Kayla Heisler
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Halloween is ultimately a time of year to dress up, attend parties, eat candy and have fun with friends. Unfortunately, sometimes there are well-intentioned or oblivious actions that take away that fun. So what makes a costume offensive? 

Costumes that ‘punch down’ — or joke at the expense of an oppressed or marginalized group — make up one large swath of costumes that should be avoided. Essentially, if a costume mocks a group or individual for something that they can’t control, wearing it is usually a bad idea. Other costumes that are particularly in bad taste should also be avoided. 

If you’re searching for something to wear to the office or elsewhere that won’t cause unnecessary discomfort in others, avoid costumes that involve the following:

1. Religion as a joke.

Religion is extremely personal and can hold a great deal of meaning for those who practice it. Dressing up comically as a religious figure can come off as insensitive to those who do believe in a particular religion. 

2. Stereotypes.

If you’re attempting to make light of something that involves another person’s culture, think twice about it. While some may think that the costume doesn’t matter, perpetuating stereotypes is a harmful practice that can adversely impact the people being stereotyped. 

3. Tragic events.

Dressing up as either a tragic event or as a victim of a tragic event is never a good idea. You never know who has been personally impacted by a tragedy, so why risk bringing up the worst moment of a person’s life? There are plenty of scary options you can choose from that don’t bring up past traumas.

4. Blackface/brownface.

As sad as it is that this still has to be pointed out in 2019, every year people continue to cross this line. If you want to pay homage to a black or brown public figure, absolutely go for it, but don’t treat someone’s skin as an accessory or reduce them to a caricature. Skin is not a costume; it’s a person’s reality. 

5. Hate group member.

Dressing up as a member of a hate group can instill real fear in people who belong to communities who are impacted by the group or have had family members harmed by the group. Wearing a hate group costume also makes light of something that truly isn’t funny. Groups who have terrorized others shouldn’t be trivialized, and whatever your opinion of the group, dressing in their likeness could be seen as an expression of admiration.

6. Mental illness.

Though conversations around mental health have fortunately become increasingly common, individuals with mental illnesses continue to be stigmatized. Why contribute to the negative view? Those who are impacted by mental illness can feel ashamed or hurt by depictions of ‘asylum escapees.’ 

7. Transphobic costumes.

As with religion, gender is personal. People who are transgender continue to experience oppression and violence, and making light of their reality is cruel. 

8. Deceased public figure.

To be clear, the problem isn’t dressing up like someone who has passed away, the problem comes in when the way a person died or the fact of their death is mocked. For instance, if a public figure died of a drug overdose, carrying around a pill bottle as a prop is not appropriate. 

9. Victims of poverty.

Dressing up as homeless person, refugee or poor person is a tone-deaf choice. Hardships should not be seen as a laughing matter. Consider how you would feel if you or someone close to you experienced a financial hardship that created the circumstance that you’d be portraying.

10. Disabilities or disorders.

Portraying a physical disability or disorder is an unnecessary and unkind route to take. 

11. Culture as a costume.

Even if you don’t intend to be disrespectful by dressing up in a costume from another culture, there are certain ways that you could be using a stereotype without realizing it. While you may go into the idea with the intent of being appreciative, many costumes have special significance that you may not be aware of.

12. Body shaming costumes.

Some costumes mock specific body types. One costume depicting anorexia circulated years ago, and there are many others that rely on fat suits to mock overweight bodies. Portraying a body type as a punchline is insensitive and can perpetuate negative stereotypes.

13. Assault offenders or survivors.

Costumes that mock or make light of sexual or physical assault are both tacky and harmful. Associating a harmful act with a joke downplays the act’s heinousness. Survivors often have a hard enough time being taken seriously when they report assault; making a joke about this very serious incident isn’t a good look.

The bottom line

If you’ve considered wearing any of the aforementioned costumes above, that doesn’t automatically make you a "bad person" — some missteps are well-meaning — but it is a sign that you should think about the implications that your choice may have. Reflect on why you want to wear the costume that you’re thinking about choosing. If there’s a humorous component to the costume, ask yourself what about it is funny. If you had to articulate what makes the costume funny, would it be hurtful to some and are there certain individuals who you would experience discomfort explaining the joke of the costume to? Halloween is a night when you can be anyone you want to be, so ask yourself why you would choose to emulate your specific choice. 

Some individuals don’t mind if you wear a costume that puts down or portrays a group that they’re part of, but why risk it? It’s true that you can’t anticipate what will be a problem for every single person, but you can work to avoid making large oversights that could not only damage your reputation, but take the fun out of Halloween for someone. Superhero, admired profession, clever pun, adorable are a few suggestions that come to mind if you’re searching for a costume — plus, you can check out this list of fun and stylish costumes if you’re still on the hunt for that perfect Halloween look. If you’re all about being topical, consider these totally timely costumes that show that you’re up to date on current events.

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Kayla Heisler is an essayist and Pushcart Prize-nominated poet. She is an MFA candidate at Columbia University, and her work appears in New York's Best Emerging Poets 2017 anthology.