Confidence, like cosplay, isn’t magic – it’s a practice

You know that plot trope where a character’s only goal is to get their revenge and when they finally get it, they feel empty and unfulfilled, unsure what to do with their lives from that point forward?

Seeking validation as a basis for your own confidence is kinda like that.

Hi, I’m Lulu, and this is how my five-year journey to win Best in Show taught me the practice of confidence.

 

Five years is a long time to wait to be proud of yourself

If you’re new to my blog, let me catch you up. I’ve been cosplaying for seven years, and I spent the last five of those working towards winning Best in Journeyman. You also know that I did quite a bit better than that – my group won Best in Show this past September at SabotenCon 2016, the largest anime con in Arizona (and, in my opinion, the best con for cosplay in Arizona). 

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(Orange Slice Media)

A big part of why I wanted to win Best in Journeyman so bad was because I declared it to be my signal that I was ready to enter Masters. The Master class in Arizona, for as long as I can remember, has more or less consisted of the same people. And I’m friends with pretty much all of them, so I know exactly what I’m up against. Back then, I wasn’t at their level, but I felt that if I was worthy of Best in Journeyman, then I’d finally be worthy to compete alongside my most talented friends and peers.

But Best in Journeyman never came. The closest I ever got was when I received Best in Journeyman Craftsmanship, which I won by default since there were only two entries and only two awards to give. So, of course, that still wasn’t the validation I needed. And that validation was a long way off. At the next masquerade I entered, I lost for the first time. At the next two, I at least got judge’s awards.

At that point I’d been trying to win the Journeyman division for four years.

Then one of the best cosplayers in the state asked me to join her group for Sabo 2016, and I realized I’d have to enter Masters alongside her. So I told myself to suck it up and enter Masters the next time I competed. I went home with Best Masters Craftsmanship.

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On stage at Con-nichiwa as Lilith, where I won my first Masters award. (Tao Photo AZ)

Five years after I set my sights on Best in Journeyman, I’ve officially failed in that task. But I now have more awards from Masters than any other division.

And I struggle daily to remind myself that I’m damn good at what I do. I have the Best in Show trophy –  literal, physical proof of my skill – sitting just a few feet away from me, and I have to make a constant, conscious effort to remind myself that I Am A Good Cosplayer.

When I woke up the morning after the masquerade to see that award on my hotel night stand, I thought things would really change for me. Maybe my part-time job would go full time, and I wouldn’t have to freelance on the side anymore. I could finally put money into the big costumes I’d wanted to build for over a year! And I would tackle them with the newfound confidence in my skills gained from winning this award!

The opposite very quickly came true. I was laid off from that part time job right after the convention. This was not my first, or even my second, time losing my job in the past year.

Side note: If you’re lucky enough to have never experienced what it’s like to hunt for a job when your life depends on it, let me describe it to you: it is the art of laying out your ego out on a platter, where it is either devoured and regurgitated, or ignored completely, and I’m still not sure which is worse.

I was cut down to my roots right after my biggest accomplishment to date, and the life-altering confidence I thought would magically be granted to me by that shiny trophy never came.

As I type this, it’s only been a couple of weeks since the layoff, and a month since Sabo. And sometimes I have to close my eyes and remind myself what it was like walking up to accept that trophy. Remind myself that I worked my ass off and accomplished something great.

I’ve come to realize that confidence isn’t something you magically get when someone finally says to you “you are good enough!” in the way you’ve always been wanting to hear. If you suffer from low-self esteem and are constantly questioning your art, think about this. Have any of the kind words from the people you respect made an inch of difference in how you feel about yourself?

I’m willing to bet the effect has been less than you expected.

Being confident is something that depends entirely on you. Here’s how I practice it  – even if I’m not always the best at it.

  1. Be proud of yourself – even if you have to teach yourself how

Kind words from others are something you can turn to when you’re feeling low about your work. It’s something I’ve been doing for a long time without realizing it. I often think back on things like…

  • Just being asked to be in the group that eventually won Best in Show. To be even be considered good enough by a cosplayer I’ve admired for years was huge for me!
  • Being invited to first full American Love Live group by an amazing cosplayer who has been coordinating idol cosplay groups for over a decade.
  • Finding a prominent seam left unfinished on a master-class friend’s costume. (Seriously, I return to this one A LOT when I get too crazy about the tiniest details on my own work. LEAVING THAT ONE SEAM UNFINISHED DOESN’T MAKE YOU A BAD COSPLAYER, LULU.)
  • Watching my esteemed cosplay guest friends hand-sewing in the hotel room the night before the con. Even my heroes are mortals like me!

Kind words alone aren’t enough to change how I feel about myself, but if I think back on them positively, they can lift me up when I need it. They just can’t be the only thing I base my self-worth on.

I also find that being proud of my recent work is often incredibly difficult. I’m so blessed to be surrounded by talented cosplayers. I like to think it’s a testament to my own talents that my work caught their attention, and we eventually became friends! But there’s other times where being surrounded by that much talent is overwhelming.

I experienced this a lot when working with my Sabo group – I constantly felt outclassed by the people I was working with. I had to remind myself constantly that I wouldn’t be working with them to begin with if they didn’t believe in me, didn’t think I was good enough, didn’t think I was at their level. It’s so, so hard not to compare yourself to others, especially when your immediate circle is full of people you think are absolutely amazing.

Which is why I constantly remind myself that…

  1. Comparison is the enemy of self-esteem

Just this past week I’ve struggled with this a lot. I normally average about one costume per month (often more) in a regular year. I made about half that average last year. Recently my friend Ashe finished her honestly mindblowing full armor set of Athena from Saint Seiya. And, the first ever Twitch Cosplay Contest was hosted the weekend I started writing this blog. Each of the twenty contestants were hand-picked to participate, and the overall winner made something so huge it makes me dizzy even thinking about how much work it must have taken.

I hit a low point and felt like I had fallen so very far behind.

Fallen behind who and what, though? It’s not a race, and most of the cosplayers I look up to have YEARS on me. They often also have access to special equipment or have skills I don’t have. Comparing myself to them isn’t fair to me.

(Side note: Ashe’s Athena armor probably took literal YEARS to make. She brought JUST the staff and the shield when I first met her at Sabo 2014. And you know what? If I spent that much time, I could make something pretty fucking awesome too.)

This kind of negative thinking doesn’t just affect you. Several years ago, I constantly hung out with a cosplayer who is pretty well-known now. She considered us to be at the same skill level, even though she had a few more years experience on me. I took that to heart in a bad way. She steadily became more popular, churning out amazing costumes and getting noticed at the biggest cons in the country. I watched as she blew straight past me, and I was so jealous I let it ruin our friendship. I’m so, so glad that I grew the fuck up and made up with her and that we are back to being great friends, but holy shit let that be a lesson to you as to how toxic it is to compare yourself to other people. At best, you feel like shit about yourself. At worst, you let that control how you feel about other people. Nobody wins.

The only person you should compare yourself to is your baby self.

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Baby’s first award-winning costume. Emphasis on baby. (Toshi Yamioka)

When I’m feeling down about my current skill level, I try to look back on the things I’ve made in the past. I’ve been cosplaying for over seven years and I’ve made over 80 costumes. The costume I won my first major award with wasn’t anywhere near what my standards are now. Boot covers held on with tape? A limp circle skirt without horsehair or a petticoat? A “corset” that was one layer of vinyl closed with velcro? Baby Lulu what the fuck. The fact that I groan about those choices now is proof that I’ve grown so much. I just made my first ever properly-made, fully steel-boned corset – five years ago I had no idea what boning was or what a corset was supposed to do.

As long as you are improving, you aren’t falling behind.

Which is why you should…

  1. Never stop (noticing how much you’re) improving

I learned a particularly difficult lesson about this a few years ago, when I was trying to finish a costume in the hotel room (funny how most of my “important cosplay lessons” begin with me finishing shit in the hotel room). I was nearing the finish line, but I put it on and I hated how it looked, because I already knew how to do better.

That’s the thing about pushing yourself – you might not be happy with the final results because by the time you’ve finished, you already know how to do better.

Look instead at how much better you were than before – before, you had no idea how to do this! And now you do! Even if it’s not great by your standards, now you know how to do a thing you couldn’t do before. You’re growing! You’re improving!

If you can’t be proud of what you’re making now, look back at what you’ve done in the past. Laugh at the stupid things you did before you knew the proper techniques. Remember the projects that really pushed you and helped build your skills to where you are now. Look at the awards you got for the costumes that, by your current standards, suck. Even if you’re not where you want to be with your art, you can at least look back at how far you’ve come. Know that this progress didn’t happen by accident. You put in a lot of hard work and pushed yourself. What you’re creating now is better than anything your baby self probably could have imagined.

If I can at least see I’ve improved over something I made a year ago, then I know I’m doing well. This is the only standard you should ever judge yourself by – you’ll stay saner that way.

Really this is all to say that you should…

  1. Be kind to yourself

I know it’s difficult, but it’s really that simple.

Winning Best in Show wasn’t the divine gift of confidence I was hoping for.

Now, I’m incredibly proud of myself and everyone else involved for what we achieved, and the memory of walking up to accept our award is one I’ll hold on to and return to for the rest of my life. It was absolutely the moment that told me all the effort I’d exerted trying to get that award – from the five years I’d spent competing and sewing my ass off to the two months spent cramming before the con – was worth it.

What it didn’t do was magically make me a better cosplayer or a more confident person. Both of those things I continue to gain with practice. But it did give me yet another reason to look at myself and say, hey – you couldn’t have done this five years ago, but look what you can do now. It’s proof of what I can accomplish. And that’s just one of many components of confidence.

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