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To Be Others is to be more like ourselves

By Andrea Letamendi.

Why might a person want to become someone else? What would compel them to put on a costume and assume a different identity?  We might ask what flaws or deficits they are trying to conceal. What history, what personality, what kind of life are they trying to escape? What are they hiding behind the mask?

Perhaps we’re coming from the wrong angle with those questions. That is, what if I told you that persons who cosplay actually feel more like themselves when they are in costume? What if looking like someone else makes them feel like who they really are? And what if I told you that this is a completely normal process?

It’s puzzling at first. I’m not sure I fully understand it myself, even after experiencing it firsthand. In 2012, during a panel about the psychology of cosplay at New York Comic Con, cosplayer Holly Conrad, known for her realistic Lieutenant Commander Shepard costume (Mass Effect), revealed a very personal sentiment with a single statement. She said that she didn’t fell like herself unless she was dressed as her beloved fictional character.  There was a resounding agreement from the audience. This seemed to be a universal, yet unexplained feeling: the armor, makeup, props, masks or helmets—things that cover us up—actually make us feel more visible. It’s as if our identities are fragmented or incomplete until we can sew, glue and build them together with the artifacts of a costume. And then, it just feels whole

Despite an emphasis on the exterior, cosplay is an internal transformation. I define it as a visible expression of fandom that is accompanied by a psychological transformation related to personality, power, abilities, gender or sexuality. It’s neither shielding nor displaying our identity; it’s somewhere in between. Cosplay is an integration of our identity and the character we are embodying. It lifts up and makes accessible our own capacity to experience and express wonderful human emotions like generosity, caring, confidence, power, altruism, pride and something we often struggle to find: a feeling of acceptance. Those who do not understand it offer their own explanations, conjecturing that cosplayers suffer from low self-esteem, psychological disorders, developmental problems or social ineptitude. But this is a shallow perspective, one that neglects a fundamental aspect of the cosplay community. As they say in Star Trek: “Infinite diversity in infinite combinations.”

There are still many myths that can get in the way of celebrating that diversity. It seems that when superhero costumes are mentioned in the news or mainstream media they’re associated with negative, sensational stories that involve crime, violence and antisocial behavior. Whether to blame, degrade, or pathologize, so often are cosplayers lumped together and reduced to a one-dimensional spectacle, dismissing all that the cosplay has to offer within and throughout.

In an effort to help provide a better understanding of cosplay, and to move past the superficial aspects of costume-wear, psychologist Dr. Robin Rosenberg and I began to study the beliefs, behaviors and attitudes of cosplayers. During a time of stereotyping, debasement and misconceptions regarding cosplayers, we reached out to the community to explore their experiences firsthand. As a clinical scientist, I know that the best way for us to increase our knowledge is to rely on facts, not assumptions. As a cosplayer, I knew that I wanted to tell my own story, not have others tell it for me. Thus, we utilized empirical methods like questionnaires, surveys and direct communications with more than 1,200 members of the cosplay community. I was eager to find some kind of commonality, some trait that connected all cosplayers. Perhaps we’re all introverted. Or maybe we’re all looking for social approval. Or maybe we all have similar “day jobs” from which we’re all trying to escape just a few moments.

I was wrong. One of our most striking findings was that cosplayers represent an incredibly diverse group, and we could find no single commonality or attribute that was shared among them. In fact, cosplayers are no more introverted or extraverted than non-cosplay populations. As far as identities, a significant amount of women cosplay, as do ethnic, sexual and gender minorities, highlighting the inclusivity in comic, anime, gaming, and sci-fi and fantasy fandom.  They represent all walks and intersections of life. Nerds cosplay. Women cosplay. Professionals cosplay. Accountants cosplay. Athletes cosplay. Psychologists cosplay. Professional athletic nerdy women cosplay!

In the Spring of 2013, I gave a lecture at the University of California, Riverside (UCR) to young adults and students who were interested in learning more about cosplay. Many had never cosplayed before. When asked about their willingness to cosplay at conventions and other public events, some of their concerns were around safety, a sense of security and/or a chance to experience fewer boundaries. One student confessed that she wanted to cosplay one of her favorite characters, but feared showing her face, explaining that she was unsure how she would be treated if people could “see the real me.”  

It is, without a doubt, true that cosplay involves revealing more about oneself. It is, without question, then, that cosplay involves an exercise in bravery. And to enact that bravery could create exhilaration unlike anything else.  Perhaps that explains our unwillingness to stop. 

Integrating aspects that we admire into our personas is a very natural, adaptive process. In fact, some of us experience everyday transformations simply due to our professions. As an example, work having to do with law enforcement, court proceedings, foster care, child welfare, and a multitude of other professional atmospheres may actually require us to wear different hats. Maybe we find ourselves leading, helping, facilitating, directing, teaching, assisting, nurturing, serving, fighting, protecting, and caring for others.  Rightly so, why not draw empowering attributes from fictional characters? Batman’s resiliency, Korra’s self-determination, Finn’s innocent bravery, Vader’s prestigious power, Doctor Who’s wisdom, Jessica Rabbit’s sizzle, Spongebob’s buoyancy. 

What are the healthy aspects of cosplay? A sense of community, of friendships spanning time and cities. Large groups of people–again, of all types–banding together to celebrate their craftmanship and hard work. People with a deep passion and a dedication to fandom, finally getting a chance to express themselves in ways that make them feel accepted and recognized. Cosplay could be an outlet, an escape to a universe in which a person may not otherwise be able to participate. In our everyday lives, do we feel out of place, uninvited, outcast, or marginalized socially? Ironically, the act of adding costume and decoration can actually strip down those social differences or barriers. 

Cosplay is a chance for us to safely explore emotions we may be unable to express in our other lives, whether it’s self-pride, anger, wickedness, terror, sensuality, ambition or strength. Cosplay is a display of the parts of ourselves we may not have permission to show. Cosplay is a participation in the subversive. Cosplay is a sense of freedom from boundaries. And sometimes, many times, cosplay is just showing the world just how magnificent we really are, inside and out.  

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