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The World of Black Cosplay is Leaving Out Fat People

Surrounded by a wall with clippings and fanart of the beloved Japanese manga Naruto, Lady Hoekage (yes, her name is a play on Naruto’s Tsunade, better known as “Lady Hokage”) is dressed as one of the series’ most iconic characters — Kakashi. Wearing a green and blue sensei ensemble paired with gray hair, a Konoha headband, and a kunai knife, the content creator and entrepreneur embodies the effortless cool of the shinobi. Like many other people across the world, Hoekage is particularly intrigued by and immersed in the world of cosplay, or the art of dressing up as various characters from shows, cartoons, anime, and other fandoms. She has always been a fan of anime and had a great interest in using it as inspiration for her craft, which ultimately led her to explore cosplaying as another form of content creation. However, she initially had some apprehension about publicly participating in the activity due to her size.

“[Before now], cosplay was always something I wanted to do, but I always thought, ‘I’ll do it when I tone up, or I’ll do it when I lose some weight. Or, you know, when my skin gets clear,’ she said during a Zoom call. “I finally came to a realization in 2020, and I told myself, ‘Bitch, you’re not waiting to do any of these things. You’re just afraid of being talked about or people pointing these things out.’ I really had to tell myself, ‘Girl, get over it.’”

Lady Hoekage’s concerns don’t exist in a vacuum. They stem from the deeply rooted social ill of fatphobia — the covert and overt oppression of fat people — and it greatly impedes on the success of fat cosplayers in a multitude of ways. Desirability politics, lack of proper and accessible clothing and sizing, the constant exposure to fat shaming, fat fetishism, and inappropriate parasocial behaviors not only negatively impact their safety, but make it a challenge to participate in something they really want to.

“It’s already hard being noticed as a larger-bodied content creator in general, but I’m also Black, so that’s two strikes against me already which [keeps me from being pushed in front of a larger audience],” she said. “What is the point of doing this all if I’m not being seen?”

Content creator Lady Hoekage dressed in anime cosplay as Naruto’s Kakashi.Image courtesy of Lady Hoekage.

The depictions of fat characters in pop culture

Fatphobia’s sphere of influence traces back beyond the digital age and to the time of the Transatlantic Slave Trade, where Black fat bodies were postured as lesser than in comparison to white ones in order to perpetuate and justify their enslavement. As a result, fatness and Blackness have been — and still are — seen as unworthy and unrealistic beauty standards equated to ugliness. Coupled with anti-blackness (or the systemic oppression of Black people), we are now seeing how fatphobia intentionally creates barriers for cosplayers who share these identities.

The depictions of fat characters in anime, cartoons, and other fandoms are minimal in both number and range. When they are present, their storylines are usually crafted and coded as villains, comic relief, supportive best friends, weight loss totems, or a combination of the aforementioned tropes. From Spiderman’s best friend Ned, who’s the film’s stereotypical POC and fat best friend, to the Star Wars franchise’s Jabba the Hutt, an infamous galactic gangster who serves as a representation of greed. There’s even Usopp from One Piece, who gained weight from eating during the plot’s time skip, and loses it in order to level up. Despite being iconic, these characters — and moreover their fat bodies — are presented as an amalgamation of poor choices that should be punished by ridicule, subjugation, and being negatively regarded, which is directly connected to how everyday fat people are being viewed and treated.

Solana Dreams, a content creator whose cosplay niche mostly involves portraying fantasy characters, pointed out how fatphobia not only plays a critical role in how fat, Black cosplayers navigate their experience, but also limits the characters they’re able to portray as well.

“As a cosplayer, it’s all about your ability to wear something and to either look like a specific character or as close to them as possible,” Solana said. “I feel like more scrutiny is on us as fat Black cosplayers because we’re not canon.”

Content creator Solana Dreams often portrays fantasy characters in their cosplay.Content creator Solana Dreams often portrays fantasy characters in their cosplay.Image courtesy of Solana Dreams.

Understanding fat tax and lack of clothing accessibility

Fatphobic propaganda is stitched in the fabric of the quotidian, including the very fiber of the clothes on our backs. With women’s plus size (U.S. sizes 18 and up) clothing only occupying 19 percent of the fashion industry, there’s a large gap of resources and clothing accessibility between those who wear straight sizes, and those who wear above a size 18. Because of this, fat cosplayers have to find innovative and creative ways to approach their craft. For Solana Dreams, they often have to make their own pieces.

“As a person who wears a size 4x-5x, I can’t always buy something off the internet because it’s very hard to find clothing. I usually have to make my own stuff. It makes the cosplaying process even longer because I have to put things together and find or create pieces that fit my body,” they said during a Zoom call. “I feel so bad because I want to produce as quickly as some of my cosplaying counterparts, but that’s not my reality.”

In the rare instances that actual cosplay attire is available in larger sizes, there are still some alterations that need to be made. Lady Hoekage shared how she ordered a bodysuit from Amazon for a Mirko cosplay that sort of fit her, but she had to cut the belt and add an elastic band in order to dress up as the fan-favorite My Hero Academia character.

The issue with size-inclusive clothing doesn’t stop at size. Price is also a limiting factor in making cosplay more accessible to those in fat bodies due to the Fat Tax, which makes plus-size clothing more expensive than straight-size options. The insidiousness of things like cost and clothing inaccessibility make it harder for cosplay enthusiasts to consistently participate in the activity. On the other hand, some clothing, despite being marketed as “plus size and inexpensive,” fit poorly due to being constructed in different countries where sizing is not equivalent to that of the U.S. All of these limitations can deter someone from cosplaying more than they’d like to.

Lauryn Craine, a Public Services Assistant who has a deep love of anime and cosplay, recalled how her friends recommended Aliexpress to her in high school, because that’s where they bought all their cosplay stuff while being on a budget. After checking the differences between Asian and American sizing, she decided on a Love Live! (a Japanese multimedia franchise encompassing anime TV series, manga, and video games) outfit in a size 3x.

“The skirt fit fine but the top was absolutely too small. I then triple-checked all the measurements and realized that it was actually equivalent to a size larger or XL,” Craine said. “After that, I never cosplayed again because it felt like nothing would fit, and I didn’t want to go through the trouble of feeling like that again.”

Grad student and educator TC Monreaux in Velma cosplay.Grad student and educator TC Monreaux in Velma cosplay.mage courtesy of TC Monreaux.

Perceptions of fat, Black cosplayers and their representation online and IRL

What’s even more ostracizing about the fat, Black cosplayer experience is the fact that fatphobia leads to skewed perceptions of this community, and their ability to be recognized and taken seriously as cosplayers. Grad student and educator TC Monreaux, whose foray into cosplay began while as an undergraduate student, shared how many people did not recognize their Velma cosplay, despite being dressed in the Scooby-Doo character’s easily recognizable colors.

“People seem to have a hard time identifying a character on a fat body. Although I didn’t go full-fledged feminine with the skirt and a kitten heel, I still had on glasses, an orange top, and burgundy bottoms. I had to say ‘Jinkies’ in order for people to get it, and they still told me that wasn’t what they got from my cosplay,” Monreaux said.

Negative public attitudes toward the intersections of fatness and Blackness also manifest on digital platforms, where algorithms heavily censor those in larger and darker bodies while prioritizing those who are smaller, lighter, or are closer to whiteness and benefit from desirability.

Generally, Black people, regardless of their other intersections, are not featured on platforms that cater to white and non-Black audiences. But what’s even worse is that Black-run platforms also perpetuate desirability politics, often excluding fat, Black people from their feeds.

As highlighted in a tweet by Lady Hoekage, there’s an unspoken expectation of fat, Black cosplayers to be exceptional and often hypersexualized, in order to be pushed by the algorithm and receive public recognition.

“The main issue is that I follow a bunch of different creators but I never see them. If people are seeing their favorite creators, they need to be sharing us to their stories, double-tapping, etc. It’s not that hard. It’s about us getting out there, and there’s only so much we can do on our own,” she said.

The fat, Black cosplay community being rendered invisible is even more recognizable during convention season. Monreaux has noticed that there’s a stark difference between seeing fat, Black folk at conventions, and what is actually being shown in photos, videos, and other forms of event coverage.

“I went to Coco Con in Atlanta where Black cosplayers came together, and I saw a lot who were also fat there as well. However, I didn’t really see many of them in the videos that I ended up seeing,” they said. “I don’t think that’s alway intentional, but I do think that there can be a more intentional effort to make sure that everyone — including fat, Black folk — who show up to these events receive attention.”

Special education teacher and content creator Sailor Xtasy.Special education teacher and content creator Sailor Xtasy.Image courtesy of Sailor Xtasy.

Changing the tide for fat, Black Content Creators

Since external support is in limited supply, this community of cosplayers have had to create their own avenues of opportunity in order to better their circumstances. Because of a lack of inclusion in fashion, Lady Hoekage started DokiDoki Threads, an exclusively plus-size anime wear company that also caters to cosplayer needs. All of her pieces, which range from sizes 1x-5x, are designed to be used as both regular clothing and cosplay items.

There’s also those who hope to bring more awareness to this issue simply by participating in it, and encouraging other potential plus-size cosplayers to do the same.

“As a plus sized cosplayer, I hope to uplift the community by showing how you can still be beautiful and plus-size,” special education teacher and content creator Sailor Xtasy said. “I wear the same popular cosplays as everyone else and still look amazing. I want people to know that cosplaying is about having fun and the joy it brings oneself. I will proudly show off my curves and rolls if it means that I’m happy.”

But in order for things to truly change, there must be safe spaces made for fat, Black content creators.

“What’s helpful and encouraging is having interconnectivity among fat, Black cosplayers, and those who are in more privileged bodies need to check their biases when it comes to those of us in marginalized bodies,” Solana Dreams said. “More spaces that include us need to be created so that we can find harmony and compassion with each other.”

Cheyenne M. Davis (they/them/theirs) is a writer, adjunct professor at New York University, digital content creator, and aspiring screenwriter. Topics that they often explore in their work include media representation, nerd fandoms, sex, kink, fat liberation, LGBTQIA, misogynoir, Black pleasure, and how all these things intersect. Aside from their creative pursuits, Davis is a cat mom and a video game and anime aficionado.

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