character to promise that their daughters will never feel that way. Promise that their daughters will feel worthwhile.

“The Heidi Chronicles” was written 30 years ago, and the scene was set 50 years ago. One look at The Castro will tell you that a lot has changed since then. But walking through it, I can’t help but feel that so much is exactly the same.