Past concerns spur ‘body-positive cosplay’ at Phoenix Comicon

Kimberly Speer, 28, dressed as Amber from Fire Emblem, leads the conversation at Phoenix Comicon on how to succeed at creating costumes regardless of weight or size. Previously bullied for her costumes, she now preaches confidence and community to concerned players. (Photo by Devin Conley/Cronkite News)

PHOENIX – Kimberly Speer spends hundreds of dollars and countless hours building her costumes for Phoenix Comicon. The 28 year old makes the costumes by hand and pays minute attention to detail so they replicate her character’s original form. She displays her hard work through social media. And then the comments come.

“I did a My Little Pony one and they did a My Little Hippopotamus,” Speer recalls.

The cosplay community at Phoenix Comicon, which runs through Sunday, can bond together over their creative expression. With the time and effort put into some of the outfits the competition to best represent one’s favorite character can be overwhelming. The backlash some players take because of their body type can create such a negative setting that it ruins the event for some individuals.

“When I first started cosplaying I always put off characters like ‘Oh, I’ll be that character when I lose weight or things like that,” Speer said. “I realized it at some point I don’t owe it to anyone to look a certain way to practice my hobby.”

This year, Phoenix Comicon hosted a panel to bring attention to body-positive cosplay. The goal is to help players to become more comfortable with their costumes and deal with situations involving bullying.

Amanda Burch, 22, traveled from Los Angeles to attend Phoenix Comicon. Her costume took roughly three weeks to assemble and cost about $450. (Photo by Devin Conley/Cronkite News)

Amanda Burch, 22, a Jo-Ann Fabric and Craft Stores employee, known as the Artsy Alchemist, spent three weeks stitching together individual articles of clothing and spent around $450 to complete the outfit to best represent her character.

Burch stands over six feet tall — not in heels. She sees the convention as a safe place from bullies.

“I feel like I can be myself when I’m at the convention more than I can be myself in day-to-day basis,” she said. “I can just walk up to a random person at a convention and start a conversation.”

To true cosplayers the act of creating the attire most similar to their favorite characters is an exciting hobby.

“I’ve just grown more and more confident the more I’ve cosplayed,” Speer said. “It’s helped me to come out of my shell and gain confidence in my body.”

Plus Size Cosplay

Speer has been attending Comicon for around seven years. Each year, she creates — from scratch — multiple costumes for the weekend event. After her work is complete she posts pictures and tips on her Facebook page on how to be a plus size cosplayer as well as cosplaying on a budget.

Each costume costs between $100-$200 and roughly two weeks to create. Despite the craftsmanship, some online individuals can’t see past her size.

“I had a person who has a whole favorites folder that’s just called ‘fat’ who added my pictures to that,” Speer said. “There’s just all these comments about how fat I was.”

This is not the first time Speer has faced bullying. In the past comments have risen regarding her photos.

“I’ve gotten some comments online. I have a DevianArt account, and I would get things like ‘A wild Snorlax has appeared,’ which is a fat joke,” Speer said. “The Snorlax is a pretty fat character.”

Speer originally sat on a panel for Comicon five years ago to encourage plus-size cosplay for females. She spoke about the topic at other cons, including Kikori and Con Nichiwa. Soon she discovered that plus size body players were not the only ones being bullied.

“I have actually a really cute guy on my panel who gets (bullied) for being short. He’s not overweight or anything he just gets constantly harassed for being short,” Speer said.

The panel grew to include more characters that faced similar issues outside of Comicon. This created the Body Positive Cosplay Panel at Phoenix Comicon.

The panel seeks to solve issues surrounding a variety of cosplayers — from being a different age, weight, size or gender than the character they portray.

William Brouws, 22, sits on a Body Positive Cosplay Panel at Phoenix Comicon 2017. He discusses how to overcome bullies and negative thought when building one’s costume for the event. (Photo by Devin Conley/Cronkite News)

Cross Play

William Brouws, 22, a new member to the panel, specialized in the realm of cross play, when a player wants to play a character of the opposite sex. Dressed as Harley Quinn, a female character from the DC comic book series, Brouws spoke of his past experiences with bullying when he did not accurately fit a character’s attire.

“I was going as Optimus Prime and my costume weighed 90 pounds. It was 90 pounds of plastic,” Brouws recalls. “A guy comes up to me and goes, ‘You’re not a giant robot!'”

The robot costume took around two months to make and cost around $200, he said.

Brouws recalled being harassed down the street of the convention for his height and costume until the individual had to be escorted away.

“He kept screaming as he was being dragged away that I’m not a 20-foot-tall robot.”

Brouws explained how the negative comments discouraged him from wearing the costume he had spent so much time on. After a year, however, Brouws has found a way to overcome his insecurities and speaks on the panel now about facing bullies who discourage anyone from playing their favorite character.

He told the story of an official Harley Quinn character on Instagram who reached out to him after seeing photos of his take on the character. The comments involved harassment that males playing female characters ruin the integrity of the character.

Brouws was disappointed that someone who should be a role model sought to discourage a fellow player.

“Soon, about a month later, I saw she actually took down her page because she was getting body-shaming comments,” Brouws said. “It just shows everyone goes through it.”

Dawn Nixon poses in her Daenerys Targaryen cosplay at Phoenix Comicon. (Photo by Devin Conley/Cronkite News)

Never Too Old

Dawn Nixon said she gets criticized because she is older.

“My boss thinks I’m a little odd,” Nixon said. “She doesn’t understand.”

Nixon has gone to Comicon for two years, playing Daenerys Targaryen of Game of Thrones, a character in her teens.

“I like to do things that are different that I really like. It doesn’t matter that I’m like them at all,” Nixon said.

Phoenix Comicon

Organizers promote the Body Positive Cosplay Panel to try to ensure a fun atmosphere at the event, according to Kristin Rowan, director of marketing, sales and public relations for Phoenix Comicon.

“We capture everything that is interesting — so great costumes, great looks, great characters — without really looking at what size the character is,” Rowan said. “If there are issues we try to promote that with the positive body imagery.”

Organizers banned props beginning Friday after police arrested Mathew Sterling for bringing three real handguns, a shotgun, a knife and ammunition to the event, according to Phoenix Police. Police believe Sterling was targeting police and an actor at the event. He is being held on $1 million bail.

The event still encourages attendees to dress how they want as long as they are safe and promote positive body imagery.

“It’s something that is a concern to all of us. Especially with teenagers and young girls and looking at health issues,” Rowen said.

How to Overcome

The panel and discussion group has grown to accommodate all players. Players discussed the best ways that they have found to fight negativity.

1. Don’t let a vocal minority ruin your good time.
The first way Speer noticed the shift in her attitude was when she began to look closer at the comments she was receiving on her costumes online.

“I had five negative comments to 195 positive comments,” she said. “Most people are nice and will support you and want you to have fun. So don’t let that minority of people who want to hurt you and hate on you ruin your good time.”

2. Someone is always going to do it better.
The concern with attempting to look like someone else is that there will usually be someone who does it better. Just because it is not a perfect costume doesn’t mean it is not the perfect costume for you, according to Speer.

3. Some body types are unattainable.
Even after working out two hours every day for months, Brouws said deciding to play Wolverine was a tough choice. Setting unattainable goals can set someone up for failure and cause negative thoughts to take over, according to Brouws.

4. “Be unique. Be creative. Be Yourself.”
“I think cosplay is growing,” Burch said. “You instantly have a family that’s a million strong.” Burch explained that she had issues with bullying in the past. The convention allows for the expression of creativity and it should be taken advantage of.

5. “I’m worth it. I’m fine the way I am.”
Through positive vocalization, Brouws found that repeating statements soon began to help change his perception of himself.

“I would say it in the mirror everyday for two months. As corny as it sounds, it actually started working,” Brouws told the crowd.

The members of the panel will attend the event for the rest of the weekend and encourage attendees to be proud of their costumes.

“I think the community at large is going to be positive and that’s what we need to focus on,” Speer said.