Cosplaying While Disabled Is Both Wonderful and Frustrating

Many geeks enjoy the art of cosplay. Whether you go for a traditional look or you combine your favorite couple of themes, it’s always fun to embody your favorite character. Some people cosplay casually, adding a wig or a piece of jewelry. Some people go all out, painting their entire bodies or spending tons of money on the perfect look.

Everybody has their own rules for cosplay. Some people refuse to go outside gender lines. Other people will dress as anybody. The problem is when we start applying our personal rules to others. Some people get flustered if you don’t have the “right” body for a character—if you are bigger, you can’t play a skinnier character, or vice versa; girls can’t be Stormtroopers, and boys can’t be princesses. Not everybody has this mindset, but there’s enough of it out there that I know some people who don’t bother with dressing up solely due to embarrassment or fear.

Body shaming is prevalent in this day and age, and even more so towards people with disabilities.

Like many of my fellow geeks, I love to cosplay. I love to dress up. I have my favorite books, TV shows, and films to draw from. I love The Lord of the Rings and anything fantasy based. I enjoy certain comics. I like characters from both Marvel and DC. One time I dressed up like Wash from Firefly. At CONvergence, I will wear a different costume for each day. My experience varies. Sometimes it’s wonderful. Sometimes its frustrating.

It’s wonderful because it’s an escape from reality. Who doesn’t like that every now and then, especially when you are trapped in a body that doesn’t work right? I have dwarfism and I also use a wheelchair because of arthritis, so oftentimes I feel weighed down and trapped low to the ground. I love the concept of flying, and therefore dressing as a fairy is one of my preferred costumes. However, it’s hard to enjoy that escape from reality when everybody reminds you that you don’t quite fit the part.

One disabled cosplayer I spoke with was actually told, “It’s okay to be Gandalf with a cane, but not Castiel.” The thing is, if disabled cosplayers are only “allowed” to cosplay as disabled characters, then something is wrong. Cosplay lets us be anyone we want to be, so why should disabled people be limited to characters who share their disability? (And even when disabled cosplayers want to cosplay as disabled characters, there aren’t very many to choose from, which is a whole other article.) Contending with this mindset is very frustrating, to say the least.

As a cosplayer, the art of finding just the right costume is wonderful and exhilarating. When the final piece is in place, you feel like a master treasure hunter or sometimes a great artist. But again, when you have an atypical body type—in my case short and round—it can be extremely frustrating trying to find that perfect look. I don’t have a child’s body, so I’m too plump and curvy for child costumes. I don’t have a regular adult body, so I’m too short and small chested for most adult costumes. I have my body, and I don’t disparage it; I just disparage that nothing is made for me. I have to either get things custom made for the best fit (and lots of money) or buy something premade and cut half of it off. And that is frustrating.

Then there are things that aren’t wonderful at all.

Another bit of discrimination faced by people like me dressing up in costume is the infantilization and asexualization of disabled individuals. Now, most people don’t do this out of cruelty—most people aren’t even aware that they are doing it—but it happens all the same. A perfect example that I have experienced is no matter what costume I’m wearing, the costume is or I myself am referred to as “cute.” When I’m dressed as a hobbit, it’s perfectly acceptable. Hobbits are adorable.

Laura dressed as a hobbit, in her wheelchair

Cute. via Bob Alberti

But when I’m Harley Quinn, childlike cuteness isn’t what I’m going for. If you would call an able-bodied Harley Quinn “sexy” (said with a flirty wink) but me “adorable” (said like you’d say it to a little kid), even if we’re wearing the exact same outfit, then you should think about why you’re treating me differently. No one likes being catcalled, but no likes being invisible either.

Laura Dressed as Harley Quinn

Not cute.

I’m not saying it’s all bad. I really do love cosplaying. I love being creative. But like everybody else, I internalize prejudice. I’ll wear a skirt with my corset because I think my thighs are too fat and they have scars, but I’ll still dress up, doubts and all.

You’ll see me on the scene, but don’t expect me to only dress as disabled characters—because there aren’t enough of them to go around. Please realize that constructing my costumes to work for me is not always easy, and that I dress sexy to be sexy, like anybody else. So, when you see me or others with a disability cosplaying as their favorite characters, give the compliments you’d want to be given, and remember: we can be anyone.

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