Always Changing: How the Art of Cosplay Helped Me Understand Myself

Always Changing: How the Art of Cosplay Helped Me Understand Myself

An essay written by Daze

Cosplaying, Cross-playing, and Gender-playing

I was 14 or 15, fresh after a lot of traumatic experiences in middle school and some “ambivalent friendships” I still find hard to define – pure and simple bullying.

Why am I telling you all of this? Firstly, I’m fine now – as fine as someone can feel, I guess; secondly, I want to give you a clear idea of what I was experiencing not long before going to my first comic-con.

As strange as it sounds, high school was a sort of promised land to me: a place where I could finally find people with the same interests, open minded and intellectually stimulating. I was right to some extent, but living with the same people for five years in a very stressful environment is not easy. People come and go.

I remember quite clearly that one of my friends suggested we go to this small convention, and that we should dress up for the occasion. Cosplayers weren’t so popular at that time and the main reason to wear a costume was the discount ticket. My friend chose to dress up as a character from Hetalia, while I decided to bring a sort of original character that was a mix between Jareth the Goblin King (Labyrinth) and a leather dressed elf that was the protagonist of a famous YA fantasy.

The result was not that good, honestly, and I’m happy all the pictures were lost between one memory card and another. 

My second cosplay is the one I consider my official entry into this crazy, beautiful world and my first step towards a late realization – one of those moments when you see everything in retrospect and think, “Wow, now it actually makes sense.”

I attended my second CC dressed as Undertaker (Black Butler) – a tall, lean shinigami (“god of death”)  with penetrating green-yellow eyes, bringing a Death Scythe I’d love to build now that I have the skills.

The thing is, despite his androgynous appearance, Undertaker is a male character. Explaining this now sounds so silly, but there’s a huge part of the Italian cosplay/fandom community that doesn’t appreciate Cross-playing (dressing as character belonging to another gender, usually women dressing up as male characters) and Gender-playing (changing a character to make them fit into another gender, usually a feminization/masculinization of a character). 

Many purists think changing a character’s gender or hiding the cosplayer’s real gender is a deviation from the original reference. Which is true. 

So what?

The reason why I started cross-playing and gender-playing (which I consider just two of the many ways to cosplay) is because many anime/manga, videogames and tv shows had poorly written female characters. I usually don’t cosplay a character I don’t feel like is mine, and I prefer bending the limits of canon to make them fit my point of view. 

Another reason for this choice was that I’ve felt uncomfortable with my body for a long time, so almost naked, sensual female characters were totally out of the question. 

I’m working on this still and things are going quite fine now, but I was barely a teenager when I started cosplaying. The perception I had of my body and the impossible beauty standards portrayed in the media were a huge limitation for me – still are, sometimes.

Despite all my insecurities, cosplaying became a safe space where I could understand myself and open up to new experiences. I think I never bothered to define myself as a cosplayer or to find a “cosplay style” – which is really a social media thing now. To me, cosplaying is still about feeling good and sharing this fun activity with my friends. Likes and visibility come after.

It was in this space and the related fandom life that I had my first encounters with the LGBTQ+ reality (in canon, fanon and real life).

I know there’s a toxic side in every fandom and a lot of “Oh no, they are just friends” people out there, but I had the luck to stay away from that since the beginning. The people I usually meet at cons might have weird tastes in ships, characters and fan contents, but they were always quite respectful – or at least discreet in criticizing others

I’ve always admired people who are open about who they are and what they like, and I think cons are the perfect place to express your true self. No one will judge you for going full goth mode, wearing too many colors, or just being proud. 

They might not know it, but I really owe them a lot of who I am today.

Gender Expression Exploration and Self-Confidence

A huge part of my gender expression has been shaped by fictional characters and people I’ve met at comic cons through the years. Seeing them being so comfortable with themselves encouraged me to step out of my shell. 

As a glam rock fan (especially David Bowie’s music) since I can remember, I was very young when I understood that there are so many ways to express femininity and masculinity – and they are not related to a person’s gender! Writing it down now, it sounds obvious. But growing up in a small town, I never had the chance to experience queerness until recently.

In many ways, comic cons were the only place where I really could.

Seeing people dressing up the way they wanted, characters or not, even just for a day, is one of the things that pushes me to continue this activity. 

Have you ever seen someone wearing a costume outside the social realm? I think it’s refreshing. 

There’s something special in the way cosplayers hold themselves, the way they act and speak in and out of characters, that made me understand why this hobby is so important.

We all need to evade reality sometimes and to feel in contact with our true self. It might sound trite, but the real mask is the one I have worn every day for a long time, not the wig and heavy makeup.

After attending a few cons, I felt the need to take that sense of pride, of comfort, and experience it in my everyday life. Self-confidence is highly addictive – especially when you have no self-esteem. That’s how my adventure in discovering gender expression started, way before I could even label it with this term.

Cosplaying as different characters is a challenge to me, a way to push my deepest sense of self outside the limits of “who I should be” according to others. It’s not really about the makeup and clothes and haircut – even though it’s probably the first thing people notice, it’s about not caring about all the voices telling you what is proper and what is not; it’s about choosing the way to express yourself that really suits you. And the thing I love is that you don’t have to be coherent! Trying to fit in the box is so exhausting and people will always have their opinions. So why should we try at all?

Sexual Orientation and Labels

During the first lockdown in 2020, I had time to think. Too much time, actually. I’m one of those people that needs a constant noise in their head because when everything stops, they have to face reality. Which I think is the reason why I’m a huge media consumer.

It’s in this context that I came to terms with my sexual orientation. At some point, I felt the need to ask myself some questions and put a label on that specific part of myself. I don’t think labels are a necessity to understand yourself, but in my case I found it really comforting – it means that I’m a complete mess of a human being, but at least I’ve got something figured out.

So, how does bisexuality relate to cosplaying?

Honestly, I don’t know. It just does! I don’t think there’s a linear explanation for this connection, but I’ll do my best.

The only thing that I know is that in the moment I accepted myself for who I am, my heart became lighter and I felt the exact same sense of freedom I feel wearing a costume. Something in my mind clicked and I realized that maybe I didn’t need to overthink the whole thing: I was already living as my true self even when I didn’t have a name for it.

Being surrounded by cosplayers who play with their appearance so much, I understood that to me attraction is something fickle that can’t be limited to a person’s gender/gender identity. There’s so much more cosplayers can express and their gender – or the gender of the character – become completely superfluous.

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