The Problem with “Sexy” Costumes

uncommoncostuming Community, Conventions, Cosplay, Ethics

Sexy Clippy

Sexy Clippy by Silivren Costuming

I wish we lived in a world in which people could – weather conditions aside – wear whatever they want with no worse consequences than the occasional sunburn (no, but seriously, wear sunblock!). Wearing a mini-skirt past age 40/over 200 lbs.? Have at it – you look fab! Wearing clothing traditionally assigned to another gender? Rock on, have fun! Covered from head to toe? Do it! Walking down the street naked? Just watch for broken glass! I wish we could all get over our prejudices enough that people could do what felt right without being harassed or criticized, or contributing to negative stereotypes.

Unfortunately, we live in an imperfect world full of subtle and nuanced biases that affect our perceptions of others. This is where I have some reservations about “sexy” costumes. Much of this post applies to “sexy” costumes in general, but I’m referring specifically to costumes of the “Sexy (Fill in the Blank)” variety; those which replicate certain aspects of an existing costume/character, but alter it to make it “sexy” (usually by revealing more skin). The classic example is the “sexy nurse”: it has the white “coat”, the traditional cap, and the Red Cross insignia of an old fashioned nurse’s uniform. However, the “sexy” version is typically skin tight, ends at the upper thigh, and has a V-neck low enough to show cleavage. The image here is from the first Google result I found for “sexy nurse” (and these are the most conservative costumes – believe me, most were NSFW).

Sexy Nurse Costumes

Girls are nurses and boys are doctors, huh?


Why are “sexy” costumes a problem? Well, they’re not, in and of themselves, but we don’t wear costumes in a void – we wear them out in the world. One can’t separate a costume from the larger context in which it exists, and unfortunately, we live in a society with negative gender stereotypes that can affect everything from what job a person has to their physical safety. What does that have to do with costumes, you ask? Well, let’s have a look at that.


Sexy, First and Foremost!

There’s an enormous amount of pressure disproportionately placed on women to be physically attractive – our relationships, our jobs, even our sense of self-worth may rely on it. The world of costumes reflects the disproportionate nature of this expectation: a quick search on the term “sexy nurse costume” revealed dozens of websites that sell variations of this idea. Of the 90 different sexy nurse costumes from the website shown here, only two are male, and the next five search results contained no male options at all. In the cosplay world, Dorkly’s 21 weirdest “Sexy Cosplay” list from earlier this year contains only four examples of male costumes. An image search for “sexy cosplay” showed (as of October 29, 2017) only one man and hundreds of women (before I stopped clicking). One would be hard pressed to find a single source that didn’t show more “sexy” costumes for women than men.

Sexy Watermelon costume

So it’s a watermelon … and it’s sexy?

In addition to this female bias, “sexy” costumes, by definition, put emphasis on sex appeal over other aspects: skimpy costumes cover so little of the body that viewers are now looking at mostly bare skin. So when cosplay galleries and videos focus on these costumes, these media sacrifice quality and variety for sex appeal. This is not to say that “sexy” costumes can’t also be high quality, but they shouldn’t be valued over less revealing costumes of equal quality.

“Sexy” costumes are also just not very creative. There’s little fabric or armor or whatever left to work with when the wearer is mostly naked, limiting the construction options for the costume. It’s also an obvious and overused mashup, so much so that it’s almost become a bit of a joke (like the Dorkly piece above) to find the most bizarre combination of “sexy” and “costume.” (Sexy Watermelon, anyone?) It’s fun to wear and see bizarre “sexy” costumes sometimes. I get that. I respect it. But the disproportionate amount of attention these costumes receive points to screwed up priorities in which sex appeal is valued above all things.


The Weaker Sex

In addition to the quantitative disparity, there’s a qualitative difference between male and female sexy costumes as well. The male “sexy nurse” costumes above, for example, look … pretty much like normal scrubs and street clothes, except that one is sleeveless – quel scandale! Note also that the female costumes are all described as “nurses” while the male costumes are both “doctors,” reflecting a longstanding gender bias in the medical professions that’s still an issue today (see What Sexism in Medicine Looks Like for more unsavory details).

Dorkly’s list, too, illustrates how male “sexy” costumes generally cover more of the body than those of their female counterparts. As another example (and also just for fun because there’s some seriously great cosplay!), check out this video from Comiket 2017. Notice the prevalence of more revealing costumes on women? Note also that the “sexy” male cosplay tends to emphasize musculature and include weapons – traits associated with strength – while the women have little muscle definition and their costumes rarely include weapons. That perceived difference in strength isn’t your imagination: in the world of film/TV/video games, protagonists are far more likely to be male, while women are far more likely to play a “damsel in distress” role in need of male rescue. These media are the source material for cosplay and thus this stereotype of helpless women in need of saving is reflected in the costumes themselves.

If this perception were relegated to the world of costumes, that would be one thing – but, like all art, it’s a reflection of its culture. In a 2014 study that looked at perceptions of competency based on gender, women were viewed as less competent than men based solely on photographs of each participant. Multiple surveys have shown that employers view female employees who don’t wear makeup as less capable (it’s worth pointing out some of these surveys were sponsored by makeup companies, which have a financial incentive to make women feel dependent on their product). Note that in both these examples, women also viewed themselves as less competent as a result of other people’s perceptions. The pressure to meet social expectations of attractiveness reduces the amount of free choice we have in how we present ourselves, limiting our ability to present ourselves as strong and competent – and the resulting damage to our own confidence makes us less able to fight against negative stereotypes.


The Tightrope of Sex Appeal

Social expectations of attractiveness force us all, regardless of gender, to walk a tightrope in a number of ways. First, as noted above, costumes that cover more of the body often receive less attention, but costumes that are more revealing leave us exposed. If we’re showing bare skin, we’re going to be more vulnerable to weather conditions, to injury, to judgment and cruel comments – and, unfortunately, there are still people who think bare skin is some kind of invitation to grope.

The parameters of socially acceptable attractiveness are also quite narrow, requiring things like specific body proportion, unrealistic body weight, and strict gender conformity. The repercussions for not meeting those expectations can be harsh, and “sexy” costumes only increase the likelihood one will suffer those repercussions. Body shaming at conventions and in online forums is all too common, it’s disproportionately leveled at women, and it has very real negative physical and psychological effects. “Sexy” crossplay used as a joke, like this Sexy Gandalf costume, while subversive in its own way and poking fun at sexy costumes, also relies on the juxtaposition of “male” and “female” clothing for humor.  But these things quickly cease to be funny when we look at the impact on perceptions of women’s competency, discussed above, or the enormous amount of prejudice against trans and gender non-conforming individuals.

Sexy Gandalf cosplay

It’s funny, it’s quirky, it’s subversive … but it’s also problematic …

Free Choice vs. Social Expectations

Once again: we should all be able to wear whatever we want, without reinforcing negative stereotypes. But there are a few things standing in our way. First, as Grace Yia-Hei Kao, an Associate Professor of Ethics, states beautifully in her essay on the topic (and even uses costumes amongst her examples!), “the infantilization of women cannot be reduced to mere ‘choice’ when it takes place in contexts with vestiges of patriarchy, just as the hyper-sexualization of girls cannot be rendered as harmless child’s play when it is empirically linked to negative mental health consequences, as a task force by the American Psychological Association has recently concluded.” If we want to make a beautiful costume, but then deliberately make it “sexy” to get more attention, that choice is being influenced by the views of others. If we want to wear a sexy costume and don’t because we’re worried about harassment, that choice is being limited by the actions of others. Either way, the choices of other people are making our own choices a little less free.

The second thing to think about is the potential for contributing to negative stereotypes. Even if we are making a free choice for ourselves, we still live in the world with other people and our actions affect them, too. When we play weak and helpless women, we contribute to prejudices against women as weak and helpless. When we mock gender non-conformity, we contribute to prejudice against everyone who breaks conventional gender roles.

If a person chooses, free of social pressure or biases, to wear a sexy costume, more power to them. But stereotypes and social constructs are so deeply embedded in us, it’s difficult to see them and fully grasp their influence. I suspect that if we didn’t have the stereotypes about women that we do, sexy costumes would be a lot less common and would take on a wider range of forms!


Some Final Thoughts

Sexy Jon Snow cosplay

Was Jon Snow not already sexy?

If you’re going to wear that sexy costume, don’t be a damsel in distress, be a total badass.

Don’t body shame. Not ever. Not in any way. Another person’s body is none of your business.

Take no crap. Call people out for rude comments or harassing behavior. Make it clear that kind of thing won’t be tolerated.

Watch out for each other and encourage your cons to watch out for their guests with well-enforced anti-harassment policies.

Be a deviant. Wear a sexy costume that defies the norm. Hell, make a practical version of ridiculously revealing video game armor. If there can be a “sexy Jon Snow,” why not a “Shahdee who’s actually planning for survival”?!

You do you. Just be aware that we are all affected, however indirectly, by the actions of others.