How Cosplay is Used Therapeutically to Improve Mental Health
Updated: Apr 5
Cosplay, a word created from the combination of ‘costume’ and ‘play,’ is defined as the practice of dressing up as a character from a movie, TV show, book, or video game.
Here at Cityscape Counseling in Chicago, Cosplay is a new and exciting therapeutic tool being utilized in therapy to help adolescents and young adults explore and manage their anxiety, depression, self-esteem, trauma and gender identity challenges in a safe and creative way.
Cosplay originally spawned from dressing up as characters from Japanese genres of manga (comics) and anime, which is why it is closely associated with the Japanese animation culture. However, during the early 2000’s, it grew to encompass much more and in recent years, its community has evolved into something far greater reaching. These days, there are how-to websites and YouTube tutorials all over the internet to guide those seeking to make costumes and props. Networks have made reality TV and costume competitions into shows such as Heroes of Cosplay and Cosplay Melee. Cosplayers gather massive followings on Instagram and sell prints of their costumes on sites such as Patreon; a few are able to make a decent profit from the hobby.
Therapist's Personal Experience with Cosplay
I discovered cosplay through my older sister back in 2003, when she needed another person to join her Final Fantasy X (a video game) group at the Anime Boston anime convention. With the help of my mom’s sewing skills and store-bought pieces, I constructed a costume of a cute blond character from the game. I had attended a convention in Chicago, Anime Central, the year prior and had been in awe of the cosplayers, who I was surprised to see were just ordinary people. At the convention in Boston, I posed with the group of my sister’s friends for pictures taken by strangers who were excited to see the characters brought to life. We drew extra attention as a group, as if having completed a collection. I was called by the name of character, which I easily responded to as strangers stopped me for my picture like I was some sort of celebrity. Some even wanted pictures with me! My 15-year-old self beamed, as I had never received this sort of positive attention before.
I was hooked after that. I began producing more costumes and props and attending local and larger conventions around the country. It was a creative outlet for myself as an insecure teenage girl where I could wear my art and spend a weekend playing dress-up. Sure, my parents found it strange, but it was a safe environment and they felt there were a lot worse things for a teenager to be doing than running around in a costume with her friends. Cosplay as a hobby led me to friends, many of whom I am still in touch with, and provided me experiences I would have never sought out had it not been for the conventions and community.
As an adult, I see the younger generation enter into the world of cosplay in a fresh way. Naturally, the community has evolved over the years, especially with its mainstream appeal, but if anything has remained the same, it is the immense therapeutic influence the hobby holds.
Cosplay in the context of Counseling & Therapy
Cosplay can help build confidence and self-esteem. It may seem odd that dressing up as someone else could influence your self-esteem and confidence, but when you put on something you’ve constructed or compiled, you are recognized by a community that accepts you for your efforts. The act of participating really has the same effect as going to a costume party with a costume - people take notice right away, you feel like you’re a part of the event, and people are more likely to approach you. Some will ask for pictures of your cosplay, others will compliment what you’re wearing, but rarely is there ever a negative response to anyone participating in cosplay. Such positivity makes people feel good about themselves and receiving praise for participation in something you enjoy is reinforcing. When I was younger, being told I was the “most accurate” or “looked the most like” a character gave me a sense of accomplishment I had yet to achieve at that point of my life. The process of creating cosplay involves “making mistake after mistake”, but also ultimately experiencing a learning curve and finding success at a pace and level that is determined by what you want to see. Setting and achieving goals of your own can help make difficult endeavors in other areas of your life seem less futile.
Cosplay can transform - Especially if you don’t “fit in” or don’t “feel normal” in real life. The response to a person of small stature dressed up as Game of Thrones’ Tyrion Lannister is unreal. There’s a larger man who literally bought a green pair of pants, a white button-up shirt, and some round glasses, and became Family Guy’s Peter Griffin. He added the voice and it was a hit. I’ve seen some cosplayers in wheelchairs transform the chair into part of their costume. Others have made cars for characters to sit in or constructed something like a Star Wars TIE fighter. This disabled student took his equipment and transformed it into a Mad Max costume that was unlike anyone else’s. Everyone gets excited to see these characters truly brought to life, especially when it’s a costume that not everyone can reproduce so accurately.
Cosplay nurtures creativity. Not every cosplayer has to make their own costume, but it is generally assumed that many do. This adds another aspect to cosplay that is more artistic; but instead of simply putting your art up for others to see, you’re a part of it and are wearing it. While cosplay can be a rather pricey hobby, it doesn’t have to be. People can get very creative using duct tape and foam to construct armor, finding pieces at thrift shops, altering old shoes, and learning makeup techniques with products they already own.
It’s an escape. Comics, sci-fi, and anime conventions usually occur over weekends and begin on a Friday, with larger events expanding into the following Monday. It’s refreshing to have that sort of getaway from life and spend a weekend, or even just a day, in character and meeting others like yourself. As money is an issue for some, cosplayers also take part in what is called “lobby con,” which is attending a convention without buying admission. Instead, they go to the hotel that is hosting the convention and hang out in the lobby, where much of the socializing and interactions still happens away from the vendors, shows, and discussion panels.
Cutting out conventions entirely, dressing up alone and tweaking a costume to look the way you want it to can be a way to put the stress of life on pause. Some choose to photograph their progress or the completion of a costume and share it with friends or fans. Either way, it is an important aspect for anyone experiencing depression to have something to look forward to and to create and attain enjoyable goals outside of the regular stresses of life.
Cosplay is a community. Like many subcultures, cosplay is a community where the members already share a common interest on sight. Simply seeing another person dressed as your favorite character tells you right off the bat that you enjoy the same thing. I have seen many teenagers connect and make friends over a shared interest in a show or game, with cosplay as the lubricant to get the conversation started.
Cosplay helps with anxiety: Dressing up can be like putting on an avatar for some. It gives them a mask to safely hide behind, making anxieties and social situations easier to handle. Approaching someone else in costume is also easier, because while you may not know the person wearing it, you know the character. This often puts people at ease and even though they know they’re not actually talking to the character, it’s still a familiar face to speak to.
In more recent years, cosplay has exploded so much online and on social media that even going to a convention isn’t necessary to become a part of the community. Many people don’t do well with such large venues and crowds, but through Instagram and Tumblr can still be active and involved in the cosplay world.
Cosplay helps you discover yourself - which sounds counterintuitive, perhaps, that you can find yourself in being someone else. However, think of it as trying someone on for size. Making yourself seem confident or outgoing because that is the way the character would act in pictures and with others is a way to play with new social approaches. Typically, when cosplaying, people do not necessarily act just like their character; however, a few like to up the ante and do so for fun.
Through the practice called “crossplay” (cosplaying a gender other than your own), people can utilize cosplay as a way to explore and experiment with gender expression and identity. It’s a safer avenue to try this kind of expression out in public and often around others that accept it as their norm.
There are no limits: Age, race, religion, ability, and gender are not boundaries in cosplay. In so many ways, the more diverse you are, the better. Ultimately, if you can’t sew or aren’t creative, that’s okay. There are so many resources online now to purchase a pre-made costume or show you how to compile one from store-bought pieces. Not every cosplayer has to make their own costume, nor do costumes have to be elaborate, because what matters is that everyone can participate however they want.
Think of conventions as one big nerdy costume party that everyone is invited to and where dressing up is optional. There are no criteria other than to be appropriate and respectful of others who do it as well. While cosplay may continue to grow and change as a hobby, the benefits remain. Being someone else for a day can offer many benefits and ultimately help people shape who they want to become in their own lives.
The most common question I get asked by people who’ve never cosplayed is: “who do I cosplay as?” The answer is, “Whomever you want to be.” You can’t get it wrong.
Photo Credit: @Nbladephoto
Superman cosplayer: @djcroft_
Spiderman cosplayer: @bronxspidey