Halloween is almost here, and millions are looking forward to the one night a year when they can go out in public, dressed as whatever or whoever they want to be. Judging from the costumes sold by national retailers, young girls want to be either pink and pretty princesses and ballerinas or miniskirted vampires and midriff-baring pirates.

Yes, it’s fun to go out trick-or-treating and to imagine that you’re someone else. But play reflects children’s understanding of the world around them, and the predominance of sparkly and/or overtly sexual outfits among girls’ Halloween dress-up choices promotes the idea that for a girl, the world is pretty small.

Fortunately for time-crunched parents faced with the limited commercial offerings, the Maine-based advocacy group Hardy Girls Healthy Women has a host of Halloween ideas that allow girls to join in the good times without buying in to cultural limits on who they can or should be.

Television, video games, teen-focused magazines, music lyrics, movies and other forms of media tell girls that maintaining an attractive physical appearance is – or should be – their top priority. And this often plays out to the detriment of girls’ physical and mental health: According to a 2007 American Psychological Association study, when girls channel more of their energy into what they look like, they are more likely than their peers to experience depression, low self-esteem, eating disorders and low grades.

Leaders at Hardy Girls Healthy Women are familiar with this research, and to spread a different message, they’ve pushed back with an event that turned a lesson into a laugh. Hardy Girls’ Freaky 5K Fun Run in Waterville last weekend drew a couple hundred people. Among them were two women students in mad-scientist lab coats and gloves and a mother-daughter pair dressed, respectively, as a “Dr. Who” character and an elephant.

At this point, other parents may be throwing their hands in the air and saying, “She asked for a princess outfit!” or “I barely have five minutes to stop at the drugstore – whatever’s there is what she’s going to wear.” There’s no reason why a stereotypical costume can’t work, Hardy Girls suggests. With a tinfoil-and-cardboard sheath and sword, a princess can defend her kingdom against a dragon. It just takes a little creative thinking.

In school and at home, we no longer tell girls that only boys get to be firefighters or doctors. Instead, we encourage them to weigh all the possibilities for their lives and use their imaginations to dream up new ones. There’s no reason they can’t do the same – while still having fun – on Halloween.

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