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Preteens Trading Fairy Wands for Fishnets

Fishnet tights, once associated with smoky cabarets or strip joints, now come in girls' sizes and cost $3.99.

Joe Thaler, head of TransWorld Exhibits Inc., runs the annual Halloween Expo for big-box retailers. He said suggestive costumes for girls burst onto the scene about three years ago and the phenomenon is so big that he's had to create a separate fashion show. The costumes have since moved to the plus-size market for adult women and now come in teen and preteen versions. Even little girl costumes show more leg and tummy than they used to. "They're just good sellers," Thaler said.

When it comes to Halloween costumes, boys can still be ninjas, doctors and mad scientists. A box of popcorn, even. Men can still be bananas or beer cans. About the most risque it got for men at Party City was the Big Daddy self-adhesive hairy chest kit for $6.99.

Kathy Grannis of the National Retail Federation blames Halloween's loss of innocence on baby boomers who can't let the holiday go, with their adult parties and costume contests at bars. "Halloween is no longer a child's holiday," she said. "It's no longer about handing out candy and putting on a witch's hat and walking down the street hand in hand with your kid."

For Cheryl Cirenza, that's what Halloween is still all about. But for her daughter, she's not so sure. "I really don't know why these kinds of costumes appeal so much to her," she said. Cirenza knows that prepubescent sex appeal is rampant. But the family doesn't have cable, and she limits Gabby's TV time. There are no trashy teen or celebrity magazines in her home. And they keep an eye on her Web surfing. "I don't know if it's just in the air."

The Halloween costume trend is not only leading to tense mother-daughter standoffs, but it is also part of a far larger worry that young girls are becoming sexualized. Task forces of psychologists study the trend. Books and academic articles are being produced with such titles as the upcoming "So Sexy So Soon" and "From Barbie to Britney: The Sexualization of Childhood." And yet the costumes sell.

"Youth isn't being lived through anymore. It's being rushed through," Stephanie Terrazas, 20, said as she watched her 11-year-old sister pick out a "deluxe" sequined Dorothy dress that, unlike the chaste, high-necked one in the little girl size, was lower cut and had two strategically placed poofs of fabric.

Megan Smith, 16, perused the costumes at Party City with her father, Dan. She first tried on the Prisoner, a slinky spandex number with a little button at the throat and open chest like a '70s disco halter dress. She settled on Raggedy Ann, a blue mini dress so mini that the lacy underskirt barely dusts the bottom of the fanny.

No one does scary costumes anymore, Megan said. Blame that on the teen movie "Mean Girls," she said, quoting a line verbatim: "Halloween is the one night a year when girls can dress like a total slut and no other girls can say anything about it."

Her father laughed nervously. "They're all a little risque, and I don't like that," he said. "She'll be wearing shorts underneath."

Megan rolled her eyes.

On another aisle, a frazzled Kathy Rafferty was doing her best to fend off her 6-year-old daughter Grace's choices. Grace liked the Mega Star costume, with a tiny bandeau top, bare midriff and low-slung sparkle pants. And she thought the Runway Diva in leopard skin, big sunglasses and knee-high boots was cool.


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