Have you ever felt the urge to give hugs to strangers?
I can’t think of a time where I would’ve said “yes.” Unless we’re talking about Disney mascots like Stitch and Chewbacca or cute animals like huskies and otters. But I’m usually not a hugger. If I’m emotionally close to someone or am in the appropriate environment, only then will you see me open up myself—and my arms—to people. It helps when you’re surrounded by people who happen to be both animals and mascots. Fursuiters at furry conventions, to put it properly.
I previously wrote about identity, art, and community in the furry fandom and didn’t have the space or interviewees to cover two other facets of the fandom: fursuiting and furry conventions. Since then, I’ve attended two conventions replete with fursuiters and talked to furries about why these things are important to them and their community.
The Freedom in Fursuiting
Fursuiters dress up in anthropomorphic animal costumes based on the wearers’ personal characters, who are entirely invented or inspired by existing franchises. Fursuiters are a large subset of furries, but being a furry doesn’t necessitate being a fursuiter, with many—like myself—being content with portraying them via art and/or stories alone. Fursuits can range from realistic to cartoony depictions of animals and be partial or full in make, usually costing a couple or several thousand dollars from commissioned tailors. On top of this, they’re difficult to wear due to their weight and ease of causing heat exhaustion; they need upkeep and can have sensitive, complex parts; transportation can be a bane with cost and space—are these outfits more trouble than they’re worth? Jib Kodi considered them weird and impractical, but he was wearing one in no time.“A lot of people go to cons to be around people, some who would normally be stricken with anxiety can now feel a lot more free in a costume.”
“I feel like a walking sauna […] When you own a suit, items such as fans and long straws quickly become your best friends,” Jib said. “When I first got it, it was very…very, very much [of an] out-of-body experience. Looking at a mirror still feels quite surreal. […] But for whatever reason, every time I suit up, I get this surge of energy regardless of what condition I’m in.”
Jib dresses as a husky/fox hybrid and has created animations of his experience from attending over 10 conventions since his first in 2017. “Everything from movements to emotions are more exaggerated [in fursuit], as I want the character to feel like a walking cartoon,” he said. “But I also try to step out of my comfort zone, [and] fursuiting seems like a nice way to test the waters and get in the habit of expressing yourself or overcoming something like shyness.” Wearing fursuits allows Jib to connect with others more immediately and intimately. “It’s a great icebreaker. From what I’ve observed, at the convention space, people tend to approach you more when you are a big fluffy animal,” he said. “This goes both ways for suits and non-suiters! Giving out fluffy hugs and seeing all the smiles gave [me] this surge of emotions that I haven’t really felt before.”
Emily Arant is a Love Thy Nerd community member and animator who loves unconventional mishmashes of creatures. She’s personally benefited from fursuiting as her piñata character. “I know for a while I was very self-conscious about how I looked…fursuiting can really help you appreciate how you look more as long as it’s in a healthy way and doesn’t become your identity,” she said. “A lot of people go to cons to be around people, some who would normally be stricken with anxiety can now feel a lot more free in a costume.”
“I love fursuiting because I can play and be silly, acting as my character […] Acting is fun!” Emily said. “My characters are an extension of my silliness, so in a fursuit, I can express myself and my characters easily. It’s…vulnerable because we could embarrass ourselves, but that’s the fun part: we all are letting our guards down to be silly. […] Everyone knows it’s kinda strange, but when you get into it…it’s just like role-playing with friends!”
Twilight Saint said fursuiting accentuates separate parts of his personality through several characters. “Raze the raptor-dog is calm, self-assured, but can also be sassy and aggressive. Sniper the dragon is high energy, friendly, but also mischievous,” he said. “He may be acting cute just to charm you out of a spare bag of Chex Mix!”
Everyone knows the same person is underneath his costumes, but he remains in-character and bystanders treat him as such. It’s a childlike expectation and approach similar to how one might act and talk toward any mascot or cosplay. “If I can suspend reality for a few seconds or a minute and really make them happy in that moment, that’s really an awesome experience for both me and them,” he said.
Karen, or Aquafrost, is involved in the artistic and costuming sides of the fandom. She has one character who she sees as herself while still being separate. “I’m a tomboy who’s quite laid back, though I rarely approach people unless I really feel a need to,” she said. “I had planned for [Aqua] to be similar in that regard. However, after wearing her for a year, she’s much more bubbly, outgoing, and social than I am. I feel courageous and excited to talk to people! […] We are still very much one and the same, but she is the more confident version of me!”
She and her husband met in the fandom and bonded over their Christian beliefs and shared love of fursuiting. “Often times, negativity and hatred stem from a misunderstanding and unwillingness to try. […The fandom has] transformed more into a group of young adults who have a passion for art, performance, and costumes,” she said. “In the upcoming years, I can definitely see younger generations joining in and making it a much bigger—and possibly even more mainstream—culture of people.”
Children are most in tune with engaging and sharing worlds of imagination. Adults often leave them behind in a sense of shame, but a growing minority are rediscovering the importance of imaginative play for the experience it gives people to face “real life.” Fursuiting takes this a step further into the physical. After all, children rarely act out fantasy apart from their selves in an intellectual, distant way. They make their bodies and the everyday world their stage, using every one of their faculties to make magic as real as possible. Why should Disney theme parks be the only places “Where dreams come true?”
Celebrating Others at Furry Conventions
Furry conventions play host to hundreds of animal people emoting crazily, wagging tails, dancing at random, and doling out hugs. However, these conventions are more than fursuit gatherings—though they are perfect for them, as Daniel Reeder (Talon) told me, who’s a registration and IT director for Anthro Weekend Utah.“It was a warm new world—encouraging, exciting, frustrating, heart-breaking, but also very empowering.”
“Outside the fandom, I think people like fursuits because they’re something out of the ordinary—fantastical ideas walking around,” he said. You’ll find that and more at furry conventions where artists share and sell art, pins, badges, crafts, and more. Attendees can socialize with others or participate in games and dancing competitions. Panels range from connecting people of similar beliefs to educating aspiring artists, storytellers, and more.
Conventions like Anthrocon and Midwest FurFest draw in nearly ten thousand people each with attendance increasing every year. Charity drives have raised tens of thousands of dollars for causes ranging from helping animals to promoting education. What makes these conventions unique is that “we tend to create our own fandom, with artists, fursuits, dancing, and each other,” Daniel said. “Because of that, conventions feel more close-knit because you know most of the people around you share the same basic interests. You could say everyone knows each other; everyone’s a fan of each other.”
Matt “Kodi” Berger is the media relations manager for Midwest FurFest. “Back in 2000, I was a nervous, self-conscious, overweight nerd, starting a career working for a small technology company,” he said. “Midwest FurFest 2000 was the first time that I truly felt I could freely express myself; even nervously showing off my first attempt at a fursuit—albeit poor—to a hotel full of strangers. It was a warm new world—encouraging, exciting, frustrating, heart-breaking, but also very empowering.”
Matt told me that conventions allow furries to give and teach each other the value of serving each other. “We do an awful lot to help our larger communities through our work with charities, but I’d argue that we are the biggest beneficiaries of our furry community,” he said. “Through mentoring and training, people gain valuable experience in skills like management, marketing, and leadership. And of course, there is a wealth of educational content that attendees take advantage of at the event itself: art, performance, and dance. Since 2000, Midwest FurFest has helped raise over $400,000 for Illinois charities like Save-A-Vet, One Tail at a Time, Felines and Canines, and Sit Stay Read.”“They are stylized versions of our best selves. And if we can create these characters to represent ourselves, why can’t we become more like them?”
John “K.P.” Cole is on the board of directors for Anthrocon as well as a founding member of Florida’s Megaplex. He highlighted how conventions reveal just how many backgrounds and nationalities congregate, and how these spaces are a uniting force for building friendships. “We are really no different than sports fans who fill their homes with expensive team memorabilia. We’re no different than movie buffs who collect hundred[s] or thousands of movies and associated paraphernalia,” he said. “We’re just a lot of people who like to create our own fantasy characters instead of having someone else create them for us. We’re imaginative and constantly looking at the world from a different perspective.”
John said, “When we create a fantasy character, we want it to be who want to be ourselves. They are stylized versions of our best selves. And if we can create these characters to represent ourselves, why can’t we become more like them? […] They become more outgoing, more positive, more supportive of their friends. And if that’s possible, maybe we can all help the world…be a better place too.”
I roomed with some friends during this year’s Anthrocon. I was hesitant to go, but their excitement and insistence to have me there won me over. I participated in a frantic dream of conversation, games, and even a bout of street evangelism with a new friend. What felt the strangest was being called by my character’s name as though it were normal, and John reminds me that if I truly want to be associated with my character, I should seek to more deeply reflect the giving, selfless, and upright attributes I’ve imbued in him from the start; I should be unashamed of having the heart of a child.
Furries indirectly imitate Jesus in shades more than most outsiders, and even furries themselves, may know. In Jesus, there is the perfect fulfillment of what we imagine and act out as our best selves, but the furry fandom is nevertheless an example of how we can find God’s image intimately reflected in the love, care, and community in a fandom like this. Fantasy and reality become one and the same in this community, which can open a door for many to rediscover how inspiring and magical life can, and should, be.