Fifteen-year-old Naomi Moone could turn a piece of fabric into a whole outfit for a character she wanted to take out of the fantasy world and represent in the real world.

With the help of her mom, of course. 

By 29, Naomi could create magnificent costumes in mere days. And it wasn’t just for Halloween, she had found a passion in joining the cosplay community, where she felt at home. 

Donning a sword and fluffy red tanuki ears, Naomi cosplays Raphtalia from the anime “Rising of the Shield Hero.” She stands in a power-pose, looking into the sky, allowing her handmade cosplay to do all the talking when taking pictures for her followers and for herself.

Naomi Moone cosplaying the character Raphtalia from the anime “Rising of the Shield Hero.” Credit: Eurobeat Kasumi Photography

“I stayed with it because it’s a place where you can be free, and be yourself,” Naomi says. “There are other people that are interested in the same media you are and (you) can meet so many different people within the industry.” 

Cosplay is the activity or practice of dressing up as a character from a work of fiction. To Naomi, it’s a way of defining who she is as a person. 

Mental health professional Dr. Selin Santos, a clinical psychologist from Florida, says that cosplaying can help people work through issues such as depression, anxiety, social isolation and even cope with trauma.

“Cosplaying can be really beneficial for mental health because people get very creative, and they are very imaginative,” Santos said in an article for KCEN in Texas. “That process is actually really, really helpful in regard to mental health.”

From creating the costume to attending an event, cosplaying can decrease social isolation through participating in a social setting, which also decreases a sense of hopelessness because cosplayers are part of a bigger community. 

Naomi is part of a community that sees itself in photos on news sites when a big convention is in town, but often feels that mainstream media neglects the deeper stories of what cosplay means to people connected by a creative vision. 

Ever since stumbling upon cosplay on the internet in 2008, Naomi has been fascinated by the community that brings fictional characters to life. 

“Cosplay wasn’t a big thing back then – it’s changed a lot from 2008 to now,” she says.

Even buying costumes back then was tough. That’s because most people didn’t know about anime and they certainly didn’t understand why people would want to dress up as a character, she says.  So Naomi decided to learn from her mom how to sew her own cosplay costumes. It was a way for them to connect and for her mom to pass down a tradition to her daughter.

“All the resources of wanting to be a character were so hard back then,” she says. “Now you can easily order things off of Amazon.”

Naomi has become a well-known cosplayer in Arizona. She’s a paid guest at conventions and a featured star at Phoenix Fan Fusion, UwU Con and out-of-state conventions.

When Naomi was a teenager turning fabric into costumes for her favorite fantasy characters, she never would have believed that one day, she’d have her own following.

“Cosplay means a lot to me, I probably wouldn’t be the person I am today without cosplay,” she says. “Before cosplay, I used to be very shy and timid. I was insecure, a lot. When I got into cosplay, I found confidence in myself and in expressing myself.” 

The cosplay community has gotten a lot bigger since Naomi joined more than 14 years ago. It’s changed in a lot of other ways, too… 

Over the years, conventions have grown in number. In 2008,, there were only four conventions for cosplayers and fans to attend in Arizona.

As of 2022, there are now more than 20 conventions. Conventions like UwU Con and Anime Arizona in Mesa and Tucson Comic-Con are popping up across the state.

The boom has created a more inclusive and supportive cosplay environment.

“The cosplay community now is more free. Back then it was really restricting because people had standards because body-shaming was a big thing. Now people are sharing that cosplay is for everyone. It used to be a small group of people and now because of social media it just grew really big and accepting,” Naomi says. 

During the COVID-19 pandemic, when people were stuck at home and looking for an escape, more newcomers started to engage in anime content. That created a bigger cosplay community online and in person as restrictions were lifted.

People like Elizabeth Montgomery who hadn’t thought much about anime and cosplay since they were kids were drawn back into the community.

“The pandemic really gave me a chance to get back into what I liked doing as a person, and what brought me joy because all we could do was just sit at home,” Elizabeth, 35, says. 

She remembers rummaging through the racks in Goodwill for the perfect bow to match her first cosplay as Sailor Venus, a character from the anime Sailor Moon.

“It was just fun to kind of step out of high school life and be a character for a day,” she says. 

When she grew up, Elizabeth found it harder to find the free time to cosplay. 

Until the pandemic happened. 

Elizabeth Montgomery cosplaying Belle from “Belle.” Credit: Elizabeth Montgomery

Elizabeth realized that during a time of hardships, she wanted to feel creative and get back into her hobbies from the past. 

With conventions coming back into the 2022 season, she decided to go to Phoenix Fan Fusion. 

“This was the first year back since it’s been postponed for two years and the line was insane — it was wrapped around the whole convention center. I had never seen that many people,” she says.

“We were finally able to return to conventions and be our nerd selves around other nerds,” she says, laughing.

Elizabeth chose a character to cosplay for the event who she could feel a connection to. 

She decided to cosplay the main character from the anime movie “Belle” which came out in U.S. theaters in 2022. She related to the online persona of Belle’s character in the movie — confident and not afraid of being herself in front of a crowd of people. That made Elizabeth want to cosplay Belle after seeing the movie on her birthday, thinking of a new year for new attitude, acceptance and change.

Piecing her costume together as an adult, brought back memories of what cosplay meant to her as a kid. How she could step outside of herself and pretend.

“Cosplay to me means freedom,” Elizabeth says. “I feel like you can be whoever you want to be. If you set out to be Goku, you can be Goku. If you want to be Naruto, you can be Naruto. There is no limit.”

Santos says that having a sense of community with people that are into the same hobbies can create a sense of family and meaning that they may not have elsewhere.

 “There’s also a sense of non-judgment. There’s a sense of, “Hey, it doesn’t matter what costume you’re wearing. No one’s going to judge you for who you are, or what you’ve done in the past. You are the person that we see in front of you,” Santos said. 

Cosplayers create a community where standards set by society are meant to be broken by people who believe in seeing beyond barriers and stereotypes.

“I’m a Black woman. I can still be Belle. She was not Black in the movie, but she was Black to me,” Elizabeth says. “It doesn’t matter what you look like, your race, your gender. It’s just freedom. I think the community really accepts that. Everybody is just welcoming and open. Everyone is just happy to be outside with people who understand us.”

Walking through the crowd of superheroes, anime and fantasy at an Arizona convention, Elizabeth forgets the heavy things in life, She settles into the joy of a character she feels seen in. The cosplay community has always been known as a community of people who care for each other, she says.

Elizabeth Montgomery cosplaying Belle at the entrance of the Phoenix Fan Fusion 2022 Credit: Zee Peralta

Elizabeth and Naomi started cosplaying when they were teenage girls. Now they get to see the cosplay community through the eyes of children younger than they were when they put on their first character costume. They get to feel like a kid again themselves.

“When I was at Fan Fusion, this little girl saw me and started crying and was like ‘Oh my God, you’re Belle,’” Elizabeth says, giggling at the memory. “She was like 7. And she was crying.” 

Elizabeth’s Belle wore a dress of fiery-red tulle with a garden of scarlet and blush-pink roses blooming across her chest. She flipped her pink hair and smiled so big that the zigs and zags of makeup etched across her cheek hit like a lightning bolt when she posed for pictures.

She likes knowing that the character she chooses to bring to life can play a part in making a little girl’s wish come true. That day, at a Phoenix cosplay convention, Elizabeth as Belle made her own magic happen.

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Grace Benally is a Diné journalism student in her senior year also attending ASU’s Cronkite School. Benally focuses her writing on Indigenous communities, as well as entertainment coverage.