'Sharing the magic': Mermaids embrace inclusivity
Like mythical creatures from an animation classic brought to life, hundreds of people donned finned outfits and took to Virginia's indoor waters to celebrate the magic of mermaids, a glittering spectacle hailed by participants embracing diversity and inclusion.
The MerMagic Convention held at an aquatic center in Manassas, in the eastern United States, is billed as the world's largest dedicated to mermaids, and attracts enthusiasts from all walks -- or swims -- of life.
Among those diving deep into the glimmer and glam is Helena McLeod, who lives with Charcot-Marie-Tooth, a nerve disease that has left the 33-year-old redhead unable to fully swim as a mermaid.
She still gets into her elaborate ridged silicone fin, with the help of her husband Darren, and splashes at the pool's edge when she isn't navigating the convention booths, her wheelchair fashioned into a purple-and-gold clamshell.
"Sharing the magic and making kids smile" is her passion at conventions, she told AFP. "I love it when they go 'Ah, a mermaid!'"
When she started playing the role, the number of mermaids with disabilities was small, "but there's a lot more now," said McLeod, who carries with her a sign bearing her "helenathemermaid" Instagram address and the hashtag #merabled.
With multiple ages, orientations, ethnicities and abilities represented in and out of the pool -- which can get crowded, with dozens of mermaids and mermen diving, flipping and swimming at once -- organizers have embraced the inclusivity of their mission.
In addition to programs on fin treatment and water safety, the convention hosted workshops this weekend on "Diversity in Mermaiding" and "MerMakeup for All Shades of the Lagoon" -- not to mention a panel boldly titled "Fat Mermaids Make Waves."
For 19-year-old Merlot, being a mermaid is about participants expressing their creative selves.
"Anybody -- any age, race, body type, disabled people, anyone -- can be a mermaid," she said after squeezing into her red-and-white glittery suit much as a teenager would lie on the floor to wriggle into a pair of too-tight jeans.
"There is no limitations," she added. "It's whatever you think it should be."
A woman who calls herself Chobo said she has been part of the mermaid world for six or seven years.
Herself disabled, the beaming 27-year-old with pink, purple and aquamarine hair plunged into the pool, propelling herself by kicking her fluke-like monofin.
"Mermaiding has been really great for me to be inclusive and be able to do... sport, but also be able to express myself," she said.
Coral Koi, 32, said the conventions allow attendees to "unwind and let go."
"It's just fun self-care," she said. "Where else can you find so much magic?"