What's the Deal with That #MermaidLife Thing?
Pastel hair, shimmery make up and slogan T-shirts: #MermaidLife is all over both social media and the high street.
Mermaids, in 2016, are everywhere. A search for #MermaidLife on Instagram returns multiple pages of girls kicking it by the beach, giving peace signs with their friends or taking selfies of their pastel dip-dyes.
They're all over the high street, too. Put "mermaid" into ASOS's search box and you'll find reams of mermaid merch: make-up bags branded "mermaid off duty" or claiming that "mermaids have more fun". There are glittery phone cases with "oh yeah, I'm mermaid" written on the back. Paperchase do a line of mermaid stationary – their "let's be mermaids" pencil case has now sold out – and Topshop have a line of Little Mermaid products.
These are not just products for little girls. They are clothes and accessories sold by high street chains and marketed to adults. So why are grown women identifying with #mermaidlife?
A #MermaidLife is a magical life, full of possibility and wonder.
There's an obvious connection here with the rising interest in witchcraft – a trend that intersects the mainstreaming of feminism, mainstream culture's newfound obsession with nature and spirituality, and a revival of 1990s new-age ephemera – horoscopes, The Craft, birthstone crystals.
Jessica Nunley is 27 and uses #mermaidlife regularly on Instagram. "It can mean a couple things," she says of the hashtag. "It can be more literal, like living near the beach – which I do – or it can just mean living a carefree life and having an appreciation for nature."
She says the hashtag works to describes her personality. "I've always loved mermaids and the ocean. I'm a free spirit and very laid back, so when I say #MermaidLife, that's usually what I'm referring to. Also, my hair is teal so I use it to describe my mermaid appearance."
Renae Abbate – or Mademoiselle Mermaid, as she's known on Twitter and her blog – says she discovered #MermaidLife byd following accounts about nature and magic.
"There have been times throughout history where people have been more in touch with their own magic, with the magic inherent to the world," she says. "Using #MermaidLife is about giving yourself permission to be unconditionally happy. To take part in what brings you joy."
A big part of that "joy", it turns out, is buying stuff. "It is also about taking care of your hair, dressing beautifully and adorning your home with trinkets and treasures," she says.
The high street is churning out these "trinkets and treasures" to meet the popular demand. Women's clothing website Boohoo sells a range of #mermaidlife slogan tees, "undercover mermaid" accessories, shimmering mermaid shoes, clothes and nightwear.
"We first identified this emerging trend about six months ago, through research across social media and via trend reports," a spokesperson for the site explained. "For this particular trend we built mood boards around mermaids and selected fabrics reflecting them. Then we make [the trend] relevant for our customers."
While the commodification of the whole mermaid thing is relatively new, there's been a different kind of subculture devoted to the mythical creatures for a while. Mermaids are a sub-genre of "otherkin" – people who identify as either partially or entirely non-human. Mermaidkin, or Merkin, groups on Tumblr share stories about how they came out to their families about identifying as non-humans, their affinity with the ocean and their former mermaid lives.
Of course, that's pretty niche and has little to do with the girls with magenta hair Instagramming selfies at the beach. So why have mermaids suddenly become mainstream?
Dr Sarah Peverley is a Professor of English at the University of Liverpool and is currently writing a book on the cultural history of the mermaid. "There's never really been a time in which mermaids haven't been with us in literature, art and culture," she says. "The symbolism attributed to mermaids still persists; they embody difference, personal freedom and the natural world.
"Across social media the examples I've seen appear to denote personal liberty or the idea of escapism. Perhaps part of the mermaid's current appeal is that they're frequently perceived as autonomous. They possess a serenity and oneness with the world that is hard to obtain in our constantly switched on and fast-paced world. A #MermaidLife is a magical life, full of possibility and wonder."
Dr Louise Milne is a Lecturer at the Edinburgh College of Art and says #mermaidlife is about the mainstreaming of feminist ideas around sexual autonomy and consent – and a reaction to the sexualisation of women in pop culture. "Mermaids in folklore and customs have represented potential or "unused" fertility," she says. "Her power is benevolent and healing, or malevolent; inferring death or drowning."
While, historically, the mermaid's sexuality could be sinful and unattainable, the mermaid in contemporary culture has become attainable and possible. "The renewed relevance of the mermaid is perhaps because she is a persisting icon of young, female beauty – however, with a "look-don't-touch" element," says Milne. "It is a step back, or step sideways, from the over-sexualised cultural expectation of contemporary young women."
Young women, in particular, find affinity with the mermaid because "she is in transition. And so perhaps she is a readymade emblem for young women who are also in transition in terms of their age; unmarried, pre-motherhood, not exactly virginal but with unspent sexual power."
So maybe mermaids tell us exactly what is happening with young women right now – they represent a fantastical and idealised sexuality, but they haven't got the goods. They embody the weight of expectation for girls to confirm to a certain sexual standard but they have no sexual agency themselves. Maybe the question isn't why are young women identifying with #mermaidlife now, but why haven't they sooner?