MUSINGS: Mer-made for Comfort - Disney, Swimming & the Beach Body
by Shani Cadwallender
For women my age, approaching thirty and currently enjoying ‘Once Upon a Time’, ‘The Little Mermaid’ was a formative film. Despite the quintessential elements of Disney movies that might cause the left-leaning feminist I’ve become to recoil in horror (animals with racially problematic accents; marriage-as-fulfilment endings; waists the size of wrists) the fact remains that this allegory about the perils of a young woman giving up her metaphorical and literal voice always spoke to me - pun INTENDED.
In fact, the ending, in which our heroine Ariel chooses her new man over her old world, always rang false to my childish logic. I thought of Ariel’s life under the sea as one of adventure and freedom, in large part because of her ability to swim so beautifully and so unhindered. Being a literary child, I knew that Hans Christian Anderson’s original version of the tale contained a message more in line with my own views: giving up your freedom and identity for a man is suicide. You might as well throw yourself in the sea. And, in the original tale, she does.
But, putting aside my feminist readings of fairy tales, and getting back to the point, the result of this love for ‘The Little Mermaid’ and her underwater freedom was that my expectations for my own swimming abilities were, at best, hopelessly unrealistic. My first swimming lesson was through school at age 6 or 7, and I emerged from the changing room, knock kneed in a retro swimming cap covered in cartoon fish, fully expecting to tumble effortlessly through the water like an unfurling ribbon. After all, wasn’t I a ‘bright young wom[a]n’ just like Ariel? Suffice it to say, this did not happen. I plonked dyspraxically into the bitter, burning water, and could scarcely float, much less somersault, by the time I left for secondary school.
The aesthetics of Ariel’s aquatic freedom stayed with me through adolescent attempts at swimming too, suddenly taking on more crushing significance when, on beach holidays, I started to consider more than just my poor swimming form. Enter the ultimate test: finding adequate swimwear. Contrary to my Disney–formed expectations, two purple sea shells just would not cut it: my ample-chested friends were forced to choose between distinctly mumsy floral ‘support’ bikinis and the sort of utilitarian sports one-pieces of which nightmares are made; I, being flat- chested, could certainly work the cute little triangle bikini tops on sale in most high street stores, but, not being flat anywhere else, could NOT work the tiny briefs unless I wanted to delight surrounding strangers with the sight of my chafed upper thighs. So, armed with enormous high waisted bikini bottoms, I took a look at myself, hoping to see an Ariel-in-progress staring back, ready to launch me into the world of swimming for fun.
I was never overweight, but the brown bulging body I saw in the mirror, bereft of the narrow shoulders, hairless, milky skin and graduated waist I had been programmed to desire, reminded me more of the sinister voluptuousness of the purple- skinned villain, Ursula, than of my hero Ariel. And so, like some lycra octopus, I would lurk at the edges of bright and carefree summer holidays, conscious of my hairy arms, slowly giving up hope of ever being part of that world.
But then, in my late 20s, I Realised Something. A number of Somethings, actually:
1) Other people’s opinions of my thighs are irrelevant
2) Ariel’s shell-bra would never stay up in real life without a LOT of tit-tape.
3) Wet hair NEVER looks like that.
4) Ursula, despite being designed to encourage negativity towards bodies with curves, is actually AMAZING.
This last one in particular was a revelation, though not, on reflection, too surprising. When I think back to the scenes I reenacted in my room as a child, one was of course ‘Part of Your World’, but the other was always Ursula’s scheming and shimmying and sea-creature lipstick-application. And that, I think now, is because she is perhaps the most interesting character in the film. As witches always have in literature, Ursula represents the patriarchy’s worse nightmare: a powerful, clever, sensual woman. While I’m sure this was never the intention of the Disney corporation, her very non-conformity of skin colour, of body type, and even the fact that she is essentially not a fish, suggests to me another way of conceptualising my body moving in the water. Perhaps, after all, I’m not a skinny little fish who has given up her tail for a man. I’m an OCTOPUS, and I can stay in the sea as long as I damn well please.