Every Halloween, the ghost of my 11 year-old self haunts me. She’s in the candy aisle at Rite Aid gorging on fun-size Twix bars. She’s wrapping candy corn lights around her neck. She’s trying on a vampire costume grinning through plastic fangs with a scraggly black wig in her eyes. She’s concerned about extra roll on her belly as she ties a gypsy scarf around her hips. Back when Halloween was an orgy of candy and boys, Ichabod Crane and “It’s The Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown,” it was also the time in my life when I realized I was pudgy. To my horror, being fat and undesirable scared me much more than zombies and witches and fretting over a silly Halloween costume exacerbated that terror.
I was eleven years old. What happened was, Mom loved the idea of my green M&M costume. Her name, Marilyn was shortened to “M” and that’s what her boyfriend called her. M&M’s were our favorite candy. We had gone shopping together for the fabric and glued the white letter M’s on the green felt with care. My costume idea was great for other reasons too. We sixth graders shared an inside joke: the green M&M’s were horny. Dressing as one would mean I was a sex-starved, flirty, love slave, ready to be kissed by boys. I was going to dazzle and delight my friends. My popularity would soar. I was crazy about Halloween.
Then, Mom cut holes in the bottom of my green felt M&M costume for my legs but they didn’t fit. “Your legs are too chunky,” she said sternly. Alerted to my fat thighs, I was convinced everyone would laugh at me, point at my legs in white tights like thick redwoods and sneer, “You are what you eat.” Then they would poke my chartreuse belly. My kissing scheme was shot to hell. I can’t pinpoint exactly when Halloween and M&M’s became my mortal enemies, but I do remember how the days grew shorter and the nights colder and how my weird body issues killed Halloween.
The kids in the sixth grade did not tease me for being a fat green M&M. They dressed as hobos and bank robbers. They carved jack-o-lanterns and played truth-or-dare. They were deeply entrenched in Tweenland, enjoying first kisses and spin-the-bottle. My friends rode the puberty wave into stubble and boobs but I was traumatized by it. My self-esteem plummeted and I began to starve myself. My body had exploded in places I wasn’t ready for yet. By ten my waist and hips expanded into freakish proportions. My 32A chest was sore and tender as it swelled to a 34B in one year. It hurt to run track. My face broke out into painful pimple clusters and I caked makeup on my face until my skin was orange and clownish. I felt a fistful of new, scary urges but wasn’t prepared for any of them, so I stuck my finger down my throat instead.
By my Doctor’s standards, I wasn’t fat. I was growing and it’s normal for women to gain weight during puberty. Still, in an effort to control my body’s agenda to become a young woman, I struggled with anorexia and bulimia for many years. My weight fluctuated and my body issues thrived. I went to group therapy with other teenage girls who suffered from anorexia and bulimia. I stopped participating in Halloween altogether. I didn’t want to be me, but I didn’t feel flamboyant enough to parade around as someone else either.
The expectation of girls to dress sexy for Halloween is partially to blame. Last week, while browsing dozens of costume stores looking for a Ravenna, the Evil Queen costume, I noticed that cheap, skimpy outfits filled the shelves and those outfits had nothing do with the pageantry of Halloween. Invention and imagination had vanished in a poisonous cloud of commercial pre-packaged, slutty getups. The costumes offered in the girls’ section were generic, sexed up and cheesy: vampires and monsters and ghosts (why would you want to be a sexy ghost?) and lots of naughty nurse outfits built for twigs. Our cultural obsession with selling sex, though not limited to Halloween had consumed it. I continued my search for The Evil Queen outfit but what I found instead was that All Hollow’s Eve had become hollow and plastic.
Determined to reanimate the corpse of Halloween joy, I had to exorcise the body issues from my past and mourn the ghost of my 11 year-old body. I walked away from the Halloween isle and opened my closet, brushed aside my fat girl skeletons and found an old silky robe with mirrabou feathers, which I would use to begin building my costume.
I looked to the past in order to start fresh. After all, Halloween wasn’t always this commercial. It is a holiday with roots firmly planted in the erotic and mysterious spirit world. What I have always loved about Halloween is that it is a day where child-like magic fills our adult lives and the boundaries between the human world and the spirit world collide. I enjoy the knocks on doors and the legions of visitors in costume: little girls in princess dresses holding star-wands and tiny snow whites with puffy sleeves.
A couple of years ago, on Halloween, I decided to dress up as Marie Antoinette and rented an elaborate Victorian costume. I fashioned a bloody neck wound out of latex and held a cake on a tray. I was going to celebrate Halloween at a friend’s home and spend the entire night handing out candy to kids in the neighborhood. In costume, I felt glorious and provocative, like the queen I hoped to portray. My wig was high, white and dripped with pearls. I wasn’t thinking about how my body looked. I was thinking about serving kids.
While securing my wig, my doorbell rang. In my doorway stood a little 5-year old boy— a Bela Lugosi vision in a long, black cape. He wore a pressed, white tuxedo shirt with a classic bow tie clipped at his neck. He smiled through viscous vampire fangs and pressed white makeup. His slicked back hair would have made Bram Stoker proud. His dad called out from the sidewalk “Say trick-or-treat!” The boy said it like a quiet hiss. He was a remnant of the Halloween that I cherished: neither plastic nor disposable. The boy happily offered his empty sac to me. I poured an entire bag of Snickers bars inside and said “You are the best Dracula I have ever seen.” We were both uncomfortable in our costumes, but we both felt great. I followed the miniature Dracula down my steps. Halloween was waiting for me.
Rumpus original art by Jason Novak.