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Preteens Trading Fairy Wands for Fishnets
Halloween Trend Toward Racy Get-Ups Vexes Parents

By Brigid Schulte
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Gabby Cirenza wanted to be a referee for Halloween. The outfit she liked had a micro-mini black skirt and a form-fitting black and white-striped spandex top held together with black laces running up the flesh-exposing sides. She looked admiringly at the thigh-high black go-go boots that could be bought as an accessory. And she thought the little bunny on the chest was cute.

"Absolutely not," said her mother, Cheryl. "That is so not happening."

Gabby is 11.

And the Playboy Racy Referee costume was only the latest that her mother had vetoed one pre-Halloween-crazed afternoon at Party City in Baileys Crossroads as too skimpy, too revealing, too suggestive .

Bawdy Halloween costumes, however, have become the season's hottest sellers in recent years. Not just for women, but for girls, too. And parents such as Cirenza don't like it.

Gabby eyed the Sexy Super Girl but decided against it. A friend at her Catholic school had worn that costume for a Halloween parade and pulled the already short miniskirt way up to cover her tummy. "That didn't look very good." But Gabby did like the Aqua Fairy, a vampy get-up with a black ripped-up skirt, black fishnet tights and blue bustier that comes in medium, large and preteen. A medium fits a child of 8.

No.

How about the Funky Punk Pirate Pre-Teen, with an off-the-shoulder blouse and bare midriff?

No.

Gabby pointed to the Fairy-Licious Purrrfect Kitty Pre-Teen, which, according to the package, includes a "pink and black dress with lace front bodice and sassy jagged skirt with tail. . . . Wings require some assembly."

Cheryl Cirenza shook her head in exasperated disbelief. "This is all so inappropriate. It's really disturbing," she said, eyeing a wall of such girl and preteen costumes as Major Flirt in army green, the bellybutton-baring Devilicious and a sassy, miniskirted French Maid, pink feather duster included. She'd just turned down her 13-year-old daughter's request for a Sexy Cop outfit. "When I was their age, I was a bunch of grapes."

But that was back in the days when Halloween was still a homemade kind of holiday, when an old sheet with eyeholes was a perfectly acceptable ghost and clumsily carved pumpkins on the front porch were about as elaborate as the decorations got. Now, Halloween is big business. Americans are expected to spend upwards of $5 billion this year on candy, ghoulish decorations and costumes. And the hottest trend in costumes, retailers say, is sexy. And young.

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.

"Some of these are just incredibly sleazy. Nothing in here except Tinkerbell is innocent," Rafferty said. "Last year, Grace was a snow princess. Now, this is what she likes. I don't know what's happened."

Grace finally wore her mother down and ended up with a '70s Flower Power outfit that shows the bellybutton. "I told her I'd buy this only if she wore a leotard underneath," Rafferty said. "As a mother, I hate Halloween."

Meanwhile, Shawn Bailey was trying not to lose it as her 11-year-old daughter Da'Nesha Holmes picked out a costume. Her son had found his Darth Vader costume, and her baby had her Baby Bratz pink kitty outfit. But Da'Nesha was too tall for most of the girl costumes, and her mother was having none of the rest. Bar Wench. Cocktail Hunny. The half-angel, half-devil Naughty & Nice.

Da'Nesha pointed to Costume 529, Hot Flash, a nurse with thigh-high garters.

"No. You need something for you," Bailey said, sighing. "You're a little girl."

That afternoon, Gabby Cirenza left Party City empty-handed. Her mother later took her to Target, where she refused anything to do with princesses, pilgrims or nuns. At Party Depot, she begged for the preteen French Maid costume and promised she wouldn't wear it off the shoulders, like in the photo. Cheryl Cirenza, with six other children's costumes to find or make, finally made an executive decision. Gabby would be Lady Juliette, in a long dress and long sleeves. With a few tucks here and there, the neckline wouldn't plunge too low.

And when Gabby insisted they buy a corset to "lift everything up" and make the dress look better, Cirenza drew the line again. No corsets. Not now. Whether Gabby knows it or not, her mother thought, a corset is the last thing an 11-year-old needs.

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