Cosplay, Race, and Fat-Shaming

For someone who loves costuming as much as I do, it’s surprising I haven’t mentioned cosplay in the blog before. Cosplaying is usually looked at as a fun, awesome way to participate in a con or have a Halloween costume a million times better than everyone else’s. Cosplaying is definitely not something to feel anxiety about, right?

Well, for some people, the thought of cosplaying is very much anxiety-inducing. One reason why people feel this way is the fat-shaming that is normal in the geek community and our society in general. It shouldn’t be much of a surprise that heavier people (or people who think they’re heavier) might feel self-conscious enough never to cosplay. Women (as usual, in the realm of weighty matters) in the geek community definitely have more reason to be self-conscious at a con. If you’re a woman seen as conventionally attractive, you’ll probably be creeped on, regardless of your costume, but many female cosplay options (especially superheroines) seem to invite more unwanted creeping than, say, Princess Mononoke. So, while the decision of what character to cosplay is definitely a loaded decision for geeks of all shapes and sizes, fat geeks definitely have a disadvantage.

Not only are there virtually no characters to choose who are already portrayed as fat, but people can be very cruel to/about chubbier cosplayers who dare to cosplay conventionally attractive characters. (And, let’s face it, how many female cosplay options wouldn’t be considered conventionally attractive?) Who does this fat woman think she is? Why does she think she has the right to invade male sexual fantasies about female characters? What, does she think she’s attractive or something? As though “fat” and “beautiful” were mutually exclusive, and as though the purpose of women cosplaying is to perform hotness for male con-goers.

I stumbled on a very honest article by Tabitha Grace Smith called “Why I Don’t Cosplay.” Anyone who’s never considered what it’s like to be an overweight person at a con needs to read this and think about their own behavior and ideas.

“While my body image and confidence are usually fine, going to a big convention filled with scantily clad hotties sends my shields up. I’ve been in earshot of people who snicker and laugh at the plus-sized Batgirls or other cosplayers who don’t fit the skinny actresses they’re portraying. Once I asked one of these curvy girls to pose for a picture and genuine shock crossed her face. Other times it’s been a large man in a Roman gladiator outfit who gets laughed at or the plus-sized Princess Leia. Every time I heard these snickers and laughs I was less comfortable with dressing up.”

About the few options available for plus-sized women and girls who want to cosplay as a plus-sized character, Smith writes:

“I remembered the poor girl who asked on a forum who she could dress up as being plus-sized, the only answer she got was ogre Princess Fiona. I wanted to scream.”

I don’t know about you, but that makes me sad as hell.

Even if you aren’t someone who considers yourself fat, I think we can all agree that not only is fat positivity a good thing, but that we can all relate to considering dressing up as a character who wears spandex and being nervous about walking around all day in such an unforgiving outfit. Luckily, the comments section of Smith’s article led me to two awesome tumblrs: Fuck Yeah Fat Cosplay and More to Love: Fat-Positive Cosplay. Each posts pictures of cosplayers who have awesome costumes and happen to be plus-sized.

Because my boyfriend’s favorite comic book character is Gambit, and omgomg X-Men, we’ve decided to cosplay one day as Gambit and Rogue. For me, the hardest part won’t be making the costume (a challenge I am decidedly up for), but wearing it. In public. Around other people. While I’ve never been a plus-size woman, I have always been on the higher end of the misses sizing chart, and well, let’s just say I’ve got some body issues I need to work on. But sites like this give me a little more confidence. See this rockin’ Harley Quinn? She’s wearing a full body suit and looking damn cool.

So if all these fine ladies and gents can embrace their bodies and cosplay their favorite characters, ignoring any vicious con fat-shaming, so can I. (Besides, ’90s Rogue wears a jacket. …I’m joking. Sort of.)

I also stumbled on a post on Racialious by Kendra James called “Race + Fandom: When Defaulting to White Isn’t an Option.” In it, James writes about facing all kinds of ignorant when you’re a cosplaying woman of color.

“It often feels like a white cosplayer can not only dress as their favorite characters of color but also do so in the most offensive way  without comment. But when a non-white cosplayer colors outside the lines in the same way, there’s a risk of getting an awkward look because–instead of seeing the costume–no matter how perfect it might be, others see the color of your skin and you can see the confusion in their eyes: Why is a black girl dressed as Zatanna?

Worse are the ones who aren’t confused, but then think they’re being inoffensively clever. ‘You know there probably weren’t many Black USO Girls in the 1940s, right?’ Or, my personal favorite, ‘Wonder Woman? I thought you would’ve done Nubia.’

It’s an extension of the “default to white” privilege many fans still engage in on a regular basis.”

In case you didn’t click on the “most offensive way” link, it’s a white woman cosplaying as Zoe Washburn from Firefly… in blackface. There’s nothing wrong with a white person cosplaying as a black character. The offensive line is immediately crossed once you paint your skin. Why some white people still don’t seem to get what’s wrong with blackface, I will never understand. (And seriously, did no one try to dissuade her from this awful decision, or did she just ignore them? Friends don’t let friends wear blackface.) While the woman’s heart was probably in the right place, it just shows how ignorant white people can be about racial issues, and is indicative of the lack of racial sensitivity in the geek community.

I imagine that the point where these two cosplay issues overlap (being an overweight woman of color) is fascinating and equally depressing. But as I have no articles about that particular issue, and am not an overweight woman of color myself, I’ll have to stop here.

It is important for all of us in the geek community to think about the particular obstacles faced by our fellow geeks who don’t live up to the thin, white-washed ideals of our society. And it’s important to remember that the geek community is ultimately a product of society, meaning our ideals of beauty and correctness are derived from the norms of our society. However, it doesn’t have to be that way. As a community insistent on being outside of the norm, it is our responsibility to reconsider our values and perspectives on beauty and race, and realize there is nothing alternative about fat-shaming or race-based condescension.

-Joanna

44 thoughts on “Cosplay, Race, and Fat-Shaming

  1. Thanks so much for linking my article. I hope girls feel more and more comfortable dressing up as characters that they don’t look like. Why? Because fictional characters are FICTIONAL. Who cares what they’re supposed to look like.. they’re icons, avatars if you will… They should be able to be flexible.

    • You’re welcome! And you’re very right. Part of the beauty of cosplay is the fantasy of it, of being able to be someone you aren’t.

      And let’s be real here: how many times does a white person get flack for cosplaying a Japanese person from an anime? I’ve never seen it happen. So why is it ok for a white person to dress as an anime character, but not for a plus-size woman to dress as a thin character, or a black woman to dress as a white character?

  2. Here, here, on all points. Fat-Shaming, Race-shaming or just plain racist ideas with costuming and the creepers, oh the creepers. There are so many things that deter people from cosplaying which is sad because the costumes are so much fun, not just for the cosplayer but for the other people at the con seeing them.

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  6. Hey! I’m the Harley Quinn in the picture [Bella Frankenstein on Tumblr, Mandi Jayne Strange on Facebook] and I know how hard it is to tackle the fear and just simply do what you want to do because it’s your body and you should be proud of it. Even now, I get a few hate emails, the typical body-shaming, but in the immortal words of RuPaul: what other people think of me is not my business. My business is to look fabu and look at all the beautiful curves emerging in the cosplay community. <3

  7. If a person isn’t racist, why isn’t it okay to paint their skin to match that of a character? If the color of the skin helps someone feel more in character, more power to them. Think Robert Downey Jr. in Tropic Thunder–it was a disguise, or character. No one gets angry at Avatar cosplayers for wearing blue makeup or LARP Drows for painting their faces black or blue. Saying that it is not okay shows that race is more of an issue to someone than accepting it for what it is–cosplay.

    • Just because a person doesn’t generally support racist ideas, doesn’t automatically mean that nothing they do has racist undertones. I will admit that blackface in cosplay is different than blackface in the context of, say, that commercial Ashton Kutcher did for Popchips. Cosplay is usually a sign of homage to a character, rather than gross cultural stereotyping.

      The difference between Avatar and Drow cosplay and cosplaying a black character with blackface is that black people are real, not fictional. And that there is a long history of blackface being used to dehumanize people of color, a history that does not exist for the Drow or for Avatar.

      Many people of color see blackface as being inextricably linked with that part of America’s past. Understandably, being reminded of a racist stereotype when at a con (even when done out of genuine respect for a character) is probably unpleasant. I’m not personally attacking that particular woman for being A Racist or Upholding the Values of Centuries of Racial Oppression. I am simply trying to make sure that everyone thinks about these sorts of issues, and understands where people are coming from when they find blackface offensive, and that if you are a white person cosplaying as a black character, you need to be aware of what message you might inadvertently be sending.

      • I also think you’re out in the field on this one, holding this stigma to painting your face is odd and if anything will just maintain the image of blackface.
        Would a transvestite in drag be disrespectful to women because Shakespearean theater plays were performed by all male casts?

      • Some people do use blackface in an offensive way still. It’s not something that only happened hundreds of years ago. Drag is a completely different subject, because drag actually draws attention to the performativity of gender, rather than mocking women (or men, in the case of drag kings).

        I just don’t see what’s so controversial, frankly, about not painting your skin. I don’t see why it isn’t enough to know that it is deeply offensive to some people.

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  11. You know I just got back from an anime convention and I have to give kudos to the young lady who was dressed up as Yoko Littner from Gurren Lagaun. She was approached by someone who commented that she was brave to wear such a revealing cosplay. Her response was that she had stretch marks and some baby pudge, but didn’t care what others thought of her. She wanted to dress up as Yolk and that was that. Very impressive!

  12. Excellent article. Some of the best cosplayers I’ve actually seen actually didn’t match the characters skintone but what did I care if Yuuki Cross was portrayed by a black girl instead of a white girl? Her costume was authentic, down to the armband.

  13. Unfortunately, because cosplay is a visual medium, your costume presentation will indeed be judged on visuals. Even if we can fix the race issues and the fat-shaming, cosplay will STILL be a visual medium. Therefore, in addition to the accuracy of the costume itself, you WILL still be judged to some degree on how much you look like the character as portrayed in the TV show, movie, anime, cartoon, or book. If there’s a visual representation or detailed description of a character out there, THAT will be your benchmark. No, it’s not fair. No, it’s not right. And it’s DEFINITELY not right that people are leering, perving, fat-shaming, or making any sort of judgements based on race… but at the end of the day, if you’re cosplaying, the final question will be “does it look like the original?”

    My wife is a large woman, and she cosplays with me. She’s 5’10 and very curvy. Her most awesome cosplay? Princess Fiona, and it fucking ROCKS. (I dressed as Donkey to match. It was hilarious.) She also makes and wears incredible Victorian bustle gowns, empire-waisted dresses, kimonos, and re-interpretations. But what if you want to do a comic book character? Well, she made a “Wonder Woman” costume for her apple-shaped, 60-year old MOTHER… by re-imagining the design as a 14th-century outfit. The result was freakin’ badass.

    Half of the problem is that people limit their cosplay options to only the flashy hero/heroine characters. There are SO many options out there. People forget how incredible the “bad guy/gal” cosplays can be. They forget about secondary characters. I went to a Harry Potter convention. The best cosplay there? Madame Maxime. Incredibly tall woman took advantage of her height and played it up. Another woman I know, who is quite plump, crossplayed herself into the best damned Professor Slughorn I’ve ever seen (including the one in the movie).

    We can’t fix everything, and we’re certainly not going to be able to stop cosplay from being a visual medium, but we can stop limiting our view of what cosplay has to be. Stop PANDERING to the assholes who convince you that cosplay MUST consist of skimpy costumes with lots of skin showing. Stop letting yourself believe that there’s only one way to portray a character. But beyond that… cosplay BOLD and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. The best way to beat the assholes is to have an awesome time and rock your cosplay, whatever it is, to its fullest potential. And if people can’t get past their prejudices… leave ‘em in the dust. The people who recognize quality in cosplay will be gushing over your workmanship, your props, your sewing, and your details. They’re the ones who matter.

    • While I definitely agree that creative cosplays are often the best (and your wife sounds really cool, for the record), I don’t think there’s anything wrong with someone wanting to wear the canonical uniform of their favorite character. If a woman loves Ms. Marvel, wearing her (frankly silly and impractical) costume doesn’t necessarily mean she’s pandering to anybody or even trying to look sexy. But overall, I think your point is a good one. Fandom could definitely use some creative portrayals of (especially female) characters.

  14. I just want to say thank you for this article, I love cosplaying and this year was debating with Teen Titan’s Raven or Black Canary (Brave and The Bold version), both of which is wearing a leotard. I am not a big size whatsoever, its the thighs (which obviously would be shown off) which are large that I have been paranoid about, I give my respect to the girls who don’t give a darn about what others think when they cosplay.

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  16. As a geek/nerd I grew up being an outcast. When I was in middle school all the girls posted pictures of teen actors, singers, super models, and I had Jim Carrey. Not, because I was attracted to him, but found him hilarious plus he just portrayed The Riddler in my fave Batman movie at the time. (I was really young). I didn’t know who all these guys were these girls displayed, but I could tell you all about the history of the X-Men and I would argue to know end who would win a race the Flash or Quicksilver. When everyone was talking about the latest rock albums, I was going on about the newest movies. I was an outcast of outcasts. Flannel shirts and blue jeans chick who didn’t fit the pretty rich girl image. So,as you can imagine, it blows my mind that a convention designed for people just like me would have so many haters. I’ve seen people say you shouldn’t gender bend, which I love doing and seeing, bigger girls shouldn’t be Sailor Moon and so on. My thoughts always lead to, besides the usual F and U, is cosplay is/was supposed to be about portraying a character you love. For a few hours you can be the God of Thunder or a zombie slayer. This article is wonderfully written and I applaud you for it.

    • Thank you! I completely agree: you should cosplay a character out of love for her/him, and other people shouldn’t be imposing rules just to keep others down. Especially since a lot of those people know what it’s like to feel like outcasts.

  17. This article is really frickin’ inspiring. I’m a bigger girl who has just recently gotten into cosplaying. I feel really nervous all the time because I want to cosplay but I don’t want to be made fun of if I wear a costume like Wonder Woman or something like that. Thanks guys, for showing me that just because I have a problem doesn’t mean that I am alone in that problem.

    • Thank you! I’ve learned that, with most problems, you aren’t alone in having them, it’s just that people avoid discussing them. Breaking the silence will always make people feel better, and can help change our minds about what a “good” cosplay is.

  18. Hi your article was really nice! But I will have to wait to cosplay because I’m 15 with no job and my parents aren’t in the best financial position to give me money for such a expensive project. But I’m saving up money to go to Momocon this year and hope to get more comfortable with the idea of cosplaying!

    • Probably the worst thing about cosplay is how much money you need for it! I’ve definitely been in your shoes (15 and broke), so I can sympathize. Going to a con in regular clothes is probably the best thing to do your first time, anyway. They can be pretty overwhelming and intimidating when you’re new to them.

      • Can I ask you some question for a first time con-goer? Do I need a lot of money to buy merchandise and food. Am I allowed to leave the con and come back? Can I stay in the hotels that offer the closest access to the con, or is that only for cosplayers to stay in?
        Can you ask cosplayers for pictures or they don’t like that?
        I ask a lot of questions,sorry >o<

      • How much money you’ll need for food will depend on how much you eat, and what cheap food options are available near the con’s location. I just went to the Boston Comic Con, and spent all of $5 on lunch at a nearby 7-11. Research food places in the area before you go, and budget accordingly. (I tend to eat less when I’m at a con or ren faire, because the excitement and busy-ness of the day makes me forget I’m hungry.) As for buying things at the con, that’s also up to your discretion. There are a lot of great artists at cons, so I usually like to budget a little for prints and what not. You don’t have to break the bank, though. At BCC, I got a beautiful Storm print for $10.

        Usually cons issue badges or bracelets, so you should be able to exit the con and come back that day. If you’re going multiple days, you might need to check in each day, depending on the con.

        You can stay in whatever hotel you want!

        Ask cosplayers for pictures! Most cosplayers don’t mind having pictures taken, as long as you ask first. Again, this is important: always ask before taking a picture! Even though they’ll most likely say yes, taking a picture without asking permission is creepy and not cool.

        Hope that was helpful!

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  20. I want to cosplay for the first time at NY Comic Con this year but I can’t seem to find any stores online that make plus size Doctor Who outfits for women. I’m not creative enough to make it myself. I might have to change my first choice of an outfit. Also, I totally agree with your article. I’ve never had the nerve/guts to cosplay because of my size and I would always wonder how people would look at me if I do. But I’m going for it this year.

  21. If you want to cosplay, do it for fun and screw all those that want to get technical. There are a lot of tall muscular superheroes, that sure as heck doesn’t stop a bunch of flabby, hairy, pimple covered guy from being a cosplayer. I think as girls, we are our worst enemies. We take what others say way to seriously when it comes to physical appearance and some girls think it’s tier duty to keep other girls down. I think we should all start thinking like men. Do thinks because you like it, learn to laugh at yourself no matter what people say. Men complain when women are to strung up and sensitive and they complain when women aren’t because that’s their place. Screw them.

  22. This article is very inspiring. I’ve read it once, and I feel like crying. First of all, Cosplay is not just about the sexiness, hotness, or the method to become famous. It’s all about the Love, Passion and Courage for the character you portrayed. Actually, here in our country, Many people are ranting about ugly and some fat(sorry, i’m just being honest) cosplayers who still cosplay characters that didn’t look good in their image. Well, it’s not like they want to portray the character, but they want to EXPRESS THEIR LOVE FOR THE CHARACTER THEY PORTRAYED. Do you think just getting “ONLY” a liposuction to become a Yoko Littner or “ONLY” putting makeup to have an asian-look make you look like the character? NO.

    Without courage to portray your character, it’s like you’re making fun of yourself. Be proud, at least. Because not all people in this world can cosplay unlike us. Even though some people rant, tease, or backstab you like, “Hey, that girl is a fattie” or “she looks horrible”, Don’t mind them. They’re like dogs barking at you.

    Anyways, thank you for making this article. I better copy a link of this^_^

    Oh yea, I’m a male cosplayer, and I have some a bit chubby and some not-that-pretty friends that cosplay too. I can honestly say that they do not look like exactly the ones they cosplayed, but I can say that they are awesome because they did it for love and fun, not to become famous and popular.

  23. A bit of an update, I keep getting replies to this thread which is fantastic. I love how many people find it and the comments helpful. This year I went to a con one day in a TARDIS dress I made for myself and the other day as a slightly steampunked wonder woman. There were many other TARDIS costumes there, most were young thinner women (who looked fantastic) yet many people said that I was the best TARDIS they saw all day. I got creative with mine and I think that helps. (FYI, I’m a big old fattie cosplayer). The second day I was again seeing many other wonder women, this is a costume I was always afraid to try because of body type, wonder woman is powerful, strong and muscular, I have a presence, but not an amazonian one :) Again, many of the others were in typical costumes, some did a bit of a spartan take on the costume, but mine was at the point where I couldn’t walk 10 feet without having my picture taken, which was amazing! The attention to detail I think was the biggest hit, but more importantly it just goes to show that more people are caring less and less about body type when it comes to cosplay. Which is very good.

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