Whenever I try to explain what cosplay is, I always get a flurry of mixed responses: Isn’t cosplay really inappropriate? You must be so immature! You probably have no friends, etc.
To get all of the misconceptions out of the way before we dive in, let’s start with my short explanation of what cosplay actually is. Cosplaying is the art of dressing up as a fictional character from a movie, TV show, book, webcomic or video game. Cosplayers aren’t inherently sexual, childish or anti-social. The cosplay community is a massive network, full of interesting people who work to support each other. Although the majority of cosplayers are great, caring, sweet people, there are bad apples, just like in every group of people.
Unfortunately, racism and body shaming in the cosplay community have always been an issue. I’ve faced it myself, with plenty of people taking to my page to tell me I’m too fat or too dark to be in my costumes. I’ve learned over time to ignore it all, but it still hurt at the time. There are tons of cosplayers like me, who don’t fit into the “standard,” who are receiving the exact same abuse.
According to the Pew Research Center, black people are 22 percent more likely to be a victim of online harassment than white people, while those who identify as Hispanic are seven percent more likely. The same study also shows that only 31 percent of black people feel comfortable speaking their minds online compared to 48 percent of white people.
Instagram cosplayer of color @krischillin_cosplay is a friend of mine and has been cosplaying since 2016. He’s known online for cosplaying from classic and recognizable franchises like “Naruto” and “Dragonball Z.” Throughout his years of cosplaying, krischillin_cosplay has encountered the best and the worst of the cosplay community.
“Funimation posted my picture on their Instagram page,” said krischillin_cosplay. “I went to check it out and there were so many black jokes. Personally, I can easily ignore stuff like that, but what made my day was seeing my friends already defending me.”
“People act the same towards POC cosplayers as they do people of color in society in general,” krischillin_cosplay, added. “They try to blame it on the characters we cosplay when in reality, they just don’t like our skin color in general.”
"They try to blame it on the characters we cosplay when in reality, they just don’t like our skin color in general.”
krischillin_cosplay said that he has found other cosplayers of color to band together with to defend against this kind of discrimination.
Another Instagram cosplayer, @lani_cosplays, got her start in the cosplay community five years ago in 2013. Her cosplays consist of a broad range of franchises, from Disney to “Steven Universe” to “Voltron: Legendary Defender.” As a personal friend of mine, lani_cosplays and I have worked together to help ease tensions surrounding discrimination in the community. Just recently, we cosplayed Powerpuff Girls as plus sized women of color. We had a great time breaking convention, and I was elated when the responses we got were so positive.
We attended an anime convention this past summer and we had so many people stopping us, complimenting us and asking for our pictures. When we posted our cosplay online, we received tons of comments praising our choices and it was amazing seeing all of the support.
“It’s harder for POC, plus sized, and less financed cosplayers to get recognized,” said lani_cosplays. “Media tends to cater to white people so it’s easier for them to seamlessly cosplay things and gain popularity as well.”
"Media tends to cater to white people so it’s easier for them to seamlessly cosplay things and gain popularity as well.”
Unlike krischillin_cosplay, lani_cosplays hasn’t found as much support from the POC cosplay community as she would like.
“On Instagram we try to lift each other up,” said lani_cosplays, “But I feel like the more popular POC cosplayers get so overwhelmed with it all that they don’t really have the time or resources for that.”
Instagram cosplayer and woman of color, @unproducktive, started getting serious about cosplay four years ago. She said she hasn’t found the kind of support from other cosplayers of color that she expected either.
“I've found it hard to make true friends in the cosplay community, especially with other POCs,” said unproducktive. “Don't get me wrong, I have a ton of great hearted POC friends, but I have also had a lot of bad experiences.”
Unproducktive said she notices that a lot of cosplayers of color tend to look down on those “below” them and ignore everyone else, in order to get to the top.
“Since cosplay fame-dom became a thing because of social media, I feel like it’s become a group of crabs in a barrel,” added unproducktive.
Sometimes the only way to help the situation is to give advice to new cosplayers about what to do when inevitably encountering unfair treatment while cosplaying. Unproducktive advises cosplayers not to rely too heavily on outside opinions.
“I have gotten tough skin through cosplay and learned a lot about myself,” She said. “I just remind myself that their opinion is invalid and they do not mean much. You cosplay for YOU! You must remember that.”
"I just remind myself that their opinion is invalid and they do not mean much. You cosplay for YOU! You must remember that.”
Another way to help out is to speak up about the discrimination if you see it happening to someone.
“Raise awareness if you can, but also get support,” lani_cosplays said. “You’re more than the troubles you face, and haters don’t make your cosplay any less valuable.”
Naturally, I agree with all of this advice. My personal words of wisdom as a cosplayer of nearly six years, is to just do what you want. It seems pretty straight forward, but the moment you make the decision to stop worrying how you’ll be perceived and start not caring, is the moment you find freedom in the cosplay community.
I started cosplaying in seventh grade and it’s been a huge part of my life since then. My first cosplay was terrible, I knew it was, but I felt great. Before cosplay, I was entirely lacking confidence. I was bullied in elementary school and middle school, but after finding cosplay, I noticed a massive change in myself. It was like this whole new world opened up to me. Even so, it took a while for my confidence to grow.
I used to be terrified to wear crop tops in cosplay, but now I willingly do it. I used to only cosplay characters with unnatural skin tones, so that I could paint myself with body paint, and it made me feel more comfortable. I was holding myself back. It wasn’t until I finally started sharing my cosplays online when I realized that I was limiting myself.
When I first looked to Tumblr, I saw a wide, beautiful land of cosplayers with all different skin tones and body types. In the early stages of my time as a social media cosplayer, I was wide-eyed with wonder at all of the diversity. I never even noticed the abuse that POC received. I suppose not being able to see how unfair it all was allowed me time to build up my confidence and grow a tougher skin. By the time I actually encountered discrimination, I simply brushed it off. Although I didn’t take the many insults personally, finally encountering it made me want to work even harder so that I could show everyone that cosplayers of color are just as good as other cosplayers.
"When I first looked to Tumblr, I saw a wide, beautiful land of cosplayers with all different skin tones and body types. In the early stages of my time as a social media cosplayer, I was wide-eyed with wonder at all of the diversity."
— Avery Alexander
Now, I actively cosplay white characters and I feel great. All of my success and self-discovery with cosplay has come from me gaining confidence and finding empowerment in cosplaying for me and for helping others. There will always be the people who don’t think I shouldn’t be cosplaying Cinderella, or wearing a small top, but I know I look great, so why should I worry?