In water we are all weightless: Of mermaids and whales
A story has been making the rounds on Facebook and Twitter. Perhaps a well-meaning friend has delivered it to your inbox or brought your attention to an online post. It has no known author, but tells a parable of a woman — of clothing size un—known who responded to the ad posted outside a gym asking whether women would rather be a “mermaid or a whale” this summer.
It’s a commentary on body image that many women — and the men who love them — have seized upon.
In the woman’s response, she writes:
“We women, we gain weight because we accumulate so much wisdom and knowledge that there isn’t enough space in our heads, and it spreads all over our bodies. We are not fat, we are greatly cultivated.” (Anon., “Mermaid or Whale?”)
The response also indicates that mermaids are not real, but if they were theirs would be a tortured existence, torn between two worlds. I was reminded of Disney’s Ariel, the little mermaid who has to relinquish her voice in order to gain human— legs all for the love of a prince.
Mermaids aren’t real. But the pressures on our young women are and the media messages that tell them that no matter what they will not measure up if they are not “pretty enough” are as well. We’ve let mass media consume their voices and their identities, like the witch swallowed Ariel’s.
But this response is not appropriate either. I do not care how much you weigh or how wide your hips are, we do not carry wisdom with our weight. What “spreads all over our bodies” is a result of caloric intake being higher than caloric output and has nothing to do with the wisdom of the ages being granted to us.
Both the imperative to be a mermaid and the defense of whales subjugates women into the strictures of their body as their identity.
And as long as we perpetuate that myth — that we are whom we look like — no girl or woman will ever truly be free.
This is an issue that affects all girls — and women.
To some extent body image affects our boys and men, too, with images of strength being placed against images of feminine-like sensitivity and both used to identify the essential identity of the man represented. But even moreso, our boys are bombarded with images of girls in overtly sexual poses. They see the same things our girls see and they form opinions and beliefs upon those images.
What those images have shown us is that image itself is the most important thing. We can be stylish and sought-after and thin or we can be fun and fat and wise. We have pitted body types against each other and somehow we’ve pitted ourselves against other women in response.
Rather than attack the idea that a woman would want to be a mermaid or a whale and why summer had anything to do with the shape of her body, the respondent in this case just ate up the same drivel we’ve been fed for ages. She attacked the mermaids rather than the message.
And that is exactly what they want us to do.
Who are “they,” you may ask? Truthfully, I’m not quite certain. They are those who are invested in the beauty culture; they have com- modified our bodies to the point where we believe we must either buy their products to sell ourselves or resist “selling out” and deny part of ourselves by defending our bodies.
The “whale” defended herself as fun-loving, adventurous, a loved family member and wise. She never once called herself beautiful, however, but insisted that the image of beauty was something she’d rather not embroil herself in.
In “The Beauty Myth,” Naomi Klein insists that this idea that our identity is somehow tied to our bodies is the new lack of choice for women. The choice between mermaid or whale is a false choice and one that muddies the real waters that run deep beneath this idea: “which will I be,” she writes, “sexual or serious? We must reject that false and forced dilemma.”
We can be wise; we can be fun; we can be sexy; we can be well-loved. And we can be all of those things, all at once, regardless of whether we are fat or thin. The answer is not that we should all be whales, but that we should all be whomever we want to be and feel beautiful, weightless, and free.