Published: October 29, 2013

It is almost time for Halloween, and trick-or-treaters of all ages are on the hunt for the perfect costume. And sadly, like every other year, there are costumes being sold that do not fit with the fun spirit of Halloween. Through my Twitter feed, I have come across many tweets about extremely offensive costume ideas that make fun of mental disorders. One particularly disturbing costume depicted an individual with mental illness as a deranged killer with a cleaver in his hand and blood on his straightjacket.  More recently, The Huffington Post ran an article about the recall of an “Anna Rexia” outfit following the public outcry. I could not believe that someone would actually think this was an appropriate product to market. With the wildly inappropriate tagline of “You can never be too rich or too thin,” what was even more despicable was the defense of the manufacturer, citing that it is natural for not everyone to like ‘dark humor,’ as if eating disorders are humorous in any way!

Dressing up as individuals with mental health problems cannot be considered dark humor; rather, this attitude holds a mirror to society’s views of mental illness and highlights the stigma that surrounds them. Eating disorders are not something to make fun of; they are serious disorders with biological, psychological, and environmental factors contributing to their development. By making costumes that mock individuals with eating disorders, these manufacturers are not only hurting patients and their loved ones, but they are also reinforcing the negative stereotypes about eating disorders. Contrary to the mainstream belief, individuals do not make the conscious choice to have an eating disorder, especially considering the high mortality and morbidity rates associated with these devastating conditions. In addition, there is nothing glamorous about having an eating disorder. It is important to note that this is not an isolated incidence related to Halloween costumes, as the uphill battle against stigma is a daily issue for those with eating disorders. Since it is neither acceptable nor funny to dress up as individuals with serious physical ailments, why does our society tolerate this for mental illnesses?

Should you choose to dress up for Halloween, make sure your costume is either creative or inspirational. Halloween can be a great opportunity to express your creative side in a fun way.  During my graduate school years, I saw many witty and low-budget costumes that highlighted creativity and were fun and non-offensive. Alternately, why not dress up as an important and inspirational figure in history? As a researcher, I have a bias in thinking that scientific figures are the best costume ideas. For both boys and girls (of all ages), there are endless options to choose from, and as an added bonus, this can be a great opportunity to inspire younger trick-or-treaters and send the message that scientists are cool and worth honoring.

Costumes that reinforce sexist or racial stereotypes, or make light of serious disorders such as anorexia nervosa, further feed the flawed sociocultural views about eating disorders by reinforcing stigma. As members of this society, we have the responsibility of make it clear to costume manufacturers and those who actually chose to dress up in these highly inappropriate attires that this is not acceptable. If you come across anyone who thinks it is humorous to mock individuals with eating disorders or other mental health issues, speak up and let them know that this is not a laughing matter. Protest any company that chooses to sell these inappropriate attires, and let them know that you will take your business elsewhere as long as they continue to partake in this unacceptable practice.

On a brighter note, as a result of numerous consumer petitions, many companies that stocked these offensive items have pulled them off their shelves and issued apologies. This movement has renewed my faith and further proven that the public can have a voice in combatting these practices. However, this costume was taken off the market a few years back after public outcry, only to show up again. So, just because you protested one, doesn’t mean that’s the last time. Only when we take a united stance against this mockery, we can move one step closer toward ending the stigma.

photo credit: Denis Collette via Creative Commons