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Emily Wrightphotography Claire Griffiths

How people around the world find solace in becoming IRL mermaids

People of the Mer community report that being part of the aquatic subculture soothes their depression and anxiety

Since childhood, Bristol-based Stacie Orban has experienced anxiety and depression. She’s explored various ways of managing her mental health, such as using CBT, but the 24-year-old has discovered a somewhat novel and surprising way of relaxing her thoughts and building psychological resilience: mermaiding.

The modern conception of mermaiding can be traced back to the early 20th century, and the work of Australian professional swimmer and actor Annette Kellermann. Kellermann was an early advocate of synchronised swimming, which she integrated into her film career with the performance of underwater water ballet. Her 1916 film Daughter of the Gods was the first major film to feature an actor wearing a mermaid tail. Kellermann essentially popularised a performance style that would be picked up by Splash decades later in 1984, the commercial success of which inspired a new generation of mermaids. Stacie has a vivid memory of her first exposure to mermaids: “Like most kids I loved The Little Mermaid and Splash and wondered how it would be to swim like them.”

Contemporary mermaiding has a large following in North America, where men and women learn how to freedive and swim with tails at mermaid schools, and perform professionally for audiences at venues like Weeki Wachee Springs. However, mermaiding isn’t just a job. For many merfolk, such as the thousands of members on the MerNetwork forum, mermaiding exists as a way to enjoy swimming outdoors, connect with aquatic life, and meet like-minded people in the mer community.

It was through engaging with other online merfolk that Stacie was able to research various aspects of mermaiding and decide on buying a suitable fabric mermaid tail. “I wasn’t sure what to expect, it was mainly just to say I’d tried it,” she tells Dazed, “but once I got in the water, I was able to swim right away. It was almost natural to me and I enjoyed it so much. It definitely boosts my confidence.”

Stacie continues to mermaid, but has found that many public swimming pools object to the use of tails. This has forced her to swim outdoors, with the unexpected health benefits that cold water swimming brings. “The cold water works wonders on your blood circulation, adrenalin and mental health. It feels fantastic,” she adds.

Stacie’s experiences are certainly backed up by scientific research into open water swimming. When you swim outdoors, the temperature isn’t controlled or heated and, in the British climate at least, tends to be cold. As Dr Mark Harper explains, cold water has two primary advantages for mental health. First, it triggers a stress response that is diminished over time with repeated cold water exposure. This isn’t enough to completely alleviate an individual’s anxiety, but can reduce some of the symptoms that may trigger it. Second, depression has been linked with inflammation and cold water has an anti-inflammatory effect.

“Putting on a tail and ‘just playing’ can be such a transformative experience – we don’t really get the chance to ‘just play’ very often in our adult lives or ‘just be’” – Emily Wright

These two advantages describe ways of targeting biological determinants of anxiety and depression. Stacie may have also experienced psychosocial benefits from mermaiding in open water. Blue spaces (i.e. environments with aquatic features including rivers, lakes, and seas) have been associated with more positive emotions and lower levels of psychological distress, largely because they tend to be situated in calmer, non-urban areas. “Being around nature, eye level with the earth and paying attention to what is around you is almost meditative,” explains Ella Foote of the Outdoor Swimming Society. “Swimming itself is an activity which doesn't take much thought, so means it’s a good head-clearing activity.”

Outdoor swimming also provides better opportunities to socialise with strangers. This is particularly pertinent to mers, who may receive positive attention and potentially meet other merfolk. “I feel great knowing I can make others happy or smile,” Stacie says. “I had one girl come up to me with her mum at Bude Sea Pool for a photo. I even swam into a little mermaid girl that day too.”

36-year-old Emily Wright isn’t an outdoors swimmer, but she’s also taken up mermaiding to help improve her mental health. In 2010, Emily took six months off from work after injuring her back. It then transpired that she had developed chronic back pain, which led to her leaving her job in the care sector. “I felt incredibly guilty about having to leave my job and for being a drain on them while I was off sick,” she remembers. As a result of her chronic pain, Emily was unable to work elsewhere and quickly became socially isolated. “I spent a lot of time at home in bed, crying and sometimes screaming,” she says. “I felt completely hopeless, like there was no way out of the pain and anxiety I was experiencing, and like my life held nothing for me.”

Following a two year course of physiotherapy and CBT, Emily was eventually able to control her back pain without using painkillers. It was only after giving birth that she thought about the detrimental effect chronic pain was having on her self-esteem and body image. “I realised that I felt frightened of moving my body in a spontaneous way, worried that it might cause me pain the next day, or take me back to the place I'd been in a few years before.”

At this point, Emily came across the idea of mermaiding. She recalled a friend of a friend once mentioning a mermaid performance group and posted a tentative question on Facebook. One thing led to another, she was put in touch with Ang, a mermaid from Brighton, and soon enough Emily found herself wearing a mermaid fin at a NoTanx freediving club. After her first freedive, Emily realised how much she loved the mindful feeling of being underwater. “It’s like the outside world drops away, nothing else matters except for the moment that you're in and the movements that you're making.”

Almost no research exists into the psychological effects of recreational freediving. Nonetheless, it’s possible that as a practice of mindfulness, freediving may have had similar effect on Emily’s anxiety as, for example, meditation. Anxiety can in part be triggered by an individual’s perception that they lack control of a situation or themselves. Thus, by holding her breath underwater, Emily may be practising self-control and alleviating some of the causes of her anxiety.  

“I think a lot of people have come to it via a mental health struggle. So it feels like there’s a lot of mutual support within the online community for mers with anxiety” – Emily Wright

Emily believes the act of putting on a mermaid tail plays important role in managing her mental health. She uses her mermaid tail outside of freediving sessions and experiences significant positive effects. “I feel like putting on a tail and ‘just playing’ can be such a transformative experience –  we don’t really get the chance to ‘just play’ very often in our adult lives or ‘just be’,” she explains. “This felt like something where you could just play and just be and not worry about anything for an hour or so.” In this respect, mermaiding provides individuals with the opportunity to temporarily escape the pressures and stresses of day-to-day life, in much the same way as, say, going to the cinema provides brief respite.

There’s also a strong sense of togetherness, understanding, and shared experience among the mermaid community, which Emily feels contributes to the wellbeing of all merfolk. “I think a lot of people have come to it via a mental health struggle,” she says. “So it feels like there’s a lot of mutual support within the online community for mers with anxiety in particular.” Similarly, Emily has found that mers are especially supportive of those who don’t fit societal body norms. This led her and another mermaid to start the Instagram hashtag #bodypositivemermaids to celebrate mermaids of all shapes, sizes, colours and configurations.

Emily now feels better prepared to deal with any flare-ups of back pain and anxiety, and has become more resilient than she was before freediving and mermaiding entered her life. Her mermaiding experiences have given her the drive to set-up Sparkleforce and Mer-Made, two businesses that help mermaids to train and promote mermaiding meet-ups. Through these websites, Emily hopes to help others find the sense of calm, bodily connection and community that she’s found through mermaiding. “Feeling like I’ve turned my own difficult experience around and channelled it into something that might also help others gives me a real sense of purpose.”