SANTA BARBARA, Calif. (WOMENSENEWS) – In a photograph taken earlier this year, 14-year-old Eliza Garcia is looking over her left shoulder, wearing a blue-green ball gown she sewed herself, out of a corset and old ballet tutu.

This is more than just a photo of Garcia in a pretty dress though. This is cosplaying, “an art form beyond simply ‘dressing up’,” she said from her home in Orange County, California. In the photo Garcia is dressed as Eliza Hamilton, a character from the Broadway show “Hamilton.”

Cosplay, or “costume play,” is when people dress up to resemble a character or persona from a book, TV show, movie, video game or other forms of entertainment. More than 60 percent of cosplayers are female, according to a 2013 study published in the journal Intensities, which polled 966 cosplayers between the ages of 13 and 74.

Many young women are attracted to cosplay as it allows for self-expression and also provides community and entertainment.

“Even if I’m putting on the clothes and character of someone else, I’ve never felt more myself,” said Garcia.

Ishmam Tanveer, 16, describes cosplaying as a way to “step into the shoes of my character and see how they would view the world,” she said from her home in Oaksville, Ontario. Tanveer often cosplays as Feferi Peixus from the webcomic “Homestuck” and Princess Jasmine from Disney’s “Aladdin.”

Ferferi Peixus’ “adorable demeanor and how she reacts to situations reminds me a lot of myself,” says Tanveer, drawing connections between herself and the character she cosplays as. Tanveer also admires Princess Jasmine’s character. “Her idea of not being ‘better’ than others is a favorite of mine,” she said. “She’s just so strong and witty!”

Sense of Community

Like Tanveer, some cosplayers are drawn to characters’ strong personalities because they feel like they can either relate to them or because they look up to them.

Olivia Hale, from Surrey, U.K., often cosplays as Lara Croft from the video game “Tomb Raider.” “I love her personality; how persistent she is and determined,” the 15-year-old said. “I like showing multiple personas, both strong and sweet. And not being viewed as less of a woman for it.”

Hale finds a sense of community from other cosplayers too. “I just found a lot of people that I get on really well with through it.”

Cosplay can also provide an escape for young girls from societal expectations, said Andrea Letamendi, one of the psychologists who conducted the 2013 study. “Being able to access the traits of a fictional character-features such as boldness, courage, anger, aggression and sensuality-in an acceptable context such as cosplay can allow young girls to feel validated and even help them develop emotional literacy.”

Letamendi is also a cosplayer and the presenter of the TEDx presentation “Capes, Cowls and Courage: The Psychological Power of Superheroes.”

Cosplaying can also help with combating low self-esteem. “It was really comforting to put on a costume and think, hey, I look pretty as this character, and then see the same beauty when I took the costume off and return to being me,” said 18-year-old Emilia Sunderland. Now the Seattle Pacific University first-year cosplays for escapism. She calls it an enjoyable “break from life’s problems.”

Facing Backlash

However, while character appreciation and female empowerment are linked to cosplay, so is infantilization and harassment, added Sunderland.

“Lots of people assume I’m into certain fetishes…which isn’t the case. I find that really disgusting and dehumanizing. I’m 18 and I deserve the respect you would give a young adult,” she said. “My friends and I have all had to deal with pedophiles and/or weird stalkers at some point. As a teenage girl, you always have to be careful.”

“Women are more likely to experience catcalling, groping and inappropriate comments,” said Jillian Trinh, 18, from San Jose, California. “People who do that assume that those women are asking for and expecting that kind of attention.”

While some cosplayers face backlash based on gender, others face backlash based on ethnicity. Britany Marriott, a Jamaican and African American professional cosplayer said, “There are times where people have said I was ‘inaccurate’ because I cosplayed traditional Japanese anime characters…Of course I do not look Japanese but that doesn’t stop me from cosplaying a character who I love without disrespecting a race.”

Garcia herself was hesitant about cosplaying as characters that weren’t Filipino. “At first I was afraid of dressing up as someone with a different ethnic background, but I soon realized that it didn’t matter. It also showed the little representation of some minorities in the media.”