There must be something about Ariel.
Maybe it’s the way the spirited redhead is unapologetically rebellious, a go-getter by nature. Or maybe it’s the way her curiosity leads her to new discoveries about the world. About other people.
For 29-year-old Joleigha Chappell, cosplaying the lead character from “The Little Mermaid” was the moment she finally felt comfortable in her own skin. Dressed in metallic green leggings and a purple bra covered in seashells and glitter, she recalled feeling exposed. It was as if everything was on display for everyone to see.
Then a Cosplacon guest came up to her. They had asked if she’d made her costume and complimented her handiwork. They didn’t care that her stomach was exposed or her arms weren’t covered.
A tinge of emotion ran through her voice when she talked about it, but she held back and smiled.
“It was so empowering to have somebody that I respected so much compliment me,” Chappell said. “And it wasn’t about a body — it was about something I had made. … I never would have been able to push past that if I hadn’t just done it.”
Women like Chappell have found comfort in the creative release and the messages of encouragement in cosplay. And although women involved with the craft haven’t always had positive experiences, they’re reclaiming their voices and embracing their uniqueness.
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In the era of #MeToo, it may be hard to believe sexual harassment could still be happening at public
conventions. It’s even harder to trace as cases go unreported. But in 2014 — three years before actress Ashley Judd accused media mogul Harvey Weinstein of sexual harassment — red and white lettering at the entrance of New York Comic Con was addressing the issue in its own way: “Cosplay is not consent.”
Six years later, the phrase still rings true, and it’s come full circle. With national and local conventions pushing for visibility on the issue, Chappell and fellow cosplayer Micaela Digar said in recent years they noticed a drop in instances of sexual harassment. Women — and men — are being far less sexualized for the characters they choose to portray, Digar said.
The change has been freeing.
It’s empowered women to take on new and different cosplays. It speaks to the community that has rallied around women at cosplay conventions.
When she first started cosplaying, Digar said she was extremely shy. But having a supportive friend group in Jefferson City’s Cosplacon has helped her come out of her shell.
“I was like, ‘Am I doing this right? Is this what I’m supposed to be doing?’ Is somebody sitting here commenting, ‘Oh, she looks really bad. That looks really horrible on her’ kind of thing?” Digar recalled. “And then nobody said that.”
Having that support group is almost necessary for women doing cosplay. It builds you up and pushes you forward, Digar said. Without it, she can’t imagine being where she is now.
The community that has encouraged women to wear the cosplays they want to wear without fear of being overly sexualized has also been a creative outlet for women who simply want to enjoy the craft — regardless of whether they dress for the occasion.
Beth Adkins described herself as a “toe in the water” cosplayer. She’s been attending Cosplacon for the last four or five years and said she loves being able to see the creativity that runs through the convention, but she’s never felt pressured to deliver an elaborate cosplay. Her outfits are not “fancy” or “immaculately done,” she said. But they’re still hers.
“I think everyone should be comfortable to do what they want to do and have fun,” Adkins said.
That same community is where cosplayer and Cosplacon staff member Jami Harris “found her tribe.” While family and friends outside of cosplay may not understand her love and dedication to the craft, she said the people she encounters every year at Cosplacon have always supported her through thick and thin.
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The first time Chappell attended a cosplay convention, she was dumbfounded at how many strangers shared the same interests. She’d finally found a place where people like her — self-proclaimed “nerds” — could come together. The word still touches a sensitive nerve for Chappell, who said she was bullied back in junior high and high school, but she visibly shrugs it off.
“I am a nerd. It’s who I am. It’s part of my personality,” Chappell said. “And that’s not something that anyone can take away from me. Yeah, you could have bullied me back in high school and junior high about it. But you’re right. I’m a nerd.
“You can’t take these things from me. I can take them, and I can empower them.”
With the popularity of comic book characters, especially in Hollywood, skyrocketing in recent years, Harris said she has noticed a difference in how people perceive the craft. A new sense of curiosity has replaced the majority of dirty looks or backlash. If she has to stop for gas or run into a store while in cosplay, she’s not afraid to do so.
“People will be like, ‘Oh my gosh. Is this real? What is this for?” Harris said. She’s happy to stop and answer questions if it means dispelling any leftover misconceptions.
Chappell has followed her own message through. She’s taken that word and reclaimed it. Now, her fight has shifted.
Chappell runs a body positivity panel at Cosplacon, speaking to young men and women about the importance of embracing your uniqueness.
It can be difficult to see an anime character or a muscular superhero and feel as if you can embody the character. Nobody looks like a fictional character, Chappell said. You have to personally figure out how to stay true to the character while still complementing your own body.
For women, whose characters are often drawn scantily clad with unrealistic body proportions, there’s a delicate balance in doing so.
“I spent so much time saying ‘I’m gonna wait until I’m skinnier before I do this certain cosplay,’” Harris said. “And people just go, ‘Why?’”
And in one moment, Chappell realized the encouragement she was happily giving others had to be replicated for herself, too.
“I was not (always) a very body-positive person. I would do these cosplays, and I would pan around the fact that I’m a big girl,” she said. “And I would hide a lot of myself, even at the risk of the character not being particularly right.
“And it threw a lot of insecurities onto me because I couldn’t be that detailed. I couldn’t be on point because I had to make my skirt longer. I had to adjust my hemline. I had to do these things. And I had this wake-up moment one day, that I’m not like everybody else, and nobody else is like me, and that’s OK. And then I started talking about that with other people. And they have the same feelings.”
Chappell was diagnosed with alopecia areata, a medical condition that causes hair loss, but she hasn’t let it stop her from giving her all to cosplay. In December, she shaved her head. Harris said she felt as if she’d watched Chappell bloom into a new woman.
“She took it and turned it around and made it work for her,” Harris said. “I’m just so proud of her in general for all of her growth as a person.”
It may sound strange, putting on someone else’s skin to feel comfortable in your own, but Digar emphasized the experience is empowering. It’s a chance to embody a strong character. It’s similar to how a superhero puts on a cape, mask or grabs a shield before stepping into the battlefield.
Cosplayers put on a costume out of admiration. It’s who they’ve chosen to represent, and to take on that persona is an empowering situation, Chappell said.
But she vividly remembered meeting young girls during her panels who she said hated themselves because other people told them to.
They might’ve heard they’re “too fat to cosplay” or “too black” to be Raven. But any body, and every body can cosplay — Chappell is willing to fight to the very end to make sure that message is the new standard.
And sometimes it takes someone else standing up for you before you can stand up for yourself, she added.
“And I can’t fix it in one hour. I can’t fix it in two hours,” she said. “But hopefully in that one hour, I can give them that spark to realize maybe they were wrong. Maybe the people that told me I wasn’t good enough were wrong.
“And that’s why I keep doing it. I want young girls to grow up into strong women, and I want strong women to help lead the next generation. And if what I do is cosplay, then we’re going to do it really, really well.”