Like all ideas that sound good at the time but are actually quite scary, my journey to become a mermaid started with a PR email. It was an invite to try Aquamermaid—part actual workout, part childhood nostalgia fantasy for anyone who had practiced a hair flip in the shallow end of the town pool. I’ve never entertained a specific Ariel fantasy, though I have always liked the water in my own way. If asked to compare myself to a sea animal, I am clearly a manatee: slow-moving and inordinately fond of warm water and seaweed salad. In the same vein, many people close to me in my life believe that I don’t know how to swim, a fact that I know in my heart to be false and have spent my entire life defending.
For one, I am an excellent floater. I am also able to swim a sort of modified breast stroke, like the kind you’d see a woman with skin like a fine leather handbag doing in the shallow end of a pool in Boca, moving at a pace slow enough to gossip while she’s doing it. Like snowboarding when you really only know how to ski, I imagined swimming with my feet stuck in a mono fin would be just as difficult. Despite my lack of athleticism or proficiency in water sports, I know that If I managed to swim like a mermaid in a public pool in Chicago and not die, I’d prove my doubters wrong.
The woman who first emailed me, Marielle Chartier Hénault, started the mermaid swimming class not with the intention to teach people how to live like an actual mermaid—a difficult ask, as mermaids are not real—but to get some exercise in a method that’s more fun than swimming laps or hunching over a stationary bike and sweating as “This Is What You Came For” blasts at top volume. “This is kind of a combination of my different passions,” she told me over the phone. “I love fitness, I love water, I love princesses, and I love business. I just did a big mix of that.”
The class is intended to be a physical fitness activity first and foremost, though learning the tricks of the trade will allow you to become a professional mermaid if you so desire. As a professional mermaid, you could work in a tank behind a bar or at a hotel, making graceful arm movements and holding your breath for a very long time while smiling. Kim Kardashian could employ your services to give North and her cousin Penelope their very own mermaid birthday party. You could lend your skills to the women of Bravo’s Second Wives Club, and equip them with tails that they never actually use. If you are crafty enough to create a mermaid outfit that allowed you full use of your legs, you could walk in the Coney Island Mermaid Parade, a tradition that has been ongoing since 1983.
“A lot of the techniques come from synchronized swimming. Any movement and position in synchronized swimming that you do with your feet together you can do in mermaid swimming,” Hénault told me. The sport is an astonishing display of athleticism and grace, like gymnastics but underwater, using the strength of your arms and a very toned core to keep as much of your body out of the water as possible, while pointing your toes and smiling maniacally every time your head is visible. Mermaid swimming requires the same strength, but with the addition of a giant, soaking wet tail. It looks easy because experts make it look easy—like anyone could jump in pool with their legs stuck together in a polyester sausage casing and magically become Ariel.
Becoming an actual mermaid in real life is another kettle of fish. When I walked into the pool area and looked at the participants, I realized quickly that I was out of my depth. Half the class was comprised of literal children, all dead serious and mostly silent. The rest were adult women in full makeup who I learned soon after were very, very good at being mermaids, probably because they were also experienced synchronized swimmers. Most of the people in Aquamermaid classes are women, I learned, although Hénault welcomes everyone to her class. In the class I took, there was one lone boy of about 9 or 10 years old who was very shy but wiggled into his mermaid tail and gamely participated in every exercise.
“Sometimes guys feel shy, but it’s really impressive when a few guys come [to the class],” Hénault said. “They really realize how hard it is. Also, some guys just don’t want to put the fabric on top and they just wear the fin. Sometimes it’s their first thought—‘I don’t want to look silly or ridiculous.’”
Getting into the tail was perhaps the most embarrassing part about becoming a mermaid. It’s made out of bathing suit material, stretchy and printed with fish scales, with the mono fin at the bottom attached by a zipper, fully covered by the fabric. The fin is clearly for swimming, while the tail and the attached fabric is for appearances only. Before the class started, Nora, the head of Aquamermaid in Chicago, and my patient, generous, wonderful guide, laid them out at the edge of the pool in little puddles, waiting for their mermaid soulmates. Putting on the tail feels as labor intensive as putting a duvet cover on your comforter by yourself. The best way to do it is to get your feet in your fin, lie on your back and then pull the thing up around your lower half until it hovers somewhere south of your breasts. I managed to get my body into the thing and was exhausted by the end; had I not committed to learning how to become a mermaid, I would’ve been content to lie on my back at the edge of the pool, watching the sunlight play across the mural of sea turtles on the wall.
Once you’re in the thing, standing up is impossible; best to hop in the water, because you’re a goddamn mermaid now. You can’t walk on land because your legs have been turned into a fish tail by a horrible sea witch living in a dark cave, whose only companions are her infinite sorrow and two electric eels. In popular culture, mermaids are the sexy, graceful, and dangerous temptresses of the sea, luring men to their deaths or to a new life under the waves. Darryl Hannah as a voiceless, naked Madison crawling from the sea in Splash predates Disney’s The Little Mermaid by a couple of years, but the cultural influence of both is indelible; thanks to the iconic shot of Ariel’s hoarder grotto, a nation of children who tried to comb their hair with flatware at the dinner table also know every single word of “Part of Your World” like muscle memory. The mermaid movement has even infiltrated the dubious body empowerment movement: “mermaid thighs” are thighs that lack a “thigh gap,” a brief meme that peaked sometime in 2016.
As I lowered my body into the water, I quickly became aware of how insanely out of my league I was. Holding onto the pool’s edge and struggling to stand, I watched a girl of about 10 named Claire start to swim around, businesslike, brisk, and ineffably elegant while I tried in vain to stand in three feet of water without falling down.
Our first order of business was just trying to swim from one end of the pool to the other, held aloft by a pool noodle, propelled by the power of our new fins. Swimming with a fin is a revelation. I wiggled my body in an approximation of the ninety-eleven YouTube tutorials I had watched prior to my arrival and was delighted to find that I made it to the other end without taking a child out with my flailing. We swam on our backs next, back and forth across the pool, held aloft by my new best friend, the noodle. Alas, my own hubris got the best of me. Empowered by my mermaid thighs and my graceful agility “swimming” while clutching a freaking pool noodle, my backstroke was so vigorous that I kicked my feet out of the mermaid tail, requiring assistance from Nora. “This happens all the time,” she told me as she braced herself for impact and propped my ankles on her thighs to strap me back in, much like a toddler who can’t tie their own shoes.
A part of leaning how to be a mermaid is mastering cute tricks. The first was the tail wave, executed by sculling—essentially treading water with your hands— and drawing your knees close to your chest such that the tip of your beautiful tail emerges from the water. Then you wave it; to level up, you can give your fellow mermaid a high-five by tapping your tail against theirs. I am embarrassed to say that while attempting this maneuver, I felt like I might indeed drown. My core has not been engaged in any significant way since 2012. Also, a mermaid tail is heavy. Getting even the tip of my tail out of the water felt like a miracle, but I did it once and then allowed myself to sink gracefully to the bottom of the pool.
Tail stands were their own unique challenge. Essentially a handstand, but with a tail, lifting the lower half of your body out of the water in an elegant fashion is extra hard when there’s wet polyester and a plastic fin clinging to your lower half. I am a champion shallow-end handstand-er, but I am really quite bad at doing it with a tail. My first attempt was similar to a whale breaching; I merged triumphant with snot running down my face only to see that I had splashed the camera like a seal at Sea World would its trainer.
The move to deeper waters was somehow more terrifying still. When your feet are lashed together in a tail of your own choosing, you cannot tread water. I clung to the wall and watched fourth graders execute beautiful somersaults in the deep end and then attempted one of my own. I’ve never done a somersault successfully in the water, out of my intense dislike of being uncomfortable. Surprise! It’s not easier with a tail. When executed mermaid-style, backwards somersaults are somehow more graceful—pressing hands with their sea sisters, they push off form each other and arch backwards into an effortless backflip, emerging triumphant and roughly at the same time. I was assured that the hallmark of a successful somersault is ending up in the same place you started. I succeeded, though I somehow descended so far that I brushed the bottom of the deep end with my hand, wondering how it was that I made it nine feet down when everyone else did not.
We ended the class with a group floating session, in which you float on your back head to toe with your mer-family, supported by your trusty noodle, holding onto the fins of the person on either side. Like the part of yoga class where you take a nap while the instructor futzes with the music and rubs oil on your temples, this was lovely. If given the choice, I would’ve done that for the entire class. After the float, there’s a free swim session for practicing everything you’ve learned. During ours, I was helped into a pink inner tube by Nora. Normally, this is not an activity that would require assistance but I was basically immobile, so she held out the tube as I gingerly lowered my body into the thing. I floated for about 30 seconds before falling out. Instead, I focused on swimming through the water and mastering the motions. The fin is a curious thing; regardless of whether or not what you’re doing is formally correct, it still feels right. My motion through the water was less jerky and more fluid. Encouraged by the ease I felt, I boldly tried another somersault and nearly took out a child in the deep end, but her parents didn’t seem to mind and, anyway, she was fine.
After I finally took the tail off, I stood at the edge of the pool, briefly nervous that the warm sensation I felt running down my legs was pee instead of water. The synchronized swimmers practiced their barracudas, a move that involves jackknifing your body underwater and then thrusting your legs into the air as your hands scull frantically to keep your body one straight line, toes pointed, legs glued together, executed with precision. Watching a mermaid’s tail shoot up from the deep end of a hazy, cerulean pool is honestly kind of awesome even though I know for sure that mermaids aren’t real.
Three hours later, sitting in my Airbnb eating guacamole and Kit-Kats, I realized that my entire body thudded with a dull ache. Also, I was fucking exhausted.
Before I went to sleep, I watched a bunch of YouTube videos of synchronized swimming moves. I added a mono fin and a sporty one piece bathing suit to my Amazon cart. Maybe I’d start swimming at the pool. Maybe I’ll be that charming eccentric who sticks her feet in some fins, slaps on her goggles and swims like a mermaid during free swims, zipping through the water as old women swimming at a gentle crawl cower in my wake. I thought about it. How nice, how soothing —a casual, quirky flex. That image was all I needed. I closed the tab.