I've been within the fandom for about eleven years now, and only relatively recently (about a year ago as of this post) did I get into fursuiting. Prior to that, I must admit that I didn't understand the concept at all, and even found it vaguely creepy. While I understood the desire to more physically look like your character, I didn't understand how fursuiting would be the solution: it seemed like wearing a onesie of faux fur combined with slippers, gloves, and a ski-mask coated in fur-covered foam was rather more like some elaborate Halloween costume effect than getting nearer to one's character. However, having gone suiting and wound up with a fursuit of my own, I think I'm gaining a better understanding of it now.
Fursuiting is clinal, a gradient from one end of the spectrum to the other. It can be very meaningful, where putting on the suit makes the wearer into their character, or as close as possible. Or it can be relatively meaningless, where suiting is closer to a job than anything, something you do rather than something you are. Along the way, the amount of meaning passes through the still very meaningful desire to at least look like one's character, to enjoying the act of costuming itself, to enjoying the varied social interaction that comes with wearing a full-body costume somewhere other than Halloween.
As I grew within the furry subculture, I started out thinking that everyone with a suit must be attempting to be their character in real life, rather than just online. My opinion of how I would react to suiting, however, was closer to the other end of the spectrum - I could see how it might be fun to do that, but didn't really see it going further, for myself. As time went on, though, I started to experience how suiting was different for different people, and, at the same time, I felt myself climbing the scale in the opposite direction. The concept started to make more sense to me, and I could understand how someone might enjoy looking rather more like an animal, specifically like their character, even if it was most definitely in the context of costuming. Sometime in 2010, these two converging lines met when I was given the opportunity to try a friend's suit for a day at Anthrocon.
The friend is a bit of a sarcastic sort, and he had a black-backed jackal suit that I wanted to try on to see if I could (jokingly) sully his reputation by acting super furry and overtly homosexual. It just so happened that we were the right size and he thought it was as good an idea as I did, so I went up to his room at ten or so in the morning and put on the suit. I was immediately surprised by how warm it was, and I had a bit of a hard time getting used to it, at first, since Pittsburgh in the summer is already plenty warm. It was a bit of a trial getting from the convention hotel to the convention center, though it's a relatively short walk. Once I got inside, however, I really started to get into the swing of things.
I had a lot of fun interacting with people around me. A surprising amount of fun, really. I was expecting that, wearing a full body costume that required a wicking layer, I'd be uncomfortable, but goof around and act flamingly gay for a little while, then head back to the room to strip it off. However, the costume was comfortable and I felt comfortable acting like a fool in it. Wearing paws and having a stuffed tail behind me made me walk different just to see how it felt, and those around me ate up the fact that I was a big dog-man acting like a nutjob. I wore the suit longer than intended; I made a few stops by the "headless lounge", ambled around the dealer's den, followed people around and mimicked them, and spent more time than I usually would talking to, playing with, and otherwise just interacting with furries. When I got home, I placed an order with the maker of the fursuit, Jill of jillcostumes for my own, settling on an otter after some discussion.
That was about the time I started to realize the diversity apparent within a subculture of a subculture. There was more, I figured, to wearing a fursuit than just getting closer to your character, being your avatar. It was a whole different way of interacting with those around you, whether you're one of those suiters that never talks or one that rambles on in suit (I am, of course, the latter). Having asked, there are those who do feel like it brings out aspects of their personality that bring themselves closer to their character, but that's not the only way of looking at it out there: there are those who find them sexually attractive, those that like them because of the social interaction with those who aren't necessarily part of the fandom (interacting with kids is mentioned as being particularly awesome), and those for whom it is a living. It's a whole spectrum, just as are other aspects of furry, but it comes with its own culture: listen in on conversations in a headless lounge and they're most certainly unique.
Things aren't all sunshine and roses, of course. One of the first things I found out once I got my suit was how to clean it, and how divisive such an act was. There are currents and trends of thought within the suiting culture just as there are within furry as a whole, and something as simple as washing a portion of your suit can cause strife. Having personally known the maker of my suit, I trusted her when she gave me instructions for washing not only the bodysuit but also the head in the washing machine. However, even after she posted a video of how she cleans her own and her customer's fursuit heads without harm, others within the fandom insisted that she was damaging the heads that she had made, despite all evidence pointing to the contrary. Similar discussions rage around how best to transport your suit from place to place, particularly on a plane. Any fursuit lounge is bound to be filled nearly to the brim with Rubbermaid Action Packers, while anyone (say, yours truly) who travels with his suit in a duffel is scoffed at openly.
And then there are the people. Oh, the people. Not every interaction is a positive one. In fact, we can start to break down the other parties into rough categories:
- The Talker - The talker will hover close, and may or may not be affectionate, but will insist on talking to you "out of character". Rather than interacting with a fursuiter, they will insist on interacting with a person wearing a costume. "This is really well made!", they will say. "I think this is a cute one, but the older version was cuter, in my mind," you will be informed. "One doesn't see black-backed jackals all that much, it's nice to see that the colors are very accurate," they'll say, pointing out the patterning on the suit despite your lack of peripheral vision. The talker is mostly harmless. Mostly. You can't spell 'stalker' without it, though, and it's only a few minutes too long of following you around that separates the two.
- The Toucher - This is the one we all kind of worry about. You'll be wandering around, and someone (99.44% chance that they're male) will open their arms for a hug. "Sure!" you think/mime/say and approach them. They'll hug you and maybe coo at how cute your suit is. And the hug will linger. And go on a little too long. And you'll try to pull away, and the Toucher will laugh and ruffle his hands down over your back, sides, or front, and then it will come: the Touch. Sometimes the touch is fumbling and quick, because you're likely in public, but it's even worse when it's not, the Toucher grabbing rather firmly at some decidedly tender bits or giving your backside a squeeze. The worst part about this, for me, is that all I feel I can do is just get away. It's surprisingly hard to tell someone to stop or to move their hand when you're dressed as a giant otter.
- The Maker - The Maker is closely related to the Talker and the Toucher, though obviously more innocent than either. They will spend a lot of time touching you while talking out of character. The whole time, though, rather than grabbing at your crotch, they're feeling along the seams of your suit or inspecting the eyes' construction, all while talking about air-brushing or fur selection. While not quite as offensive as the Talker or the Toucher, this is nonetheless still quite awkward for someone who most certainly did not make their own suit.
- The Fursuit Hater - I don't know what to do about it. Look, I'm sorry that I'm a grown-ass man dressed as a giant otter among a bunch of other grown-ass men. I'm having fun, others are having fun, and those that aren't are doing something else. Why do you need to tell me that fursuits are creepy and probably gross and covered in semen and countless other things I really don't care to hear about. You pretend to be an animal-person, too.
- The Other Suiter - This one's up in the air. Normally, hanging around other fursuiters while in suit is pretty awesome. You can commiserate about those around you, play around and get some laughs (and plenty of pictures), and just plain have fun. Occasionally, though, you'll run into a suiter that also happens to be a Toucher, or even more so. I don't deny that some suits are pretty attractive, of course; the problem lies more in the lack of respect for differing opinions, especially around how to act in a public place. Fursuits serve to offer some of the same anonymity provided by the internet, and there has been more than once instance of someone grabbing or grinding on me in a scratchy, hot, faux-fur onesie in a hallway or dance that has led to quite a bit of discomfort.
Even with the occasional bad apple, it's definitely more fun than not to pretend to be an animal person, or at least interact as one, or to act a fool as one. I picked up my suit at Further Confusion 2010 from Jill once I arrived at the hotel. Just for giggles, I wore the suit as a partial for the rest of the night, roaming around to find people I knew so as to surprise them. I stole sips of beer, batted at people with my paws, poked my enormous nose on them, and basically just had fun. It's another way to entwine yourself with this strange fandom of ours, and provides a unique mixture of in- and out-of-character interactions with those around you. For some, it's a way to become their avatar, and for others it's a fun way to, in the jackal's words, "get drunk and touch friends." And, whether you're a fan of them or not, suiters are an integral part of our subculture, shaping not only our own interactions but the views of those looking in from outside.