How Conquering the Disney Cosplay Universe Helped Me Finally Love My Body

As a kid, I thought I was too fat to dress up as my favorite cartoon characters. As an adult, I discovered a subculture that became one of the greatest joys of my life.

How Conquering the Disney Cosplay Universe Helped Me Finally Love My Body

I spent hundreds of afternoons when I was in high school visiting the Angelfire website of Lady Saturn, a seamstress who specialized in Sailor Moon costumes. The show’s majority female cast was a rarity in a childhood filled with Disney Afternoon sausage parties like Goof Troop, DuckTales and Chip ’n Dale: Rescue Rangers, and it centered around something girls in nowhere towns ache for — a great destiny, preordained by the universe. Plus, the characters got to transform into schoolgirl/go-go-dancer battle uniforms, so it was really firing on all cylinders for me.

It was through my love of Sailor Moon that I met my small group of weird friends, assembled from drama class, jazz band and Model United Nations factions. We were a clique with arcane interests and outsized aspirations, who bonded by tracking bootleg Sailor Moon VHS copies on eBay and doodling the characters in our notes to each other. It was one of these friends who tipped me off to Lady Saturn’s existence, offhandedly, as another crazy thing she’d seen on the internet.

From the home page, I’d click on Sailor Neptune’s link and sit back as the photos downloaded one millimeter at a time. Sailor Neptune was my favorite character only through reputation. Her seasons weren’t allowed in the United States because of her lesbian love affair with Sailor Uranus. Neptune was the most stunning of all of the girls, with aquamarine hair cascading in perfect waves to graze her delicate shoulders. Even though her seasons were absent from Cartoon Network during my youth (eventually showing up years later on the network with her relationship censored and rebranded as Sailor Uranus’s “cousin”), she snuck into the country via the translated Japanese manga comics I scored at Hot Topic.

Eventually, my screen would fill with real-life versions of Sailor Neptune’s uniform. Lady Saturn’s outfits weren’t anything like the character costumes I’d grown up with — the sacks of disappointment that lined Target shelves every Halloween, packed with limp, sagging versions of what had shimmered and sparkled so vividly on the screen. In Lady Saturn’s pictures, the short, flared skirts of the Sailor Moon characters weightlessly grazed over the hip, and the bows were starched sharp enough to cut glass. The clothes were buoyant and kinetic, just like the ones worn by gravity-free girls battling evil in Tokyo without incurring so much as a wrinkle.

Once or twice a week I’d click the “purchase” button and fill out the form. Name and address; height; waist, hip and bust circumferences. “All my costumes are made-to-order in any size,” Lady Saturn promised — which was, to me, a revelation. Nothing came in my size. Not the mariposa prom dresses at the mall, or the sequined baby tees at Wet Seal, and certainly not sexy costumes sold off-the-rack.

I’d reach the last box, where Lady Saturn needed a credit card number for her $120 bounty. At this point, I’d imagine hauling my hodgepodge of babysitting funds and allowances and birthday card bills downstairs to Mom in exchange for her digits.

“Why do you need a Sailor Moon costume?” she’d ask. “I don’t think that’s the best use of your money. When are you going to wear it? And why?”

There was no good reason I could give her for wanting an expensive reproduction of a cartoon’s clothing. There were no masquerade costume balls happening at White River High School in Buckley, Washington. Honestly, all I wanted to do was cake on blue eyeshadow, strap a wig to my head, and take a hundred pictures kneeling in the backyard, gazing wantonly at the sky. I craved this new form of expression, this invitation to be a fan not just by watching a show but also by wearing the story like skin.

But I had no words for this yearning at age 16, and this was when the doubt crept in. When I tried to formulate a reason why I needed the costume, I only reminded myself how much it wasn’t meant for me. An avalanche of adolescent microaggressions about my size 16 proportions had conditioned me to try not to be seen, to laugh at myself before someone else did, to head the pain off at the pass. I wasn’t pretty enough for photoshoots, and boys didn’t want to look at me. Even in my head, I became flustered and embarrassed, the initial excitement at the possibility of transforming into a sailor senshi tarnishing as I remembered what I always had to remember: I was too big for this. Too broad, too thick, too soft, too much.

I could hear the questions my body in such a small, beautiful girl’s clothes would garner. Who does she think she is? Why would they make that past a size 6? I was supposed to know my place, and what I could and could not wear. I wasn’t desired to be seen, and to attempt otherwise was undignified and, quite frankly, disgusting.

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This was, after all, the golden age of Britney Spears. The “curvy” women allowed on screens were limited to Kate Winslet, Drew Barrymore and Renée Zellweger, who we were told had “meat on their bones.” I did not see my body in movies or shows or magazines. Its possibilities did not exist.

I always closed the credit card window without ever asking. I watched the girls from the sidelines of my screen, promising myself I could always come back, if I woke up magically narrowed.

Eighteen years later, my adult closet had grown into the dress-up box I’d always dreamed of. My dress rack was so weighted with petticoats, color-block skirts, and coordinating cardigans that it sagged in the middle. A rainbow of wigs was stacked to the ceiling. The bathroom cosmetics box spilled fake eyelashes, face paint and freaky face glues onto the counter.

Although I’d continually admired cosplay costumes for years, watching as the subculture rose out of obscurity to its current social media influencer, big-ticket Comic-Con popularity, I resisted full immersion for over a decade. My participation started with a hush, an almost imperceptible nod. It grew from cosplay that wasn’t supposed to be cosplay. It came with my discovery of Disney Bounding.

Adults aren’t allowed to wear costumes into Disney parks. No ball gowns, capes, or anything else that might cause confusion over who’s employed to represent the Walt Disney Company’s stable of intellectual properties and who’s merely a dangerously talented fan.

So cosplayers found a workaround. “Disney Bounding” was first introduced on Tumblr in 2011, when a woman documented her trips in everyday clothes mimicking iconic Disney character color schemes. When my husband, Matt, and I began making regular trips to Disneyland in 2013, social media was already brimming with outfit ideas for the obvious (Belle) and the ridiculously obscure (the stove from the Beast’s castle).

Matt didn’t grow up going on family vacations, but my childhood was spent in perpetual anticipation of the next time we’d make the long I-5 South trek to Anaheim. By the time in our marriage when we finally had enough of a budget and paid time off from work to take a trip together, my old favorite place was at the top of my list. I introduced my old rituals: the daily countdown calendar, reading off descriptions of shows and snacks, and planning the best outfits for pictures. As much as he rolled his eyes, and despite the little annoyances (“Five goddamn dollars for a churro?!”), Matt found my love of Disney to be infectious. Within a few years, he was the one suggesting we go to Disneyland again.

We began by going once or twice a year, and first I built a collection of Minnie Mouse ears, sold by Disney in an array of themes. It’s the most pedestrian and low-risk of theming, as 90 percent of fellow parkgoers are also wearing a variant. But that single statement piece wasn’t enough. I needed a bigger rush. And my Disney Bounding Pinterest board and Instagram feed of famous Bounders were too inspiring to ignore. I had to try it, just a little. Just once.

The first time I tried Disney Bounding as Ariel from “The Little Mermaid” with my fish scale leggings, purple blouse and red belt. (Photos courtesy the author)

On my first attempt, in early 2016, I defaulted to my 1980s-child standby, Ariel. Fish-scale leggings, purple blouse, red belt. She has one of the most distinctive palettes on the planet. Even then, I felt like an idiot when tourists in line for Indiana Jones Adventure commented on my leggings. “Thanks, I’m the Little Mermaid,” I replied, and they blinked back at me like I had gills.

At the LAX Airport terminal on the way home, I flicked through my pictures, wincing. My smile was too chinny with Chewbacca. Next to Adventureland’s Dole Whip stand, my red belt sat funny on my waist and my sleeves weren’t long enough to hide my arm flab. I sent snap after snap into the trash, that old fear flaring back in my stomach — maybe this isn’t for you.

But I could feel fat in front of the castle wearing a lame-ass T-shirt. I’d hated just as many pictures of myself being basic. At least Bounding turned packing and planning for our favorite vacation spot into sport. How many Disney Bound outfits could I cram into our luggage? And how many times would strangers get my little joke?

At home, the hobby seeped into my everyday life. I came to work at my stale office in what looked like business casual but was actually Snow White color blocks, a tiny Maleficent hair bow or a Mad Tea Party Teacup skirt.

With these character approximations, there were no gender or size or age restrictions. My choices weren’t Ursula or Lady Kluck, the matronly hen from Robin Hood; I could paint with any swatch in the canon. And with each creation I stood slightly taller. I smiled wider when I was asked by random passersby if they could take my picture. I no longer fretted that people would notice that I stood out in a crowd. I didn’t ask myself if my body matched the artist’s rendering. This was about making their pop-culture touchstones my own; duplication wasn’t nearly as interesting as reinvention. The ways my body and personality varied the familiar made it interesting and exciting. I visited Disneyland to be seen. To waltz down Main Street like I owned the place.

There was one exception to the no-costumes rule: Mickey’s Halloween Party, an event held throughout the fall after standard park hours. Walt’s kingdom turned into a spooky trick-or-treat trail, where children could collect candy and adults could dress in full uninhibited cosplay. It was Comic-Con for Disney weirdos.

“I think we should go this year,” Matt suggested during the summer of 2018.

“You’re going to wear a costume?” In the 13 years we’d been together, there hadn’t been a single Halloween that Matt had dressed up.

“If it’s the best one, I will.” I’d married a perfectionist. All or nothing. “But what would we be? I’m not wearing any of those shitty costumes from Target that come in a bag.”

When it came to spooky Disneyland couple’s costumes, there was only one pair in my book, and they lived together in the Haunted Mansion. Madame Leota, the disembodied crystal ball head summoning spirits in the Séance Room, and the Hatbox Ghost, a leering skeleton whose skull would vanish and reappear in the hatbox at his side. I ran to my office for colored pencils and paper, and we started sketching on the living room coffee table.

“Are we wearing masks, or what is this?”

“It’s makeup,” I said. “I’ll paint it.”

“You can do that?”

“Sure.” I had YouTube and two months to practice. I’d been waiting my whole life for this.

“Since the party’s at night, I think your crystal ball and my hatbox should light up,” he decided.

“You can do that?”

“Sure.” We were going to put his bachelor’s degree in robotics engineering to good use.

I let the safety pins out of an old green steampunk skirt and picked tarot cards for Leota’s fortune-telling table, a slab of cardboard Velcroed to my shoulders and covered with a brocade tablecloth. Matt shopped for LED lights at Fry’s Electronics, and spent a weekend in his co-worker’s shed soldering the components together. We danced in the kitchen the moment his hatbox came together, with its eerie blue glow and foam skull I painted to match the ride. We fell into the pure joy of the creation, the collaboration, not once asking if we were attractive enough or talented enough or worthy of pulling it off.

My husband as The Hatbox Ghost, and me as Madame Leota from the Haunted Mansion during Mickey’s Halloween Party.

In October, we checked our freaky baggage and made the trek down to Anaheim for our first couple’s foray into cosplaying. Each element came together: the outfit components we’d selected, the effects Matt had engineered, the makeup I’d plotted.

The night was perfect. We were mobbed by guests and tricked cast members who thought we were among their ranks. Lines formed in New Orleans Square around us, just as they did for Mickey and Minnie on the other side of the river. “You must be professional cosplayers,” people said, and for the first time in 18 years, I felt worthy of the ranks of Lady Saturn.

When we got back home, I didn’t delete large swaths of photos because I wasn’t smiling skinny enough, as I had with my first Disney Bound. I marveled at both of us, and what we’d done — what I’d always wanted to do. We became what we loved. Not by consuming it, but by creating it anew.

I attached my four favorite shots to Disney’s cosplay contest application, and hit send.

Months later, an invitation arrived in my inbox from the contest committee for D23, the official fan convention put on by Disney. Our creativity and execution had left an impression on the judges. We were finalists in the annual pageant.

I printed the message out on the office printer and folded it in thirds, so that I could press its contents to my lips and smell the freshly inked revelation. In that moment, no Oscar or Pulitzer would have felt as wondrous in my hands as this final verdict: You belong here. All hail the Queen of Disneyland, the Goddess of the Glue Gun, the Girl I Spent So Long Just Wishing I Could Be.