15 Totally Offensive Halloween Costumes to Avoid For Halloween — Now and Forever

·7-min read
Photo credit: Disney / Halloweencostumes.com
Photo credit: Disney / Halloweencostumes.com

As a former theater kid, I get excited about just about every aspect of Halloween. Dressing up in elaborate Halloween costumes, eating so much candy that I get a sugar headache later, carving a pumpkin after making my partner scoop out the guts out for me — what's not to like? This year in particular, a lot of us will probably go even bigger to make up for missing Halloween parties last year. But as we all start mood-boarding our Halloween creations, consider this your annual reminder to make sure the sartorial tribute you've got in mind won't impede anyone else's celebration. Every year, at least a handful of people (celebrities included) come up with cringe-worthy, harmful and offensive Halloween costumes that ruin everyone's good time. And it can happen where you least expect it.

Events like mass shootings, natural disasters, COVID-19 and movements like #MeToo should never be used as inspiration for Halloween outfits. Even if you don't personally find these concepts painful, the choice to make light of them reminds countless others of trauma they've endured. Additionally, nationalities and subcultures you don't belong to aren't a costume; they're ways of life that deserve respect. We've rounded up some examples of Halloween costumes you should avoid this year (and every year). Instead, choose an outfit that's fun, lighthearted or scary in a way that won't make someone relive a traumatic event – and don't forget to eat your weight in candy.

1. A Holocaust victim

Photo credit: HalloweenCostumes.com
Photo credit: HalloweenCostumes.com

As hard as it is to believe, more than one celebrity has been called out for dressing up as a Nazi for Halloween. Dressing up as a Holocaust victim is just as bad. Several retailers have come under fire for selling an "Anne Frank" costume for little girls. Many places pulled it off the shelves after customers complained, but others still offer similar looks as "World War II Evacuee Girl" or "Child's 1940s Girl Costume." The Holocaust is a historical event we should remember with sadness, not costume party fodder.

2. Anything involving blackface

Photo credit: courtesy of Fun World
Photo credit: courtesy of Fun World

Let's get one thing straight: Blackface is never OK. Never. Ever. Not under any circumstances. But while the offensive practice includes literally painting your face a shade other than your natural skin color, it also goes deeper than that. Dressing up in outfits that reinforce racist stereotypes also counts as blackface. For example, if you identify as a white person, avoid stereotyping any other cultures that aren't yours, even if you intend to pay homage to a specific person. That means we should all steer clear of caricatures like Julianne Hough's "Crazy Eyes" costume and Luann de Lesseps's Diana Ross costume.

3. Transphobic costumes

Photo credit: Party City
Photo credit: Party City

If your outfit makes fun of a marginalized group of people, it's definitely a no-go. Take this "tranny granny" costume, for example. It got pulled from Walmart shelves after consumers pointed out that not only does it mock transgender women, but also uses a transphobic slur right in the name. Dressing up as a gender presentation other than your own is not a great idea. Trans people aren't a joke, and these costumes aren't funny.

4. The COVID-19 pandemic

Photo credit: courtesy of JeffZhang
Photo credit: courtesy of JeffZhang

A pandemic that has killed over 600,000 people (and rising) in the United States alone isn't a costume, it's a tragedy that has significantly disrupted many people's lives. Resist the urge to dress up in a medical hazard suit, anything resembling a virus, or as a victim of the virus itself. This is where specificity matters. Generic doctor and nurse costumes, go for it. Specific get-ups that reference the pandemic in particular, not so much.

5. Body-shaming and objectifying costumes

Photo credit: Trendy Halloween
Photo credit: Trendy Halloween

When it comes to disrespecting women, this costume gets it wrong on several levels. It not only reduces women to sex objects, but turns a woman's weight into a joke. Think about it this way: If you wouldn't say it to a friend's face, don't wear it as a Halloween costume. Outfits that make fun of people's size, objectify human beings, or otherwise make light of a person's lived experience are all bad calls.

6. Cultural stereotypes

Photo credit: Disney
Photo credit: Disney

When someone dresses up as a member of a culture that isn't their own, particularly in an exaggerated or "humorous" way, it comes off as cultural appropriation at best, or an offensive jab at other cultures. If you or your child intend to pay homage to a beloved Disney character (hint: Moana or Pocahontas), take care to dress with racial and cultural sensitivity. Focus on costuming linked to a specific character, not general looks that have particular meaning to often-marginalized groups of people. Skip the mustache and poncho combo, Native American headdresses, kimonos, and grass skirts with a coconut top. Use this gut check: If your costume would make an offensive sports mascot, skip it.

7. A terrorist

Photo credit: courtesy of Spirit Halloween
Photo credit: courtesy of Spirit Halloween

Do we even have to say this? Dressing up as Osama bin Laden, Dylan Roof, or even a generic member of ISIS are all in extremely poor taste. This falls under the same heading as making light of tragedies. While we're at it, let's cross dictators like Hitler or anything that involves the Confederate Flag off the list too.

8. Zombie versions of recently deceased celebrities

Photo credit: courtesy of ebay
Photo credit: courtesy of ebay

We get it, you want to pay tribute to one of your dearly departed favs. Go wild with your best Ziggy Stardust, your Purple Rain homage, or even an Amy Winehouse bouffant. But don't, we repeat, do not add zombie makeup. It's always too soon to wear a depiction of someone's corpse. Period.

9. An eating disorder

A few years ago, an online store took some heat for releasing a costume called"Anna Rexia." The incredibly poor-taste outfit included a skeleton dress with a measuring tape belt to "cinch the waist." Not only is it a truly terrible pun, it also trivializes eating disorders, which are no laughing matter.

10. Animal cruelty

Photo credit: Costumeish via Mashable
Photo credit: Costumeish via Mashable

Remember that awful dentist who slaughtered Cecil the lion and this terrible costume that resulted? Yeah, don't do this. Also off the table: costumes depicting anyone big-game hunting, those that involve animal shelters and euthanasia, or any that you wouldn't want your children to come across while out there collecting candy.

11. A mentally ill person

Photo credit: courtesy of Halloweencostumes.com
Photo credit: courtesy of Halloweencostumes.com

Sometimes, offensive stereotypes creep into our speech before we even realize it. How often have we all called a difficult person "crazy" without thinking about how the term might feel to someone living with mental illness? Halloween costumes that make light of mental institutions are the same deal. Wearing a straightjacket, or any other equipment typically associated with the institutionalization of people with mental illness, trivializes that experience. Let's all strive to be a little more mindful with our speech and our outfits.

12. Sexual harassment

Photo credit: Spirit Halloween
Photo credit: Spirit Halloween

The #MeToo movement should have clued us all in to how unfunny sexual harassment jokes really are, but it bears repeating. Someone exposing themselves to non-consenting viewers isn't just an unfortunate accident; it's a very real and traumatic form of sexual harassment. These kinds of costumes are not only offensive; they may trigger those who have dealt with harassment themselves. Don't risk it.

13. A homeless person

Photo credit: courtesy of eBay
Photo credit: courtesy of eBay

For decades, dressing up as a "hobo" was considered a harmless outfit. But in the U.S. alone, thousands of people are unhoused every day. It's a lived reality for many, not a cute outfit idea. Instead of smudging dirt on your kids' faces and dressing them in old clothes, teach them about the housing crisis in the United States and then find them an adorable costume that doesn't recall anyone's suffering.

14. A national tragedy

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Remember those two people who dressed up as the Twin Towers after 9/11? Just don't do it. That also applies to the Boston Marathon bombing, any and all mass shootings, the storming of the capitol building, and the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. We'll say it one more time so it sticks: Tragedy is not a costume.

15. The Black Lives Matter movement

Photo credit: courtesy of Amazon
Photo credit: courtesy of Amazon

The racial justice reckoning in our country is powerful, but that doesn't mean you should turn it into a Halloween costume, even in tribute to those doing the work. Wearing a T-shirt with a slogan that shows your support to a protest, vigil, or around town is one thing. But don't try and turn the fight for racial equality into a current events-themed outfit for your Halloween gathering. That's tokenism, not solidarity.

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