Monday, October 14, 2013

A Double-Edged Prop Sword: Cosplaying and Body Image

"A Double-Edged Prop Sword: Cosplaying and Body Image" 

By Tali’Belle Cosplay

 The cosplay community is full of some of the very best, most creative people in the world. We take costumes, some of which have no basis in reality, and make them a reality. Fans of the characters we dress as often consider us to be bringing their favorite character to life.

My favorite memories in cosplay are a young girl in her early teens dressed as Katara from the series “Avatar: The Last Airbender” running up to me yelling ‘Tali’Zorah! Tali’Zorah!’ (a reference to the character I was dressed as, from the video game “Mass Effect”) and giving me a hug while I waited in line for Mark Meer’s autograph, or the time two girls near my age dressed as Panty and Stocking (from the eponymous anime) bowed to me and begged ‘Lady Proudmoore, please don’t become a raid boss, we love you.’.

From becoming someone’s head canon for Tali’s real face to being hailed as a beautiful interpretation of Lady Jaina Proudmoore (a character from the video game World of Warcraft), much of my life as a cosplayer makes me feel good about myself. But it wasn’t always so for me and certainly isn’t always so for others.

"The Problem is Not Exclusive to Body Shaming"

Before I was ‘Lady Proudmoore’ or ‘Miss Jaina’, I was just a nineteen year old girl wearing a vaguely Jaina-esque outfit for fun online and the comments were very different: ‘Jaina let herself go when Thrall left her’, ‘Damn, Jaina! What happened? Too many mana biscuits?’ and all that flack. And those are minor insults compared to what other heavyset girls in the cosplay community have endured.

Every day from Deviantart to Tumblr, I see perfectly good cosplays verbally torn to shreds because the cosplayer somehow doesn’t fit a conventional standard of beauty. Even after losing weight, it’s disheartening to know I’m one bad week or two away from being ‘Fatty’Zorah Vas Nomandy’ (I didn’t say their insults were all clever.) But you see, weight has nothing to do with how sexy someone is or how good a cosplayer they are. My favorite cosplay of Velma Dinkley (and by far the most attractive and well done I’ve seen) has been a bigger girl. There is a wonderful plus sized cosplayer practically famous for her Harley Quinn. And still these girls are forced to endure insults! Why?

But even when you ARE able to lose weight or fit a societal standard of what looks good, it doesn’t stop, because the problem is not exclusive to body shaming, but also objectification. Now I’m ‘Titty’Zorah Vas Boobies’ because of my bust size, or I have self-proclaimed ‘Talimancers’ grabbing my ass during photos. The stupidest was probably Tittybell….an extremely lame pun on Sweetie Bell from My Little Pony when I announced I wanted to cosplay as her. You need only look at Yaya Han or Vampy to see this problem in full swing. Both are beautiful women who dedicate a lot of time and energy to their craft.

Yaya Han as Chun-Li from Mortal Kombat
Yaya is a professional with years of self-taught, trial and errorexperience as well as many years in the community itself. Her craftsmanship is studio quality and every time I’ve met her, she’s shown herself to be a wonderful person who treats her fans well. But her kindness and craftsmanship are often overlooked by ‘fans’ who would prefer to treat her like a pair of breasts rather than a talented individual. Though she removes perverse comments or ignores them, they clog her pages daily and she isn’t the only victim of this.

I saw an excellent cosplay of Duella Dent the other day online and someone lamented that she was a ‘fake geek girl’ just another hot chick with nice tits and didn’t know anything about comics…and then this person’s ilk went on to call her ‘gender bent steampunk Joker’….Well, looks like that ‘hot chick with nice tits’ knows more about your fandom than you do, gentlemen. Any female who dons a sexy cosplay is victim to this. But to really understand why people feel the need to do this, we have to look at the type of people who lash out at someone just for their body type. We will ignore certain examples because sometimes body- or slut-shaming ends up in the crossfire of someone being called out on personality flaws, which is a different issue entirely (to quote Mean Girls “I don’t hate you because you’re fat, you’re fat because I hate you.”).

"A Sexist Notion Born of Complete Ignorance"

The main people who, unprovoked and knowing nothing about a person, will shame or mock their body or sexuality tend to be those who don’t cosplay. The men who were picked on for being nerds in high school and desperately want geekdom to remain their domain and have become their own variant of ‘plastics’ (again, if you haven’t seen the film “Mean Girls”, I’d recommend it,) in trying to control one place they feel ownership of, the “dudebros” who think cosplay is another venue for women to cater to them, a sexist notion born of complete ignorance to the time, effort, money, and resources it takes to pull off a cosplay whether you make the costume or not. Here’s the thing: But for people discussing someone having glaring personality flaws and their weight or ‘sluttiness’ coming up in that conversation, very few of the people involved in the ridicule are actually cosplayers. And why are so few of them cosplayers themselves? Well, to put it bluntly: Most cosplayers have a better understanding of what goes into it. 

"Cosplay Is Not Easy"

Since I don’t personally speak to a lot of the more famous and well known cosplayers, let me explain from two of my favorite cosplays of mine what went into the cosplay to give you a better idea of why only people who don’t understand are so relentless with their bullying: My World of Warcraft Lady Jaina Proudmoore costume started out as a Macy’s clearance dress and a simple cape and bolero commissioned from one of those shoddy Hong 
Tali'Belle as WoW's Jaina Proudmoore
Kong based cosplay sweatshops (before I knew how those actually worked…yikes!). From there, Jaina developed into an old belly dance skirt accented with shimmery purple Halloween fabric, a Victoria’s secret bra with cheap gold pleather and a pair of football pads as shoulder guards, to a peachskin suiting and velvet skirt from a franken-pattern I created from two different costume patterns, a different altered bra, and these really depressingly bad craft foam shoulder guards.

Finally, it has evolved into a triumph of a hand drafted pattern in two kinds of bridal satin, taffeta lined, and with a custom pair of shoulder guards ordered from a professional armorer. Altogether, the costume has been a five year work in progress, and cost over two thousand dollars in materials. Were I making it for someone else at a fair seamstress’ wage, it would be over five thousand dollars, including labor.

My Mass Effect Tali’Zorah costume started out with an altered skating pattern and an altered pair of leggings, the rest having been hand drafted by myself. It took over a hundred hours to complete and was made of a high grade spandex meant for figure skating or dance wear. I hand painted the designs onto the spandex part, hand sewed most of the vinyl parts plus the gloves. I designed entirely unfamiliar armor concepts that I’d had no experience with, wired a hamster ball with El wire and zip ties, and then the first helmet only cost $75 because it was used as a portfolio project for a costuming student, but the final helmet will come to $500, with the new fabric (high end equestrian wear/wetsuit neoprene, custom printed cotton sateen, upholstery vinyl, 4-way stretch PVC) coming close to $500 in and of itself, not even to mention to foam armor reworking and leather work for the belt that I will need to do, this costume will take over 200 hours of work and has cost about two grand thus far.

See? Cosplay is not easy and even those who buy their costume generally are making a huge financial
Tali'Belle as Tali'Zorah from Mass Effect
commitment. And all of this because they loved the character they are portraying. It is a deep love for a character, be it for design or personality, which drives a cosplayer (even if a person were theoretically looking for the skimpiest outfit, it’d still be their taste in design, thus a love of the design). Fellow cosplayers understand that. Frat boys and territorial basement dwellers do not. I say the people who body shame, who objectify, have lost the true point of cosplay.

The true point of cosplay can be different from person to person, but guess what? The person whose opinion of 
someone’s cosplay matters is that person and that person alone. For someone like Yaya Han or Vampy, cosplay may be a business, a fun challenge to interpret a character she adores and make money doing so. For someone like me, maybe it’s to get a chance to role-play in public as a character I love, to become that character for the people around me. For others, cosplay may be about fun, an adult game of dress up. There are a million reasons to cosplay that can make you happy, so don’t let some asshole who’s never picked up a sewing needle in their life become the one reason not to.   Tali'Belle is a fashion and costume design student with twelve years of cosplay experience. She operates Fleet and Flotilla: Dextro Couture and Salvage on Etsy. Her main cosplay is Tali'Zorah Vas Normandy and her current preferred convention is Dragon Con. You can keep up with her on DeviantArt  or Twitter. And of course, you can find her posts here on I Feel Delicious!

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