In April, I spent a week down in Weeki Wachee, Florida, where I got to swim with real live mermaids. I also ate fried chicken sandwiches from Sonic with mermaids, and hung out with them while they got ready for shows, did their laundry, cleaned their break room and posed for pictures with tourists.
And then I came home, and spent the next two months thinking hard about mermaids — why they captivate us, what they have meant to this particular part of Central Florida for the past sixty-odd years, and how they are, in many ways, both the epitome of and the antidote to Disney princess culture.
Disney’s “The Little Mermaid” came out the year I was 8 years old. I loved everything about it and memorized all the words, even though my mother was rightly horrified by the story, where a girl agrees to have her tongue cut out and then gives up her entire (awesome) life under the sea to marry her prince. It is not the stuff of feminist fairy tales.
And on the surface, you could say the same thing about Weeki Wachee, a kitschy roadside attraction that didn’t even bother to pay its mermaids when it first launched in 1947. Being a mermaid is and always has been a low wage job for women who look great in bikinis and can be patient with the occasional creepy grandpa who asks to sit on their lap when they pose for photos. (“Look, I’m not Santa Claus,” one mermaid tells them.)
But it doesn’t take long to realize that for these women, being a mermaid is so much more than any of that. For starters, they are phenomenal athletes who can hold their breath under water for ages, free dive over twenty feet (in a Spandex tail) without scuba equipment or weight belts, and swim three to four shows a day in 74 degree water against a five mile per hour current.
And it’s also about their sense of sisterhood to one another. Weeki Wachee has produced generations of mermaids and women who swam together forty years ago now come back for regular reunion shows and fried fish tacos at Becky Jack’s Food Shack up the road. The mermaids see each other through childbirth, marriage, break-ups, family illness and all of the rest of life. Listening to the current Weeki Wachee mermaids in the locker room before a performance took me right back to beauty school and how I learned there that women can create a space to connect with other women in profound ways, even when we’re doing something that plays right in to the beauty standards and stereotypes that try to disconnect women and put us all into separate boxes.
Yes, the Little Mermaid sacrificed her voice and her happy underwater life for a man. And the Weeki Wachee mermaids tell that story, three times a day, in the Newton Perry Underwater Theater. But they know that’s just the fairy tale. For them, being a mermaid provides a sense of identity, family, history, and power. That’s right here, in real life.
And when I’m swimming laps in the pool at my gym (which is very much not a magical spring), clinging to my kickboard because I’m still working on the whole head-underwater thing, the women in my story are the mermaids that inspire me now. (Apologies to Ariel.)
Read the story online here or in the magazine this weekend (because seriously, what is better than the weekend Times and an iced coffee on a hot, summer weekend?). And do not miss the awesome slideshow and video, from the shoot the mermaids did with amazing photographer Katy Grannan. (I am a little losing my mind over her work.)