A Monstrous Little Mermaid Story

My parents look like characters from a Northern European a fairy tale. They’re of hardy stock, like they would be at home in the forest chopping wood and baking birds into pies. They could easily survive a sudden snowstorm or stand their ground against a hungry wolf. 

Growing up in the United States, I had no interest in dark forests or long winter nights. Instead, the fairy tale that spoke to me was “The Little Mermaid.” As someone who wasn’t a boy but definitely wasn’t a girl, I felt as though I belonged both on land and in water, and I was haunted by the feeling of not having a voice. 

By the time I got to college, I understood what it meant to be nonbinary, and I thought I had a solution. Like a fish, I would be androgynous. As long as I maintained the shape of a child, I would be able to wear clothing associated with either gender. I might even be able to pass as both if I could manage to be stylish enough. Unfortunately, once I graduated and started working, it quickly became clear that this sort of neoteny wasn’t a solution at all. Unless I devoted hours to training and disciplining my body every day, I would have to become an adult, and then I would look like my parents. In other words, I would carry my weight in a way that gendered me. 

A comfortable contingent of people my own age were blessedly able to look past my body and accept my self-presentation while we were ensconced in the progressive cocoon of a university campus, but the workplace was a different environment altogether. Being hit with a tempest of gendered pronouns and expectations turned my job search into a painful gauntlet of body dysmorphia, and this discomfort continued into my early career. To add insult to injury, I was forced to go into debt in order to replace my professional wardrobe as I started to gain weight and look more like my parents. Between my economic precarity and the omnipresent sense that I didn’t belong in my own body, I saw myself as a monster.

No matter what their shape or gender may be, many people in their twenties struggle to find their place in the world. Still, this process can be especially difficult for people whose bodies don’t conform to the dictates of neoliberal capitalism, which holds that each individual is entirely responsible for their own success. Even liberal-leaning workplaces can be filled with constant reminders of an ideology that holds that “fit” and “attractive” people with masculine-coded bodies are more self-disciplined and thus more worthy of respect and professional success. This is a toxic cultural swamp to have to sludge through as a young adult, and it affected my self-perception in strange and unpleasant ways.

I began to understand my body as something that needed to be hidden away, preferably sealed within a cave or locked inside a basement. Comics and movies with strong elements of body horror resonated with me, the gorier and more offensive the better. Emerging conversations about body positivity were nothing more empty platitudes in the face of the unpleasantness of my lived experience, and pulp horror was the only way I could process what I was going through. When I played video games, I would see myself in the monsters that attacked my avatar. It felt great to hunt and kill these enemies, and it was cathartic to fight the fantastic evil they represented instead of acknowledging the mundane evil of my colleagues, who made tasteless jokes about pantsuits and butch haircuts and using the “wrong” bathroom.  

I rediscovered H.P. Lovecraft late one night after a particularly grueling day at work. I had never been impressed by the purple prose of Lovecraft’s adventure stories about cursed relics and non-Euclidean architecture, but I was in the mood for mindless escapism, so I started reading The Shadow over Innsmouth. Although Lovecraft would disavow his racism toward the end of his short life, his xenophobia is on full display in this novella, whose protagonist discovers the “horror” of his mixed-species ancestry while on an architectural tour of New England. At the end of the story, when he is no longer able to conceal his piscine features, the young scholar decides to embrace his heritage and join the others of his kind under the sea.

For many of Lovecraft’s readers, the narrator’s decision to abandon his humanity inspires a sense of dread, but it filled me with awe and wonder. The narrator of The Shadow over Innsmouth had always felt strange and different, and he is initially struck with intense anxiety and fear when he realizes his genetic destiny and the “curse” of his blood. The ending of the story didn’t seem tragic to me, however. After escaping from the confines of human society, the gentle young man was able to venture below the waves, discover a new world, and finally see the antiquities that fascinated him with his own exophthalmic eyes. How cool was that? 

And was I any different, really? Isn’t that exactly what I wanted, to come to terms with my difference and enter a magical city under the sea, like the little mermaid in reverse?

As a nonbinary person navigating a world that insists on categorizing everything according to normative standards of gender-appropriate attractiveness, I have to admit that I never really stopped feeling like a monster. Monsters are all about excess, and I still have an excess of resentment: I resent looking like my parents. I resent how the genetics I received from them force my body into gendered shapes. I resent slender and androgynous nonbinary people on social media. I resent the pressure to present as “male” if I want to be taken seriously as “not female.” I resent how so many conversations about “body positivity” reinforce the gender binary. I resent myself for not always being proud or positive about my identity.  

Lovecraftian horror is primarily associated with cosmic terror, but the Lovecraftian theme that resonates with me is the fear of the unknowability of our bodies. Lovecraft was wrong about a lot of things, but he knew what he was talking about when he shuddered at the terror of the curses hidden in our genetics. No matter how secure you may be in your gender identity, you don’t get to choose what happens to your body as you age. What I love about The Shadow over Innsmouth is that the narrator is allowed to experience the blunt force of this horror before he’s able to embrace his hybrid body as his own. All he needed, Lovecraft suggests, was for his fellow sea monsters to help him break him out of the normative confines of human society.

With the support of my community, I eventually made peace with my body – the way it’s shaped, the way it moves, and the power it gives me to survive in a world filled with wolves and winters. Still, I had to fight for my pride and self-confidence, and these battles weren’t always victorious or empowering. I still carry scars from the liminal state of transformation when I was neither a person nor a fish, trapped somewhere between a human and a monster. It was a strange and difficult time, and I was only able to see it clearly through the lens of modern fairy tales. For me, then, there was an undeniable charm to Lovecraft’s young scholar who stops fearing his reflection and discovers the self-acceptance that always eluded him. The unapologetic fluidity of this character carried the same appeal that I once found in the Disney movie about an ancient sea witch who teaches a teenage mermaid just how highly her voice is valued. 

It took years, but I’ve learned to embrace my own monstrosity. I may not be an androgynous little mermaid, but perhaps that’s for the best. After all, what’s the point of living within the stone walls of a picturesque seaside castle when the entire ocean could be yours to explore? All things considered, I rather enjoy being a sharp-toothed sea creature with a body that can withstand both the coldest winters of the tundra and the darkest depths of the sea. 

Kathryn Hemmann

Kathryn Hemmann (they/them) holds a PhD in East Asian Literature and has previously published essays on Japanese fiction and comics in venues such as The U.S.-Japan Women’s Journal and The Journal of Japanese Literary Studies.
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