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Digital Subscriptions > Outdoor Swimmer > April 19 > The Siren’s Call

The Siren’s Call

Not every mermaid is a damp Disney princess. By Elaine K Howley

In open water swimming circles, few creatures have such enduring appeal as mermaids. More often than not, these half-femme/ half-fish sea-goddesses are depicted as preternaturally young and nubile with lowing blonde or ginger hair, generous bosoms and taught tummies that give way to a gloriously finned fishy tail. Almost universally Caucasian and often sporting glorious singing voices—the better with which to lure sailors to an untimely demise—they beckon with a version of serene beauty that matches the ideals of the cultural moment in which they’re created.

But, it seems, it hasn’t always been that way for all mermaids.


In the 1840s, perhaps the most singularly famous mermaid in the world was not freely swimming around some tropical archipelago, but rather traversing America as part of PT Barnum’s jumbled collection of curiosities and sideshows. Though Barnum is best remembered for his travelling circus, that small, repulsive mermaid was one of his earliest lucrative entertainment ventures.

In a piece she penned for Hyperallergic, writer Allison Meier called Barnum’s so-called Feejee Mermaid “aggressively ugly,” and boasting “expressions of exaggerated horror that recall Edvard Munch’s ‘he Scream.’” Upon seeing the item on tour in the 1840s, a reporter for the Charleston Courier commented that the “Feejee lady is the very incarnation of ugliness.” Even Barnum knew he had a delightfully nasty object in the form of the Feejee Mermaid, noting in his autobiography that the mermaid was “an ugly, dried-up, black-looking, and diminutive specimen… its arms thrown up, giving it the appearance of having died in great agony.”

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About Outdoor Swimmer

Mermaids! Romance! Time travel! Tescos! The April issue of Outdoor Swimmer has it all. We chat with our new guest coach and cover star Olympian Keri-anne Payne about her coaching philosophy, contributing editor Ella Foote meets some swimmers in a supermarket car park, Elaine Howley tells the story of small and repulsive mermaids and Mike Morris slips through time to meet a Victorian swimming champion. And we have two new regular features starting this issue: Eco Heroes, in which we celebrate people and companies striving to save the planet; and Wild About You, where we play matchmaker for solo swimmers looking for love. Plus Plus, how to train for your first open water mile as well as more long distance challenges, training day menus, swimming with cerebral palsy, a dream swim trip in the Maldives and comprehensive UK and international event listings to help you plan your summer swims.