Photo: Jasemine Denise Photography

Most of the time when you see a cosplayer, they’re wearing a wig. One thing you might not have noticed is how often those carefully styled wigs are straight hair, even on anime characters whose hair grows up and out like kinky or coily hair does. Cosplayer Shellanin is challenging that assumption with her own wig designs for her costumes, which she shares using the hashtag “Curly Cosplay.”

Shell’s favorite cosplay she’s done is Vegeta, she told Kotaku over email.

Shell as Bulma gives me life.
Photo: Shellanin

“Being Vegeta feels INSANELY powerful,” she said. “I get to be a Princess in a set of armor, I mean how cool is that!!! Plus reimagining his hair into an afro puff with a little bantu knot curl in the front for his widow’s peak was really fun.”

Shell’s “curly cosplay” designs aren’t one-to-one representations of the characters that she chooses. Instead, she reimagines these characters as if they had curly, coily or kinky hair, like a lot of black people do. For many of the characters she cosplays, like Vegeta from Dragon Ball Z, Isabelle from Animal Crossing, or Junko Enoshima from Danganranpa, her choice of hairstyle makes sense. These are characters who have hair—or in Isabelle’s case, fur—that is huge and voluminous. In real life, these styles are easier to recreate if your hair already has a lot of volume, like curly hair does. For Shell, the choice to use these hairstyles in her cosplays is the culmination of a lifelong fantasy.

“So while watching anime and cartoons as a kid, I always pretended to be the characters on the show I was watching,” she said. “When I pictured myself as them, they always had poofy/curly hair! So once I started cosplaying, I figured, why not make my childhood dreams come true?”

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Black cosplayers have historically had a difficult time finding footing in the cosplay scene. Some black players told Kotaku in 2016 that they struggle with self-doubt at conventions, to the point of being nervous about even putting on their costumes, let alone walking out onto the convention floor while wearing them. Racist comments are sadly expected if you’re going to be cosplaying a character that has pale skin when your skin is dark. Some black cosplayers have tried to combat this, like Chaka Cumberbatch, who created the hashtag “28 Days of Black Cosplay” to promote other black cosplayers during black history month. While the black cosplay community is strong and thriving, even something like interpreting a character’s hair slightly differently than other fans can lead to racist abuse.

Shell as the main character from Dandara, cosplaying with her natural hair two years after her big chop.
Photo: Joel Adrian

“I get comments like, ‘This cosplay would have looked better with straight hair’ and get asked why I even chose to cosplay a character that doesn’t look like me in the first place. People call me the N word version of characters and say very racist things to me,” Shell told Kotaku. She says she’s undeterred by those kinds of comments. “I don’t let those comments hold me back. I decided to use #CurlyCosplay as a form of representation within cosplay, and negativity won’t hold me back from that goal!”

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Shell said that she does get a lot of positive reactions as well, which is easy to see when she posts her costumes to her social media. One big reason why her interpretations of these characters are so significant is because black hair is a sensitive topic for many black women. When you’re surrounded by images of beauty that exclusively have sleek, straight hair, it’s easy to feel like the hair that grows out of your head is not beautiful. When I was growing up, I wanted straight hair so badly that I had a relaxer, which is a chemical treatment that straightens your hair. Eventually I got sick of the long and sometimes painful treatments and the upkeep of relaxed hair, so I did what’s called “the big chop,” which is when black women cut off all of their chemically processed hair and start over with growing out their natural texture. Nowadays many celebrities and models wear their hair natural, but it’s still all too common to see young black people taunted or abused for their hair, like the black high school wrestler who was forced to cut off his dreadlocks before competing.

Shell as Junko Enoshima
Photo: Shellanin

Shell also had a relaxer in high school, and also went through the big chop later in life. She was bullied for her thick, “poofy” hair in middle school, but she said that in high school, she started to see more women online rocking their natural hair texture. In college, she decided to go natural as well.

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“When I look back and think about it I get SO mad,” she said. “I always wish I listened to my mother and never relaxed my hair. Then I big chopped in college and have been growing my hair back ever since (I’m 3 years post big chop now!) I struggled a lot with accepting my hair texture as a teen, but now I’m absolutely in love with it.”

Cosplay is all about fantasy, about bringing fictional characters to life and embodying them. One shouldn’t be so limited in their imagination that they can’t see an anime or cartoon character with hair that isn’t straight.

“With #CurlyCosplay I get to be anyone I want to be while being myself at the same time,” Shell said, “and I love it.”