In this essay by TaLynn Kel for #BodyPositivityInColor, she discusses the politics of cosplay, how she navigates it as a fat, Black woman and why it is a liberatory form of self-expression for non-normative bodies.
By TaLynn Kel
My name is TaLynn Kel and I enjoy being visible.
I wasn’t always able to say that. Not that I wanted to go unnoticed; often I didn’t have a choice. In fact, many times I still don’t. People see who they choose to see in the ways they want to see them, and being a fat, Black woman, they often don’t want to see me at all.
Sometimes, it’s a good thing. In hostile environments, spaces where people seemed intent on psychologically or physically assaulting me, I was happy to go unnoticed. All it took was someone more visually striking to distract my assailants from me. In retrospect, I’m ashamed that instead of fighting for both of us, I was willing to hide and allow someone else to be abused. Unfortunately, when you are vulnerable, there are no good answers to hard questions, and some of my decisions reflected that. I don’t live in a world that stops abuse; I live in a world that lists its targets and revels in the harm it can inflict upon them. In this world, there is a definition of human and that is white, male, cisgendered, able-bodied, heterosexual, Christian, and not fat. The more “acceptable” descriptors you share, the more harm you can inflict upon those who don’t, and the more you will be protected from punishment when you do.
When you fit that definition of humanity, you can enter virtually any space and behave as obnoxiously and disrespectfully as you desire. Not only will society protect you, but it will avenge you when someone puts you in check. Society is taught to see you, care about you and protect you, even when you’re a monster. But I am a fat, Black woman and American society conditions us not to see people like me. And for a long time, I thought this was how I was supposed to live.
Photo by Kecia Y. Stovall / Photoshop by Acdramon
That is, until cosplay taught me what it felt like to be seen. After that, there was no going back.
The first time it happened, I wasn’t ready. I’d been in white dominated spaces before and treated like a plant that had somehow wandered into their path. I was familiar with being talked over, around, and through. I was also aware of the inverse, of being perceived as a threat and being monitored intensely, my every movement scrutinized in anticipation of violence. Except when I cosplayed for the first time. People stopped to talk to me; they acknowledged the space I occupied. They initiated conversations and politely asked for photos as a peer instead of as a threat. Granted this was 10+ years ago, before cosplay became visible in mainstream popular culture — a visibility that over time has begun gregariously reinforcing restrictions on who should be visible and who shouldn’t.
But this was before that time, before social media would begin reinforcing white supremacist standards of attractiveness and importance on an activity I was growing to love. I loved it because, for the first time, I knew what it was like to be welcomed into a space, not because they thought I could teach them to dance or add excitement to their white bread lives, but because we shared a common interest. It was a nice feeling that, sadly, wouldn’t last but I still think of fondly.
Fast forward a decade and I find myself wrestling with the question of visibility. Do I even want it? Why would I want it? Should I want it? Is it something I want to fight for and for what purpose? I wonder if other people ask themselves these questions as they write, and draw, and build brands or give speeches. What makes me worthy of being seen? Because being seen is not incidental. People actively look away from those who look like me, making visibility a continuous effort. Should I even bother making that effort?
Photographer and Photoshop by Kecia Y. Stovall
The answer is an unequivocal yes. My reason is simple: I am here.
I am here. I exist. I walk through this world before, beside, and behind you. There is zero reason why I should question my worth. There is no reason that I should be invisible. Or questionable. Or hidden. We all walk this earth together, and my only reason for questioning it is that our society is exploitative, abusive, and psychologically violent in ways that routinely undermine my humanity. I will not have it. Not anymore. I shouldn’t have had it in the first place, and I found a way to unlearn it using cosplay.
It was fully embracing my love of cosplay, an artistic form of expression that requires an audience, that allowed me to believe in my own humanity. Engaging with it allowed me to play with the different aspects of who I am, regardless of what everyone else says I am, or should be. I choose my identity through how I choose to interpret and present myself, as well as how I choose to interact with others while indulging in that identity. Cosplay is a safe space where I feel free to be sexy in my fat, Black body and it is such a grandiose, personal statement that I never feel as though anyone else has power over me. And while that wasn’t always the case, while there have been times that I considered no longer engaging in it, something about it continues to speak to and through me and I am not ready for that to end. When I cosplay, I feel as though I am fully stepping into my power of creation and the rebirth of many iterations of myself. Cosplay is a silent way of screaming, “HEY! Look at me!” and giving no fucks about the consequences.
Photograph by Geek Behind the Lens
Through cosplay, I’ve learned that my monsters aren’t always monsters. Often they are unacknowledged pain. I continue learning to love the different shapes and contours of my body because in order to cosplay you have to really look at yourself. You have to actively engage with your face, your skin, your hair, your fullness, the entire physicality of you. I have to care about my looks in ways I was told were unnecessary for people who look like me, because when you are fat, you can’t possibly care about your looks, right? Otherwise, you wouldn’t let yourself be fat in the first place. Except I am fat, and I love how I look. Both in and out of costume, I love looking at myself, at my different facial and bodily expressions, at the way that just the slight tilt of my head can convey a completely different message. I’ve gained an appreciation for all the parts of me, regardless of how they have changed and continue to change. When they do, I pay attention to it and figure out how I want to present myself next time. Not with disgust or dislike, but with a realistic practicality necessary to curate the next way I want to be seen.
To be seen, you must see others, and in order for me to continue cosplaying, I had to see myself, love myself, and care for myself from head to toe, inside and out. I had to not just confront my insecurities, but accept them as part of who I am and my journey. I had to learn that there are parts of myself that contradict each other and learn how to navigate relationships in ways that are not harmful to myself or others. I had to learn who I was, what I wanted, and why it mattered to me — I had to be honest and it was in that honesty that I found my voice.
Now, while there are times I question when my voice is needed, I do not question whether or not it is needed at all. I know that it is. I know how it feels to suffocate loneliness and invisibility. I know how it feels to believe you do not matter. I understand what it’s like when it feels like a great void is swallowing you whole. But I also know what it’s like to stumble across a voice similar to my own and hear pieces of myself reverberate throughout, reminding me that I am not alone in that space. Reminding me that there are others there, lost and searching for someone, anyone who can see them. And I know what it feels like to find them, even temporarily, and learn that we are never truly alone. That all we needed was someone like us speaking loud enough for us to hear and leading us to where we feel seen. I have heard that voice and know that it is needed. I have heard that voice and want it to be heard, too. That voice saved me, and I know I can be that for someone else, because sometimes, the only way we learn to see ourselves is when we learn that others can see us, too.
TaLynn Kel is a writer, cosplayer, activist, and podcaster in Atlanta, Georgia. She writes about racism, cosplay, interracial relationships, and pop culture fandom through the lens of social justice. She conducts panels on these topics at fandom conventions both in and out of Georgia. Her cosplay and essays have been featured by The New York Times, NBC, Safety Pin Box, Black Girl Nerds, Fabulize Magazine, InStyle, and Huffington Post.
TaLynn has self-published two essay books, Breaking Normal: Essays about My Fat, Black, Geek Life and Still Breaking Normal: A Fat, Black, Femme, Geek Navigating an Anti-Black World, available on Amazon.
You can find TaLynn’s work on her website, Breaking Normal at www.talynnkel.com. She is also active on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and YouTube under the handle TaLynnKel.
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