A Reverse Little Mermaid Story

Both of my parents look like characters who belong in a fairy tale from northern Europe. They look like they would be at home in the forest baking pies and chopping wood, like they could easily survive a harsh winter and stand their ground against a hungry wolf.

Growing up in the United States, however, I had no interest in dark forests and long winter nights. The fairy tale that spoke to me was “The Little Mermaid.” As someone who wasn’t a boy but definitely wasn’t a girl, I felt as though I belonged both on land and in water, and I was haunted by the feeling of not having a voice.

By the time I got to college, I understood what it meant to be nonbinary, and I thought I had a solution. Like a fish, I would be androgynous. As long as I maintained the shape of a child, I would be able to wear clothing associated with either gender, and perhaps pass as both. It quickly became clear that this sort of neoteny wasn’t a solution at all when I graduated and started working. Unless I devoted hours to training and disciplining my body every day, I would have to become an adult, and then I would look like my parents. In other words, I would carry my weight in a way that gendered me.

People my age might have been able to look past my body and accept my self-presentation while we were in the comfortable cocoon of a university campus, but the workplace was a different world. Being hit with gendered pronouns and expectations that didn’t fit me turned my job search into a painful gauntlet of body dysmorphia, and this continued into my early career. To add insult to injury, I was forced to go into debt in order to replace my professional wardrobe as my body underwent a transformation that I was powerless to fight. Between my economic precarity and the omnipresent sense that I didn’t belong in my own body, I felt like a monster.

Many people in their twenties struggle to find their place in the world, no matter their shape or gender, but this process can be especially difficult for people whose bodies don’t conform to the dictates of neoliberal capitalism, which holds that each individual is entirely responsible for their own success. Even liberal-leaning workplaces can be filled with constant reminders of an ideology that holds that “fit” and “attractive” people are more self-disciplined and thus more worthy of respect and professional success. This is a toxic cultural soup to have to swim through, and it affected my self-perception in strange ways that I didn’t fully understand when I was younger.

I began to see my body as something that needed to be hidden away, preferably sealed within a cave or locked inside a basement. Comics and movies with strong elements of body horror resonated with me, the gorier and more offensive the better. Body positivity was nothing more than a set of empty platitudes in the face of the unpleasantness of my lived experience, and pulp horror was the only way I could process what I was going through. When I played video games, I would see myself in the monsters that attacked my avatar. It felt good to hunt and kill these monsters, and to hate the fantastic evil they represented instead of the mundane evil of my colleagues, who made tasteless jokes about diets and using the “wrong” bathroom.  

I rediscovered H.P. Lovecraft late one night after a particularly grueling day at work. I had never been impressed by Lovecraft’s stories of purloined indigenous relics cursing the gentry of rural New England, but I was in the mood for mindless escapism, so I started reading The Shadow over Innsmouth. Although Lovecraft would disavow his racism toward the end of his short life, his xenophobia is on full display in this novella, whose protagonist discovers the “horror” of his mixed-species ancestry while on an architectural tour of New England. At the end of the story, when he is no longer able to conceal his piscine heritage, he decides to embrace his heritage and join the others of his kind under the sea.

For many of Lovecraft’s readers, the narrator’s decision to forsake the last remnants of his humanity inspires a sense of dread, but it filled me with awe and wonder. Lovecraft’s narrator had always felt strange and different, and he had initially been struck with intense anxiety and fear when he realized his genetic destiny. The ending of the story didn’t seem tragic to me, however. After escaping from the confines of human society, the scholarly young man was finally able to see the antiquities that fascinated him with his own exophthalmic eyes. How cool was that?

And was I any different, really? Would I be able to come to terms with my difference and enter a magical city under the waves, like the Little Mermaid in reverse?

It took a few years, but I eventually made peace with my body – the way it’s shaped, the way it moves, and the power it gives me to survive in a world filled with wolves and winters. Still, I had to fight for my pride and self-confidence, and these battles weren’t always pleasant or empowering. It’s impossible to describe the liminal state of transformation when I was neither a person nor a fish, trapped somewhere between human and monster, but perhaps a modern fairy tale can attempt to do it justice. After all, there’s a certain charm to Lovecraft’s young scholar who discovers a world he never imaged, just as there’s an immense appeal in the ancient sea witch who teaches the teenage mermaid just how highly her voice is valued.

As a nonbinary person navigating a world that insists on categorizing everything according to normative standards of gender-appropriate “attractiveness,” I never stopped feeling like a monster, but I’ve learned to embrace my monstrosity. I may not be a prince or a princess, or even an androgynous little mermaid, but that’s for the best. All things considered, I rather enjoy being a sharp-toothed sea creature with many voices and a capacity for dramatic metamorphosis.