I was five years old when I realized I was a mermaid.
It was my birthday, late December 1989. The height of a steamy summer in my small country town, nestled in a valley among coal mines, vineyards, horse studs and a coffee stop on the days-long drive between major metropolises.
We, a gaggle of giggling girls, were soon to embark on their “big school” adventure. But for the moment, we were content with piling into the old Civic Theatre on Kelly Street. The lights dimmed and the first notes of Alan Menken’s famous refrain drew me into the depths of the Caspian Sea. The siren call was literally that – Disney’s Little Mermaid, beckoning me to follow and believe in a world of underwater magic.
Follow I did. Despite the very real risk of vanquishment by sunburn, I became slightly obsessed with the beach and the ocean, reveling in any chance I had to re-enact that perfectly-timed splash that is the crescendo of Ariel’s signature song. As for so many Australian kids, going to the beach for Christmas was a joyous fixture of my childhood. Sunscreen, salt, sand. Candy canes, Christmas crackers. New boogie boards wedged in the dunes, makeshift wickets for the family cricket match.
The sea drew me in irrevocably – something about that ethereal feeling of weightlessness. I drifted on half-formed waves that were yet too full to break, rising gently up and over, my eyes trained on the sharp-edged horizon. Scanning for the flash of a tail, a slick, briny female form, anything that wasn’t white caps ruffling the vast navy blanket at once before me and all around.
True, it’s not the most feminist of fairy tales ( possibly an oxymoron ?) – girl literally sacrifices her voice for a shot at rich, regal dude with questionable sailing skills and significant lack of personality. Guy falls in love with mute but aesthetically pleasing ginger fish-centaur. Both are duped by power-hungry, heathen, octopus-lady, whom we know to be morally corrupt because she is older, female and worst of all – fat.
But the red(ish) hair, deep-seated desire to discover new worlds and endless longing-filled warbling were all characteristics I shared with Ariel. I was far too young to question the my desire to be the stunning mythical water creature making ill-informed life decisions at the centre of an old but recently revamped Danish fairy-tale.
I was also five years old the first time I was called fat.
It was shortly thereafter, in kindergarten. I don’t remember the context, not really – I have a hazy picture in my head of a classroom, a little boy sneering at me, my face flush with shame, my eyes welling with tears. A bleak feeling in my gut which, though I didn’t know it then, would be the start of 25+ year tug-of-war between my head and my stomach.
Because even at five, I knew fat was one of the worst things that any female could be. Fat was Ursula the Sea Witch. Evil. Ugly. Serpentine tentacles poised to seize “poor unfortunate” merfolk, drag them to a dark lair and turn them into living garden decorations. Fat bodies could not be mermaids. They could not be beautiful.
I was 10 when I first went on a diet.
Desperate to be seen as more than just my body type and to escape the taunting and laughter, I had to eliminate the problem of my puppy-fat. So it began: measured portions, kim milk, weekly weigh-ins, sport, sport, sport. And less and less time in swimsuits – in the ocean.
Years passed and my relationship with my body grew steadily worse. I hated the way I looked, and I knew people around me were disgusted too. They were offended by my supposed inability to “respect” myself, my failure to comply. In fact, the idea that fatness is indicative of moral decay is prevalent across popular culture. Fat-shaming has been described by some as the last bastion of acceptable bigotry.
Doctors told me to stop eating potato chips and chocolate. (I didn’t eat them…I don’t really like chips?) coaches told me I had to be “fitter” to play in higher level teams (yet there were skinnier girls on those teams who could barely catch a ball?), people assumed I was lazy, stupid.
Fear of judgement pulled me out of the water and put an end to my Christmas beach-going. I just had to lose weight, then I could frolic in the shallows again. All would be forgiven if I could just tame my unruly flesh. I was waiting for perfection in order for my life to begin again.
My deep dive into diet culture continued. The more I tried to control what I ate, the harder I fell when I “failed.” One “mistake” had me spiraling, numbing myself by eating mindlessly while watching TV, binging on whatever I could find and consume quickly in the house. Catatonic, in front of trash drama after rom-com, I tried over and again to fill the void with anything edible. I escaped from reality and into the world of perfect beautiful people on the screen. I was infinitely aware of how absurd this was but unable to stop using food as both a punishment and a release.
I was 30 when I realized I had an eating disorder.
This, incidentally, came around the same time that I first came across the concept of body positivity – and the idea that I might not be fundamentally flawed, weak, broken. Body Positivity is essentially acceptance of your body as it is, understanding that your appearance and your worth are two separate things.
It means health is not necessarily correlated to size and treating your body with care and love should be the ultimate goal. It isn’t advocating for obesity, as some conflate it, or encouraging an unhealthy lifestyle. It’s recognizing that fat doesn’t always = unhealthy. And that, even if it did, it still doesn’t = unworthy.
The craziest thing is, when you stop focusing on calorie counting, deprivation and self-loathing, and start to focus on actively listening to your body and what it needs, taking care of it and nourishing it from a place of love, your body begins to self-regulate. Change and weight loss may be part of that journey. When the goal is health, well-being, and fulfillment – as opposed to lower numbers on a scale or a measuring tape – it’s actually much easier to achieve, and much more effective.
I returned to my childhood beach-haunt not long ago. Winter had finally crept over the landscape after a lengthy and brutal summer, and a sharp wind dappled the cyan billows cresting north to the headland.
The yen to wade-in surfaced. A chorus from the undertow called out. Clearly my fellow merfolk were hollering at me. I resisted the urge and, along with it, certain death by hypothermia. But as a familiar brackish smell filled my nostrils, I inhaled it and smiled. Christmas would finally come again this year.