Years ago, Karen Wade noticed a bumper sticker on the car of an acquaintance that made her blood boil. It depicted a nurse wearing a low-cut old-style uniform, according to Wade, PhD, RN-BC, and founder of the Nurse2Nurse Network. “She was holding a long, hypodermic needle, filled with a colorful liquid, wearing a coy, 'come hither' expression,” Wade remembers. “The implication was that her male 'patient' would take off his pants, bare his butt, and have some kind of sexual experience with the nurse.”
“This is just garden variety sexual objectification of women,” she says now. “Seeing it made me feel disgusted and confused.” And a similar visceral feeling comes up for her when she thinks about people wearing cliched-yet-popular “sexy nurse” Halloween costumes amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
Nurses are putting their lives on the line every day, she says. This has been true for years, but especially so now. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention notes that health care personnel are at risk for contracting COVID-19. They were on the front lines of the pandemic, often without enough or adequate personal protective equipment. They’re also dealing with the mental health repercussions. They’re experiencing high levels of emotional overwhelm and depression, according to a survey from the American Nurses Foundation.
All of this is to say, we should be hailing and respecting our nurses right now — not sexualizing them.
“If people want to play out the [sexy nurse] fantasy in private, that's their business,” Wade says. “But, even in 'normal,' pre-COVID times, it was harmful and disrespectful to exhibit this stereotype because it reinforces the 'woman as sexual object' idea that we’ve fought to conquer for decades. Not to mention, it diminishes the vital work that nurses do.”
The popular Halloween retailer Yandy — known for their myriad provocative costumes, as well as some downright offensive ones — made the decision to keep selling their nurse costumes this year. Some of these outfits come with garter straps and have dubious names such as “notice me nurse” and “R.EALLY N.AUGHTY” nurse. They're a far cry from scrubs.
"We discussed nurses costumes internally prior to Halloween and made the decision to continue to offer them,” Alicia Thompson, director of brand marketing at Yandy told Refinery29 in a statement. “Obviously, COVID itself is nothing to laugh at, and we aren’t encouraging that. We’ve made a conscious decision to position and market nurse costumes this year as essentially part of the superhero category. Put them on a pedestal and worship them as they deserve.”
But not everyone agrees that nurses are actually feeling this so-called “worship” from their communities. And certainly not at the same level they were at the beginning of the pandemic. “We feel a bit weird about the fuss that is being made, because doing dangerous uncomfortable things and putting our lives on the line are pretty standard,” says Amy Baxter, MD, CEO and chief medical officer at Pain Care Labs. “This is what we've always done. The hero worship is on other people's radar, not ours."
“I don't think any nurse would feel worse about a sexy nurse costume than at any other time,” Dr. Baxter opines. “Nor would a mad-scientist doctor offend me — except that it would almost definitely be played by a male, which, sigh.”
Some people disagree, saying their views on the costume have changed since 2019. For instance, Linda Rice, a certified nurse midwife, anticipates the costume pushing her buttons in a way it wouldn’t have in the past.
“As much as I hate the sexy nurse costume, I usually wouldn’t feel the need to criticize someone wearing it,” Rice says. “But, this year, the least we can do is show a little respect. Nursing as a career has been a microcosm of the general cultural misogyny,” Rice adds. “While all healthcare workers have exposed themselves to COVID this year, nurses have the most actual contact with COVID patients in most scenarios. Aside from risking our lives, working 12-hour shifts in full PPE and N95 masks is miserable enough. And when we had to resort to wearing garbage bags as gowns, we still showed up to work."
Despite the tone deaf nature of the garb — and notwithstanding the fact that the CDC is suggesting folks rethink Halloween parties this year— Yandy reports that people are buying the costumes. “Nurses are always a best seller and continue to be this year,” Thompson, of Yandy, says. “We have seen 40% growth in the category since the beginning of September.”
Wade, for one, hopes to see this stop. “Within the healthcare hierarchy, nurses already struggle for the respect they deserve,” she notes. “Sexual harassment at work, including when it comes from other hospital personnel, contributes to an increased sense of a lack of safety.” And both those factors contribute to job dissatisfaction, and more nurses leaving the field, Wade notes.
“This costume is inappropriate at the best of times,” she adds. “And now, nurses are making so many other sacrifices, such as living away from family to protect their loved ones from virus exposure. They’re experiencing PTSD and increased levels of anxiety and depression at an unprecedented degree.”
The bottom line, according to Wade? “Have some respect,” and maybe dress up as Tiger King this year instead.