Growing up with a limb difference, I always felt the eyes of others glued to me as I moved through public places. I remember warning new friends, and then later boyfriends, before going into crowded places together for the first time. I would typically broach the subject by making some kind of joke alluding to the likelihood of someone making comments about my arm, or the inevitable gawking and stares. “Does that really happen?” they would usually say, but by the end of our excursion, they were no longer in any doubt. I used to find it sort of funny when I could identify the exact moment that people realized just how strange others act in response to my limb difference, and how normal it had become for me.
Truthfully, it wasn’t until March of 2020 when that sense of normalcy had started to fade from my memory. Just prior to quarantine, I was working a job in retail. I was mostly desensitized to how people perceived me, or so I had thought. When I started working from home and avoiding crowded public settings, I started to feel the weight of people’s perceptions fade away in a way that I had never felt before in my life.
I began an online graduate program through a university in another city later that year. For the first time in my life, in an era where all that anyone saw of each other was from the chest up, I didn’t have to quickly make the first joke at my own expense. My colleagues listened to me and maintained eye contact, completely unaware of my limb difference unless I willingly chose to offer that information to them. I suddenly had a level of anonymity and control that I dreamt of as a kid. I could feel the difference in how people interacted with me. It was freeing. But it felt strange in a way that I couldn’t quite pinpoint.
“I felt like I needed to share this new bionic version of myself with people. After all, this was the coolest prosthetic that I had ever seen. I loved that it fit in with my wardrobe like an accessory.”
In October of that year, I received my Hero Arm. It was the first prosthetic that I had in over 12 years. I was surprised at how many different feelings it stirred up in me. I spent so much of my life trying to blend in, downplay, and deny that I was different from anyone in any way. I always felt a small bit of satisfaction when someone would tell me “you know, sometimes I forget that you’re missing a hand at all.” Still, I felt like I needed to share this new bionic version of myself with people. After all, this was the coolest prosthetic that I had ever seen. I loved that it fit in with my wardrobe like an accessory. I started posting content about my journey with my new prosthetic online. I very quickly realized just how ignorant people can be of different types of limb differences and disability. But also, overwhelmingly, I felt their excitement.
As I started to achieve a small amount of internet fame, more and more people would leave comments comparing me to their favorite characters. Being a bit of a nerd myself, I felt inspired to start bringing some of my own favorite characters to life. I started building props out of cardboard, paint, and air-dry clay. My first big project was way more of an investment of time and energy than I thought it would be, and I had so much fun. The thing about cosplay is that it’s truly an art form– one that I have not even started to scratch the surface of. I have always been crafty and enjoyed doing art of all kinds. Cross stitching, sewing, painting, sculpting, drawing, and makeup are just a few of my prior hobbies that I have found are transferable skills in the cosplay domain.
Cosplay, it turns out, is almost the perfect combination of all my favorite hobbies. Taking something from a video game and figuring out how to create it in real life with minimal resources is delightfully challenging. It requires me to use my hard-earned skills of adapting and innovating. Many costume designs need to be altered to accommodate my prosthetic or my limb difference. The actual act of doing things like sewing costumes and designing props also takes a bit of extra creativity and trial and error when you’re working with half the number of hands than the average person has, but it makes the product that much more satisfying.
Cosplay has quickly become such an important part of my self-expression, and, I’ve found, it also makes a powerful tool for advocacy. One of the beautiful things about bringing someone’s favorite character to life is that they already feel connected to that character. When I embody a character, I am given the ability to connect with other people in a way that I may not otherwise have been able to. I can bring awareness to limb differences and open a door to a larger conversation about disability. And even when my more informative replies to ignorant comments go unheard, I know that simply by putting myself out there, I am making an impact. Having eyes on me and my limb difference in a positive light makes a difference.
Cosplaying has also helped to heal a part of my inner self that I didn’t realize needed healing. I have always had a complicated self-image, especially when it comes to my “little arm.” As is common for many of us who have a limb difference, I have at many times throughout my life wanted to distance myself from it as an identity. I already knew that no matter how hard I tried, I would never be able to hide that part of myself. While I grew to accept that, I never fully grew to accept myself. I would be lying if I claimed that I had it all figured out now– that I reconciled the inner me with the outer me and eliminated all the decades of internalized ableism through the power of one cardboard cosplay. I still learn and unpack new things about my self-image all the time, and I expect that I will continue to do so for many years to come.
However, cosplaying has allowed me to not just passively accept that people will always see my limb difference, but to lean into it in a way that doesn’t require self-deprecation. I am excited to show off not only my prosthetic, but the art that I create around it. I am excited when people tell me that my interpretation of a character that they love is the coolest thing that they have ever seen. I am excited that I get the opportunity to take something that always seemed to divide me from others and use it to connect with them instead.
Be sure to follow Harmony May King on Instagram, Twitch, and Tiktok at ‘fullmetalharmony’ to stay connected with all of her artistic, bionic, and limb different exploits. Harmony also hosts two podcasts titled ‘Here’s Where Things Get Weird’ and ‘Positively Ominous.’ If you are interested in your very own Hero Arm, click on the link below to begin your bionic journey.
The Hero Arm uses myoelectric sensors which detect underlying muscular contractions generated from specific muscle groups in the arm. These are then amplified and converted into intuitive and proportional bionic hand movements. Each Hero Arm is custom-built for optimal comfort, and fits like a glove.