BY BEX VANKOOT
I don’t have a great memory when it comes to Halloween costumes past. The trick ‘or treating ended early for me when, at 12 or so, someone mistook me for a mom towering over my nine year old brother. I’ve had fun with the dress-up holiday - Anna Nicole Smith, Ursula the Sea Witch, a “hairy fairy” which involved putting a fairy costume on and not shaving - but the reasons why are about as clear to me as why I still sometimes slap on mascara and eyeshadow, why I still hunt for the perfect shade of red lipstick even though I hate the feel of lipstick.
Today’s Halloween costume traditions date back less than a century to the 1930s, but the roots of can be traced to the dawn of humanity. The Celts popularized rituals that involved dressing up to scare off the spirits and keep safe during a dangerous time of year.
Whether we are mimicking our parents, the animals we hope to hunt, the ancestors we loved or the things we fear the most, we’ve been doing this a long time. We learn gender roles. We discover a better way to catch food. We pass on stories. We make it through the longest, darkest, coldest nights. We’ve been costuming so well for so long that nowadays we do it all the time and barely notice. At what point does it lose its meaning?
The key to the power behind playing dress up is the ability to choose it, to make a conscious act. Costuming is supposed to be fun. Or strange and wild and ecstatic. Or solemn and grueling and transformative. Instead it becomes the act of putting on battle armour or an invisible cloak, carefully applying a mask so we can hide who we are and protect ourselves from the onslaught of the world. It becomes an act of desperation.
It isn’t wrong to do magic in desperate times. What good would it be to use our power to transform, even superficially, if not to keep ourselves alive, warm, housed, clothed, fed?
But how can we survive, let alone thrive, putting out that much energy every day just to keep our heads above water? How much of our safety or security can we be expected to sacrifice for the comfort of making magic on our own time?
And even if we finally do get some space to play around with being ourselves, how do we untangle the things we want from the things we’ve been taught to do?
When I have a crush on someone, the urge to put on makeup and a push-up bra becomes almost overwhelming. I barely noticed it before I came out as a demi-woman. Now I can’t help but ask myself when I feel the urge to femme: do I want this? Or do I think this is what’s expected of me?
Sometimes the answer is both. Sometimes we really are having fun. And we can’t always change our response, even when the answer is that we’re bowing to expectations, even when we want to change. Sometimes we don’t have any good choices.
But knowing why, taking the time to question, is still a worthwhile process. I still don’t know exactly why a guy a like makes me want long lashes I can bat at him, but I can take a few guesses. That doesn’t mean I won’t feel it again next time. It doesn’t even mean I don’t want to. It just means I can put my mind and my heart behind it all the way, because I know what that magic means.