I wanted to saunter through the party in the Bride’s iconic yellow-with-the-black-stripe jumpsuit, pointing my plastic katana at the boys who struck my fancy and—emboldened by portraying such a beautiful badass (if only for a night)—playfully taunt them with her most poetic threat: “Those of you lucky enough to have your lives, take them with you. However, leave the limbs you've lost. They belong to me now.” This was Halloween 2003: "Kill Bill Volume One" had only been in theaters for a few weeks, but I could already count my viewings on two hands. The sword-swinging heroine didn’t just resonate with me, she echoed through my bones: Nobody has ever put a cap in my crown, but I have been beaten up and bullied, and as I watched her cut her way through the people who hurt her, the pale embers inside me were stoked into a blade of flame. So, when my friends decided to spend All Hallow’s Eve as The Deadly Viper Assassination Squad—or, rather, when I, the woman has always called Halloween her High Holy Day, the one who starts sniffing out parties in early September--decided that we would go as the DiVAS, it was only right that I should wield the Hattori Hanzo steel. Or, it seemed only right until a friend of a friend asked me if I really thought I could pull off that skin-tight yellow tracksuit. I should have lobbed back a sharp, “you know, for a second there, I kinda did.”
But she’d poked her fingertip into a spot that was already purpled and tender: Sojourns to the Halloween store yielded nothing except my sword and a blond wig; though the Bride was a popular costume that year, there were no versions of it in my size at the time, an 18-20. And the pickings online for a simple yellow jumpsuit in plus-sizes were similarly slim. On Halloween, a day where we’re told to become our fantasies, however glossy or lewd, in fabric and grease-paint, I was left to rat up some old clothes and rub kohl around my eyes as a zombie—a far cry from the deadliest woman in the world. For years, the shapeless undead would be my go-to Halloween look, even as pop culture grew more fertile with heroines to channel via costume: from Harley Quinn to the Black Widow, Daenerys Targaryen to Katniss Everdeen, Hermione Granger to Imperator Furiosa. But no matter how much I related to these characters for their ferocity and vulnerability, and no matter how much I aspired to be as cunning and brave as they were, I would never look like them, I could never wear their clothes. None of these roles had ever, or would ever, be played out by the fat girl.
My very real love for, and desire to pay tribute to, these fictional women, birthed a casual interest in cosplay, or “costume play,” dressing up like favorite characters (though I’m truly a tourist in the land of geekdom; I’ve only been to one convention)—but there seemed to be no room for me in this kind of make-believe. A quick perusal of the Spirit Halloween website’s plus-size section yields only six pages of options for women, mostly variations of pirate wench, busty fortune teller, and naughty witch. The “regular-size” section boasts eight separate categories for costumes, and within those categories, there can be up to 15 pages of lithe cuties modeling everything from the Bride of Frankenstein’s elegantly tattered bridal-wear to short dresses ornately patterned to look like a Monarch butterfly wing. The film and TV-inspired costumes offer anyone (below a size large that is) the chance to be Daenerys, Wonder Woman and Maleficent. The message is as clear as one of the rhinestones glittering on Dr. Frank-N-Furter’s platform high-heels: Fat women can dream it, but we can’t be it.
“I couldn't find anything decent in my size, at all. If I even found it in my size that is,” says Katt Martin, a plus-size cosplayer with an affinity for the gonzo voluptuosity of Harley Quinn’s approach to life. But fully embodying that affinity has been challenging: “The only item I found that fit me were the shoes … It really frustrated me. I'm pretty sure I became so stressed that I cried.” The cosplayers in her acquaintance told Martin that her only option was to make her own costume, and though she feared she “lacked the talent or creativity to do it,” her passion for the character prompted her to try. “I like looking at my costume and knowing that … I made that awesome outfit,” she says. Martin has turned a work-around into a new creative outlet, but the shadow of size-based stigma still falls long and cold: “A lot of people think that you should have the same exact body of the character you're cosplaying,” Martin says. “But that just isn’t so.”
Heina Dadabhoy, who has cosplayed as Carmen Sandiego, has a life-long love of costume and “over the top make-up” but, as a plus-sized woman, struggled to find “affordable, quality ready-made costumes.” Since she has not yet learned to sew, Dadabhoy must pick characters “whose signature looks can be assembled out of streetwear with minimal fuss.” Still, for fat women with a fashion sense, “minimal fuss” isn’t rich irony, it’s a mouthful of curdled milk. Certainly, learning to put an ensemble together piecemeal, or make it from scratch—whether you want to be the Bride, taking down a yakuza syndicate, or just yourself, dazzling in the boardroom—can be an exercise in ingenuity. But when that ingenuity becomes mandatory, it starts to feel like a scavenger hunt through a dark maze: We can hope each turn will take us to the exit, instead, it leads us to bargain racks filled with coats we can’t button, rows of boots that won’t zip around our calves, and skirts that might fit in the waist but ride up the ass.
As a fat child who became an even fatter woman, my life was defined by limitations. Whenever I walked out of a department store with only earrings or (yet another) scarf, I was acutely, minutely aware of everything I couldn’t be (until I lost 20 pounds) and shouldn’t feel (until I lost 10 more pounds after that): glamorous and powerful, sweet and cute, punkish and raw—able to define and express myself in clothing and make-up. For too long a time, I only knew these joys of ornamentation in the weeks before my crash diets inevitably crashed and burned. I took diet pills that turned my pulse into a tap dance, binged and purged and went hungry until my stomach felt hollowed and slack like an old balloon, and ground away at exercise that made me feel awkward and estranged from my own body—until I wearied of waking up with the taste of ash in my mouth.
I discovered “fatshion,” tumblrs and blogs and instagrams (oh my!) run by women who share my wide, unwieldly ass and eye for color and form. These women aren’t interested in slimming their hips or covering their arms, they wear dresses that caress their bellies in bold patterns and bright color, and they share the names of/links to the places where you too, sister in size 24, 26, size 30, can find that ’50s-style swing dress. So, now a size 24/26, I play with a matte red lip and a chic black trenchcoat, purple bangs and Pepto-pink motorcycle jackets, kimono tops and dresses patterned with sugar skulls—and I feel, for the first time in a long time (maybe ever), beautiful, but more than beautiful; I find power and purpose in extending the creativity I’ve always applied to my writing and visual art to ornamenting—and truly owning—my body.
In having choices, I can be just like every other woman, and yet indistinguishably myself. Even though most stores have limited plus-size options (rarely going above a 14/16), or have relegated their plus sizes to an online boneyard (here’s lookin’ at you, Old Navy), I’ve seen the options for plus-size clothing expand dramatically since I was that college girl who had to forgo visions of epic badassery and spend her Halloween in a dirt-smeared tent-dress: I’m usually only a Google search away from a particular garment, and several local malls house Torrid and Lane Bryant (which has finally caught up with the trends); I have even seen Tess Holliday, who shares my doughy belly and dimpled thighs, on the cover of People magazine as the first “size 22 supermodel.” And yet there is still one place where fat folks aren’t allowed to flex their imaginations—back at the Spirit Halloween and the Party City and the Target (anywhere mainstream, really, where costumes are sold).
The only alternative seems to be getting acquainted with a Singer sewing machine, or learning the fine art of hand-stitching—but what if you’re all thumbs with a needle? “There's not a lot of good midrange cosplay that comes in plus sizes, so you have to either make your own or shell out for something dead-on accurate,” explains Kitty Stryker, a cosplayer who counts Tank Girl, the glitzy-punk warrior queen of a comic dystopia, as one of her favorite costumes. Stryker, who describes her style as “high femme,” was inspired to play with make-up and fashion as a young Ren Faire attendee enthralled with her favorite performer, “the fierce and devious Captain of the Guard.” Her girlhood love of “Halloween and theater and dressing up” survived the inevitable lurch toward adulthood, kept lit and dancing on its wick by fitting “colors and patterns” together with a painterly flourish. Still, she concedes that the work “can feel disheartening sometimes, especially if, like me, you're not a great sewer or pattern maker.”
I am not a great sewer, or even, honestly, a competent one (the kindly neighbor who helps me fix loose buttons on my favorite black trench coat can attest to my ineptitude); I have, however, become an amateur expert in all kinds of make-up: from putting on a nude eye for day-to-day, to using liquid latex and brown powder to make rotting decay. Over the years, my zombie looks became more intricate and sculptural, but they did not reflect what I wanted to be—and, in time, who I knew I really was: a woman who was intelligent and self-contained, dynamic and, yes, beautiful. So, last Halloween, I put away the fake blood and resurrected myself (my real self) in a white-blond wig: I went out as Daenerys Targaryen. I stood taller, walked with a longer, more imperial stride; I waved my hand and (with each drink) bellowed words of Dothraki; and I felt, for the most part, more connected to one of my onscreen inspirations and all the power and glamor she embodies. For the most part, but not all the way: The wig was iconic enough to make me recognizable; still, I couldn’t find any of Dany’s most famous outfits, like that midriff-bearing halter-dress from her days with the Dothraki or the royal blue cape and gown she wore when acquiring her army, in my size, and the plain-Jane maxi-dress I settled for could never approximate their billowy grandeur. For the most part will never be enough.
This Halloween, I will suit up in Katniss Everdeen’s Mockingjay costume—but only because I’ve luckily reconnected with a friend who is a great sewer and pattern-maker and employed her kind of witchery to fashion a black breastplate and shoulder armor out of an old leather jacket. Though I’m grateful for the help in getting beyond “for the most part,” I know how close I came, yet again, to relying on a wig to carry me. When I debut my Mockingjay in public at a few “Halloweekend Spooktaculars,” I know that I’ll give many a three-fingered salute, and attempt (badly) the Mockingjay whistle. Most importantly, I will move with a steeliness, a purpose and poise that our culture doesn’t believe that fat women are capable of. Sometimes, now, if I have a day that makes me ache like an old fracture, haunted by the cold, I find myself slipping on the armor and standing in front of the mirror. I see a woman who did not get to be the Bride, but who still wears the clothing of a heroine.