5 Times Costume Retailers Tried to Make Mental Health Stigma Sexy

Photo by aotaro (CC BY 2.0)

Photo by aotaro (CC BY 2.0)

Content warning: Discussion of suicide, eating disorders and self harm.

Last week, Walmart came under fire for one of its Halloween costume accessories: the Razor Blade Suicide Scar Wound. An online petition brought the latex injury kit to the company’s attention. Walmart was quick to pull it, calling the accessory “appalling” distancing itself from the third-party seller responsible. The company noted that the costume “clearly violated our prohibited items policy and we removed it when it was brought to our attention.” If you’d like to see the product for yourself, please be aware that the photo depicts someone engaging in self-injury.

The Change.org petition (which also includes an image of the product) pointed out that self-harm injuries aren’t particularly entertaining for a lot of us.

This “costume” is real life for many people, many people who are contemplating volumes higher than self-harm. Suicide is not a joke, not a costume, and not funny. Many people who have “suicide” or as I would call it “survivor” scar wounds wish they could make them disappear.

The fight against tasteless Halloween fare has been happening for years. Costumes get pulled from the shelves. Amusement parks cancel their “psych ward” attractions. People write articles reminding others that dressing as “mental patients” is harmful and stigmatizing. Despite that, every Halloween brings with it new attractions, new costumes, and new outrage. There’s been a similar push recently to discourage costumes that stereotype cultures other than one’s own. Discouraging Halloween costumes that stigmatize mental health issues has an added complication, though. Halloween and horror go hand in hand, and horror is a major driver of mental health stigma. A 2014 article in Perspectives in Psychiatric Care1 explains the problem:

Due to the stigma surrounding mental ill health, people are discouraged from working, educating themselves, and seeking treatment, and find that their supportive networks are reduced. People experiencing mental ill health are rejected by the public, largely owing to the stigmatizing beliefs they hold, and these beliefs may be largely attributed to the stigmatizing representations present in horror films. Unfortunately, the tradition of such negative depictions is not relenting; inaccuracies and exaggerations present in older films persist in the modern horror genre. Stigmatizing portrayals of psychosis and MHCEs that existed in older films are reoccurring in their respective remakes and reboots, as well as in a new wave of horror films. In order to combat such portrayals, people involved in mental health must take a hands-on approach in developing awareness, and should be in direct communication with the film industry.

Walmart took down its disturbing accessory, but you can still find “mental ward” and “psycho killer” costumes on many costume retailer sites. But why stop at stigmatizing real people’s struggles when you can stigmatize real people’s struggles with a skirt and heels?

There’s no sense reading too much into the decision to make sexy versions of mental-health related costumes, since costume retailers will slap together a sexy version of literally anything. Sexy pizza rat? Sure, why not? Sexy lamp costume? Well, to be fair, that lamp was pretty sexy to start with. Sexy Minions? Yes, that too.

So costume shops are happy to try to make mental health stigma sexy with this Anita Sedative costume (get it?). As the item’s description suggests, it could help you “unleash your crazy side.”

This is one of the rare occasions that men can also get in on the sexy costume fun too, with this Sexy Carnival Male Mental Patient costume from Alibaba, helpfully branded with “Dept. of Mental Health.”

It’s not just people with mental health issues who get the horror-movie treatment — mental health professionals do too. The innocuously-named Working the Graveyard Shift Sexy Nurse has mental health stigma covered, and its description throws in a dash of workplace violence. It might be worth noting that some nurses are also less than pleased with their Halloween depictions.

Let your friends see what happens when you’re trapped at work for too many late nights surrounded by crazy doctors and patients. With Mental Ward stamped on the back of your uniform and nurse’s hat, your friends may wonder if you were working there, or became a patient after being attacked by whatever creature left the bloody hand prints and tattered edges on your once-pristine white uniform.

You don’t even have to choose with this Dreamgirl costume. It includes restraints, a “Mental Ward” cap, and the remnants of what looks like a sexy nurse dress with straitjacket sleeves.

But the most breathtakingly terrible mental-health related costume has to be Anna Rexia, a sexy skeleton dress that came with a novelty measuring tape.

The costume was discontinued back in 2007, but you can still find articles about it online, including this harrowing personal response from a young woman who was hospitalized due to complications from anorexia, which reportedly kills more people annually than any other mental health issue. The Anna Rexia costume may not stigmatize eating disorders, but it does something worse: it glamorizes them.

Yes, Halloween should be fun, and dressing up is part of that. But fun is a bit harder to achieve when you’re constantly reminded that you’re dealing with a mental health issue that might make people more likely to think you’re making excuses for bad behavior, that you’re dangerous, or that you’re not a person they should be socializing with.

On the plus side, choosing not to perpetuate harmful stereotypes at Halloween has to be one of the easiest ways to fight mental health stigma. There are so many other costumes in the world. Just think, if you dress as a sexy poop emoji, you’re not hurting anything but your pride — and it can only get better from there.

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