Cosplay and Body Shaming

Cosplay, at its best, is about people having fun dressing up as their favorite movie, anime, game, or other characters and joining like-minded people. But we live in the real world and things involving other human beings are seldom at their best. Take, for instance, the case of body shaming.

Picture taken by Long Le

Body shaming, simply put, is making fun of or rejecting someone because of their physical appearance. In the case of cosplay, it is because the person does not “fit” the appearance of the character portrayed. I’ve already spoken briefly on this topic elsewhere, but it deserves a fuller treatment on this particular aspect. The practice generally comes in two forms. The first is far more common: Saying a person is inappropriate for a given cosplay due to body shape/size or because they are of a different race (crossplay and gender bending constitute another topic entirely). As I have written before, a person may cosplay a particular character because they identify with that character intellectually or emotionally, or the character’s story resonates with their own life. No one can take that away from the individual cosplayer but people do try. “You’re too fat to be Princess Peach!” “There are no black Sailor Scouts.” “Master Chief isn’t handicapped.” I have heard and seen worse, but propriety insists I not repeat them here. Sadly, these sorts of things and worse get posted online and shouted in person all the time. I’ve seen cosplayers crying at such insults after first working up the courage to cosplay at all and then putting in scores of hours on their outfit. This is ridiculously unfair.

Before I go any further, I want to be clear. I am not saying all criticism is a bad thing. Saying to a fellow cosplayer “You can improve your outfit by doing thus-and-so” is helpful. Constructive criticism is a good thing and helps build community. Websites such as and exist entirely for that purpose. They also have community rules that prohibit the sort of body shaming considered in this article. No reputable cosplay website puts up with it because doing so harms the community they are trying to build.

To those who engage in such behavior, I have but one thing to say. Stop. Just stop. People who may not embody your ideal personification of a character are just as human as you are. Their story is just as meaningful as your own and their struggles toward self-expression via cosplay are in no way any less harrowing or uplifting than yours. Indeed, cosplay as a form of affective play can often be a coping mechanism to deal with personal insecurities. Are other cosplayers obliged to support those who do not fit into a preconceived mold of a character? No. But they ARE obliged not to be awful human beings. The old refrain of “If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all” is a useful guideline in such cases.

Picture taken by Long Le

Then there is the less common form of body shaming: Saying someone’s outfit is too sexy. Examples targeted by this form of body shaming include Sailor Scout outfits with even shorter skirts and low cut tops, the bikini worn by Samus Aran at the end of the first Metroid game, or generally any female character modified to show off the cosplayer’s body in ways not normally found in the original material for its own sake. (It happens for male characters, too, but nowhere near so often.) I would argue that being provocative for its own sake without consideration for the original character is an illegitimate choice. But, if the modification is genuinely part of the overall context in which the cosplay is created and reified by the cosplayer, I see nothing wrong with it. Alterations like these can involve complicated back stories, deep dives into fanfic, and even a cosplayer’s attempt to express their understanding of the character’s hidden, true self that is never portrayed to their satisfaction in the media. The asemic or polysemic nature of many fan-favorite media allows this kind of investigation precisely because the audience does not know all the inner workings of the character. Indeed, many anime creators intentionally leave such details open to the understandings of the fans on purpose.

Most mainstream media presentations insist on a hegemonic, orthodox interpretation of their products, but fans who adore even non-anime based objects reject this, at least unconsciously, and come up with their own feelings, beliefs, and understandings of the works presented.  Of further importance is that the fans, in addition to not caring what the original producers think of their views, seldom if ever care what society thinks of their views or their fannishness. The openness of interpretation in the original texts means that there is no one, single, authoritative text that can be read and understood identically by all fans. If such a thing did exist, the item in question would likely be quite dull. Denying a cosplayer the ability to express themselves in an open ended fashion because one views the modifications as “too sexy” is thus just as bad as if they are doing the first sort of shaming.

Cosplay is about showing the world your work, and doing so requires showing your body even if it is entirely covered up by a morph suit or armor or what have you; your body is still in there at the core of the performance. Fat or thin, short or tall, dark skinned or light, it’s about going out into the world and giving it your all. In the 1960s, the Civil Rights struggles worked in the American South because people put their bodies in the public sphere. In India, Gandhi’s work succeeded because of the massed bodies of protesters. The examples are endless, but Margaret Mead said it best: Never doubt that a group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” The common factor remains: People putting themselves out there, in public, is the only way that has ever worked to change society. The physical, visceral presence of their bodies is what mattered.

Cosplay is meant to be seen and putting yourself out there for others to view is itself an act of creative bravery. These are the real “Heroes of Cosplay,” not the drama-addled misanthropes on Syfy. Because no one “correct” reading of a medium is possible, the mere act of attempting cosplay is itself a form of creation. Celebrating that process, no less wonderful than any other artistic endeavor, is what cosplay was originally meant to do. Supporting fellow members of one’s community rather than in-fighting is the only sure path to making the world a better place for everyone involved, including yourself.

In short, supporting other cosplayers makes you a better cosplayer, and quite possibly a better person.

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J. Holder Bennett spends his time in the “real” world, whatever that means, as a history professor in North Texas. The rest of the time he focuses on his real love: fandom. For the past fifteen years he’s helped run A-Kon, an anime and manga convention in Dallas, and recently organized the Fandom and Neomedia Studies (FANS) association to bring together fans and academics for the better understanding of their mutual love. He has also done work on historical fiction and collaborated on analyses of science in cinema. Yes, he’s that guy.

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