“We were online, and I saw this link and it intrigued me: a person encased in a suit,” says Ben, a 25-year-old computer programmer from Irvine, California. “My girlfriend thought it was the weirdest thing she had ever seen.”
But Ben saw something else—something he didn’t even know his life was missing. “I couldn’t stop thinking about it. After a couple of weeks of bringing it up, I convinced my girlfriend to let me buy one. Finally it came in, I put it on… and I felt free.”
Click Image Below to View Our Gallery of People in Zentai
What Ben found was Zentai, the practice of cocooning one’s self from head to toe in a skin-tight bodysuit. Some Zentai devotees spend hours each day this way, and the reasons they do so are as varied as the suits themselves. The first thing Ben noticed when he slipped into his new Zentai suit was that he liked the way it looked. “It smoothed out all the imperfections,” he says. But even more appealing was the almost overwhelming sensation of security. “It’s like a portable safety blanket,” he continues, “like you’re pulling the sheets up over your head.” Another Zentai enthusiast, a 23-year-old student from Cincinnati named Darryl, describes the feeling of Zentai as “an all-over hug.” (Some last names have been deleted to let private enthusiasms remain private.)
Ben and Darryl have committed to living a good chunk of their lives swaddled in their cozy Zentai suits. They mainly dress in Zentai while alone in their homes, going about their personal daily routines. But other Zentai enthusiasts wear their suits in public and bask in the reactions of startled passers-by. “I’ve been quite happy living as a human silhouette,” says a 24-year-old British woman who goes by iZ, and who wore her Zentai suit almost around the clock for the entire month of February. “I find it very calming,” she says, though she admits that her roommates are a little freaked out.
Zentai originated in the 1980s in Japan, land of synthetic fibers and off-the-wall trends, and has recently begun migrating west. Google Street View captured three metallic-gold Zentai pedestrians in London’s West End. A Zentai party was recently held at a club in Berlin. At an NHL game in Canada last December, two men in green Zentai suits harassed a player in the penalty box. Zentai enthusiasts in France are fretting that the country’s anti-burqa laws could be applied to them as well. And in America, Zentai is finding followers in states red and blue.
“We’ll just go out in public in them,” says Dave Lee, a 28-year-old small-business owner from Walton, Kentucky, whose Southern-twanged syllables spill out of his mouth in stream-of-consciousness style. Unlike Darryl and Ben, Dave and his girlfriend, Trisha, a registered nurse, will go virtually anywhere in their suits. “We go to the Florence Mall,” he says. “We go grocery shopping in them. We’re pretty well known here in Walton.” Surprisingly, the threat of humiliation hardly crosses his mind. “You do have fleeting thoughts, wondering if someone’s going to say something bad, thinking to yourself, ‘What will I say back?’” But he says that more often than not, people are simply curious. Once they were stopped by a cop who wanted his picture taken with them.
Most of Dave and Trisha’s private time is spent in Zentai as well. “Making dinner, watching TV, having friends over—we’ll pretty much wear them whenever we’re at home. As soon as we get off the phone with you, we’ll put them back on.” He says their friends don’t even blink. “At first they were like, what the hell is that? Why are you wearing it? But after the first two times they didn’t care anymore. My buddy and I will be playing Xbox, and I’ll be wearing it and he won’t be, and we’re just sitting there killing terrorists.”
But Dave’s loud and proud Zentai habit isn’t universal. Lots of Zentai wearers hide it from friends and family. Darryl’s mother, for instance, only found out when he accidentally left one of his bodysuits lying around, “like an idiot.” Darryl says, “Her reaction was very negative. She didn’t know what it was and probably thought I was some kind of freak.” She’s since come to terms with it, but he’s still never let her, or any other friends or family, see him wearing the suit. Ben is also in the Zentai closet to nearly everyone besides his girlfriend. “It’s like leading a double life. I wish I could tell [other people], but I feel like they would look at me differently. It’s something I think is kind of private.”
“A lot of people end up ending their relationships over it,” says one Zentai enthusiast whose girlfriend is coping with his transformation.
“A lot of people who are into Zentai, they don’t have people around them who understand why they like having no face and no identity,” says iZ. Lots of Zentai lovers cite this feeling of anonymity as one of the lifestyle’s main allures—you’re both a spectacle and somehow invisible at the same time. It’s like hiding from the world in plain view. Or, as iZ sees it, “You shed one skin and wear another one.”
Those who embrace the Zentai life do so for their own reasons, but the common thread often leads back to childhood. Darryl, for instance, remembers when he finally realized the Power Rangers were actually actors in bodysuits; as soon as he was old enough, he ordered his own suit off the Internet and “loved it from the instant I got it—I spent every chance I got wearing it.” iZ says that when she was a child she hated to wear clothes, and as a compromise with her mother she agreed to wear cycling shorts. Before long, her love of the Lycra took over her whole body. She also thinks this association with nudity is part of the reason most Zentai enthusiasts are men. “It’s very male oriented,” she says. “Women wear tights and tight clothes all the time, and the whole sensuality of it comes to the forefront.”
Ask many Zentai enthusiasts about the fetish angle and they’ll say that for them, it’s not a sexual thing. But the Web is littered with explicit Zentai pics. Even squeaky-clean Facebook is loaded with bulgy Zentai photos that clearly violate the social-networking site’s terms of service. On a popular Zentai Internet forum, one poster from Cedar Falls, Iowa, proclaimed his ultimate Zentai fantasy would involve his girlfriend in a Zentai suit that has a “vaginal sleeve.” Not surprisingly, Dave and Trisha do more than just watch TV in their getups. “There’s a fetish side to it,” admits Dave, whose own Facebook page has one or two shots displaying not-safe-for-work Zentai-suit bulges. “It feels good, especially when you rub up against each other,” adds Trisha.
Lucky them—try explaining your new Zentai lifestyle to a significant other who’s not into it. Ben calls his Zentai transformation “the main straining point” in his relationship with his girlfriend. “We’ve had a lot of push and pull over the years,” he says. “She knows I like it, but she doesn’t want me to go overboard.” iZ says she’s familiar with such friction. “I was talking to a guy on Facebook, and he was saying his girlfriend doesn’t understand it. She tolerates it, but she doesn’t want to be around when he wears it, and she doesn’t like the hood. He’s been trying to get her into it, but it’s just not going to happen.”
“This is something she had no idea I was into when she met me,” laments Ben, regarding the stress he’s caused his girlfriend. “In a way, I didn’t know either. Over the past year I started wearing it practically whenever I wasn’t outdoors. She felt that was too much, so I’ve been toning it down. … A lot of people end up ending relationships over it.”
Not so for Dave and Trisha, who have been cohabitating in stretchy Spandex-covered bliss for two years and counting. They’re even raising Trisha’s kids together, and the tots think seeing mom and her boyfriend puttering around in Zentai is “funny as hell,” says Dave. “I have a Spider-Man suit and they loved it. I put it on and took it off without them seeing and they were like, ‘Where’d Spider-Man go?’ I thought about getting the kids their own Zentai suits. I wanted to do a whole family portrait. But I’m not sure Trish would go for that.”
Will Doig is the features editor at The Daily Beast. He has written for New York, The Advocate, Out, Black Book, and Highlights for Children.