I’m Asia’s first plus-size mermaid, and I’m here to fight body image prejudice
By Clara How, Sep 05, 2019
On the 30th of July, Merliah Mermaid (Asia’s first plus-size professional mermaid) posted a message on Instagram. A stranger had uploaded a video of her performing at ADEX Beijing (an international expo for dive enthusiasts) that garnered 400 comments. She was called a “hippo” and “pork belly mermaid”, with hurtful comments like: “This is why they tell you not to feed the animals.”
Merliah wrote a heartfelt post about the pain these words caused, ending with: “You can only be a mermaid in Asia if you’re white, Oriental-Asian and slim, because it sure is starting to feel that way.” The community rallied around her, and she continues to share her brutally honest (and important) thoughts about body positivity.
Merliah is announcing a rallying call to change beauty standards, and we’re here to listen.
I’ve always loved the ocean. Even though I’m based in Johor Bahru, ever since I was a child, my parents would take my sister and I on holidays to visit all of Malaysia’s beautiful islands. The water makes me feel so calm, and free from everything that’s bothering me. It’s an incredible feeling.
I wanted to be a mermaid ever since I saw Ariel in The Little Mermaid, but I never thought it was possible. I already felt like I was a mermaid at heart, because I cared about the sea and was always in the water.
Six years ago when I was 18, I was on an island and saw two girls wearing mermaid tails. I was amazed and asked them where they bought them from. They told me they bought theirs online, so I went home and did my research. Eventually I bought a Mahina monofin, which is a singular fin that is attached to both feet, so you can swim like a mermaid.
Once my monofin arrived, I went into the water and just did what felt natural to me. There was something about swimming in the monofin that felt so right. From there, I watched videos of people swimming in monofins, and learnt the technique. I started off with wearing leggings and the monofin, and eventually sewed a fabric sleeve over the monofin and my legs so it mimicked a tail. I now own several professionally-made mermaid tails.
I first started my mermaid journey with my sister, and my parents were really supportive. They saw how happy we were when we wore our tails, so they have always been on board. My friends were a bit weirded out and didn’t fully understand, but once I explained how it made me feel, they went, “Okay, you’re doing this — as long as you’re happy.”
Today, being a mermaid is my full-time job. I first decided to take the leap when I saw on Instagram that there were other mermaids around the world who were performing as their full-time jobs, and I thought I’d try it out and see if it worked for me. The international mermaid community has always shown me so much love and support, whether it’s through leaving kind comments on my posts, or encouraging DMs.
I’ve been performing for two years, but I admit that there are good days and bad days.
To be honest, there’s not much of a market in Malaysia for mermaids, especially when I don’t fit the stereotypical idea of a mermaid. There are around 10 to 15 mermaids in the country, but it’s very Chinese-dominated (I believe there are only two Malay mermaids).
Because mermaid gigs are erratic, I make my living bringing visitors to neighbouring islands and acting as their tour guide, and I’m also a photographer (I attended school in Singapore and studied film in Lasalle College of the Arts). I take photographs and videos for visitors who have seen my photography and want to hire me. Recently, I’ve taken on a part-time retail job at Lovisa for the next six months. The monsoon season is approaching, and I know that I wouldn’t be able to do shoots in that period.
The reality is that I don’t get hired by local companies, or local families who want entertainers for their children’s birthday parties.
When I emailed a local company who were organising ocean-themed events and asked if they would like to hire a mermaid, they said yes and sent over a reference picture of what they thought a mermaid should look like: fair and slender.
The companies that hire me for land gigs or to swim in a pool for events tend to be international ones. These companies take me on because they tell me that they want to show diversity and inclusivity. They like me for who I am.
This divide is disappointing, because why do such standards have to exist?
And anyway, how do you know what a mermaid is supposed to look like? I’ve also written in to another organisation who asked if I would perform for them for free, which of course I was not willing to do.
The other Chinese mermaids have shared with me that they too, have faced some opposition: people telling them that being a mermaid is for kids, or it’s a weird thing to do. Some people can have a closed-minded mentality, and not everyone has modern beliefs. I’d like to say that things are changing, but it doesn’t feel that way because people are still not as accepting.
I know not all of Malaysians are this way, but I’ve encountered many people with a judgmental mentality. For example, I’ve seen more conservative people give weird looks if someone is wearing a sleeveless top. While I have never faced any religious pressure to dress conservatively, I’ve heard that some Malaysian mermaids have had to wear long-sleeved tops during performances. But I do understand that it’s a sign of respect.
I’m grateful that my parents have always been extremely supportive and open-minded. Their parenting style has always been to encourage me to do “whatever makes you happy”.
As a child, I would get a lot of comments about my weight. I attended school in Singapore, and the bullying and all the remarks about my size made me think, wow, people really don’t like me. Because of the bullying, I battled depression that occasionally still rears its ugly head. But there was never a spark in me that said, “You need to lose weight”, despite all the hate. I told myself that the people who matter don’t care what size I am, and that’s what important.
Even as a mermaid, when I change into my tail by the water, some people make comments. There are Malaysians who see me and assume I’m not local, so they gossip in Malay about how I look when I’m right next to them.
They say I’m not a mermaid, and I’m a dugong. When I get angry and say out loud that I can understand them, they are shocked, but they don’t apologise.
They just walk away. I’ve confronted so many people who have laughed at me behind my back and when I ask them why they’re laughing, they go silent. They can’t even say it to my face.
The start of 2018 was an amazing time for me, because I was based in Tioman for a short work stint performing with my sister at The Barat Tioman. Island people are not as judgmental as city folks, and I felt loved and accepted by everyone. I’ve considered moving there, but to do so I would require a permanent full-time job there. I’ve been trying to apply for them, but it’s not easy.
The ultimate dream for me is to manage an island resort — ideally, one that I can give my parents to own so they can retire. The dream is to run that resort, so my family can be based full-time on the island. I would really love to continue my job as a mermaid and will always work towards it, but right now, I’m making plans to get a stable job while still being a mermaid performer. The ideal job for me is to continue working in photography and videography.
The start of this year was also great for me, but it started taking a nose dive in the second half. I had just come back from a holiday in the States, and returning to Asia made me start relapsing into depression. In the US, I felt normal and beautiful. I didn’t experience what I do back home. I would lie in bed and think about how I wished I lived there instead, and not be where I am now.
Then came the comments about my performance in ADEX Beijing. They came as a shock to me, because when I first performed in ADEX Singapore early this year, I had an amazing reception. I didn’t get any negative feedback, and my videos went viral on Twitter. People were saying it was great, and I thought, “Ooh, maybe people are open to me being a fat mermaid.”
But it wasn’t the case in Beijing. I always tell people not to care about what people think, but sometimes it just gets too much. When I was performing, I saw all these condescending looks people were giving me, like: “This girl? Really?” It was so scary, and I came so close to not performing.
I told myself to push through, because I want to show people that we come in all sizes and shapes. I needed to do this so people can change their minds about beauty standards.
But reading 400 comments about people calling you fat-shaming names and saying they should cook me, and joking about whether I should be fried or steamed… it took its toll.
These comments made me feel embarrassed, that these people think that I’m a joke. It broke my heart, and made me think that being a mermaid was a fantasy that I should just give up.
What happened in ADEX Beijing wasn’t an isolated incident. More recently there was also a picture of me performing in a tank, and a Facebook user saying that her children weren’t very happy to see me, insinuating that it was because of the way I looked. The only way I got through it was from all the love my supporters and the mermaid community gave me. I would wake up, read all these sweet comments and Direct Messages, and they would help me hang on.
Most of the comments are reminders of how beautiful I am, and how I’m out there trying to go against what people are conditioned to accept. They tell me I’m going against years of brainwashing, but accepting the backlash doesn’t mean I should give up.
I push through because being a mermaid means so much to me. It makes me feel beautiful. It makes me feel safe and secure. Meeting other mermaids and swimming with them makes my heart full.
The community is what I love so much about being a mermaid. ADEX Singapore was a huge highlight for me, because it was the first time I was performing in a tank and I loved it. I had so many supporters who came to watch me, and it was wonderful.
I was also named as an ambassador for Finfolk Productions, an American company that specialises in making mermaid tails. They chose me as an ambassador when I had only 3,000 followers, while their other ambassadors had more than 20,000 followers. When they reached out to me, I couldn’t believe it. It might not seem like a big deal to everyone, but this ambassadorship means the world to me. It makes me feel special. On bad days, knowing that someone trusts me to be their ambassador makes everything seem more bearable.
And even though I had some negative feedback from my time in Beijing, there were some good memories. The local mermaids were so lovely to me — they were so inclusive and happy that I was there with them. There was also a girl who came up to me and told me I was pretty and that it was cool that I was a mermaid. She said that she always wanted to be a mermaid but thought she couldn’t because of her size, and I reassured her that it wasn’t the case — I mean, look at me!
There’s a myth that plus-size people aren’t active, and don’t do exercise. I’m not saying that I’m the healthiest, but I do think that I am active, and constantly work on my stamina. I walk a lot, and I can swim for hours. On a typical day on the island I snorkel from morning till sunset with only food breaks in between.
You can’t tell how healthy and fit someone is just by the way they look. Thin people can be unhealthy too — it’s not always about your size.
To me, some people disguise their fat phobia with faux concern. A thin person can post a picture of themselves eating a burger, but God forbid a fat person posts the same picture. Then suddenly everyone is “concerned about your health”. Why is it important to you if a stranger is healthy? They say, “You’re going to die of a heart attack because you’re fat and unhealthy,” but that doesn’t mean thin people don’t die from heart attacks too.
Now, I tell myself that I got here because I don’t want to care about what other people think of me. I’m at a place where I’m happy to be where I am now.
I’m comfortable in the body that I have. I dress a certain way because I feel cute, and not for other people. If I don’t care what other people look like, why should they care what I look like?
I first started sharing about my mermaid journey on Instagram in 2016, when I bought my first silicone tail. It brought me so much joy that I wanted to share about it, and I grew to realise that social media served a larger purpose: so people like me are represented. When I started receiving comments like “Oh, I’ve always wanted to be a mermaid but thought I was too fat”. I realised that social media could be one way where I can help people feel better about themselves.
But it’s also a huge challenge to put myself out there. You’re putting yourself in a position to be commented on, and you can’t take back what you say.
I get a lot of messages from people saying I’m the reason why they became a mermaid, and I try to reply to as many as I can. I do my best to connect with my followers, but I do give myself breaks for the sake of my mental health. What I’m trying to do now is to post content that’s not just mermaid-centric, but also promotes body positivity. I do plan to post more pictures of myself not in my tail, but wearing whatever I want, to show people that they don’t have to dress to please others.
Whenever I’m on Instagram seeing people living happy and amazing lives, I think, this can’t be real. There’s no way that people don’t have bad days. So for my posts, I want to reach out and show people that it’s okay to have these rough days, and to feel the way they do.
I want to put it out there that in any tough situation, you have to give it time. And to remember that things get worse before they get better, but in time, they do, and they will.
Photos provided by Merliah.
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