There is an issue that we all face when trying to be nice: compliments are hard. Trying to assemble a phrase that expresses your admiration for some aspect of another person is fraught with emotional landmines: compliment their appearance and you devalue their intellect; compliment their intellect and you devalue their appearance; compliment both and appear disingenuous.
Our culture does not know how to take praise.
The microcosm of costuming gives us a useful window into some ways that it can be done wrong, and some ways that it might be done better.
With Con season well under way, and Dragon Con looming on the horizon, I’ve been seeing lots of excitement about costuming and compliments flying about, some even directed at me. Those compliments, while well intentioned and genuine, often miss their mark. At the risk of appearing heinously arrogant, I will use a couple of personal examples to illustrate what I mean. The first fails to compliment me, and the other manages to insult others by omission.
Part One: Buying Things isn’t Impressive
Pictured here is a Gambit costume that I made. I’m quite proud of it. I spent a lot of time and effort on it and learned a lot along the way. I am delighted whenever anyone takes the time to appreciate it.
The most common compliment I get, though, is how awesome my eyes look.
Those are, of course, contact lenses in my eyes. I bought them. They are the one thing that I didn’t make from scratch or at least modify beyond recognition.
Getting complimented constantly on them made me rather aware of the parts of my costume that didn’t get praised: the parts I was proud of, the parts that I worked hard on, the parts I felt clever about.
It made me start to notice the same thing happening to others. People would skip over aspects that clearly took enormous effort and looked amazing, to ask about the commercially purchased accessory. Those, for many cosplayers, are points of shame, concessions, and failures. There the thing they didn’t have the time, tools or skill to make.
So there’s lesson one for cosplay compliments: Try to find the part that the creator cares about and praise that.
Part Two: Looking Like a Famous Person is Not a Skill
I benefit tremendously from a vague resemblance to David Tennant. A pair of glasses and a brown suit from a thrift store and I have a costume that gets more attention than is at all reasonable.
I could talk about the lookalike problem, but it’s better covered elsewhere. Besides, closet costumes are great and people celebrating their fandoms is awesome.
What sucks, though, is when I am standing next to someone wearing a thousand-hour costume and they get overlooked because I look like a bit like a famous dude.
The same thing happens all the time, particularly to beautiful women. Their looks get the attention, not their work. And those without those Hollywood looks get overlooked entirely. This is the source of more grief and misery in the cosplay community that you can imagine.
I know more than a few people that have given up the hobby because they don’t look like the cover-art of a comic book and never get the recognition they deserve for their craft.
So my second suggestion: Compliment the costume, not the costumed.
I don’t pretend that these should be hard and fast rules. I also don’t want to pretend that being beautiful isn’t worthy of attention or praise. I know how hard people work to get in shape and to stay that way. Like I said, compliments are hard.
Also, I have a fear that my writing this will make people even more afraid to dish out compliments. Please don’t let that happen. We need more genuine encouragement and recognition for fine work and novel ideas.
All I hope for is that people take an extra moment when dealing out praise to consider if it’s actually going to build people up.
YOU CAN DO IT!