Rogue ● Of Southern Belles & Mermaid Tails

{A different version of this essay was featured in the March 2015 issue of skirt! Magazine.}

mermaid tail picThe Southern belle is alive and well. At least in our minds, anyway. She shows up well-heeled and finely dressed, a charming figment of our collective imagination.

But idealized notions of beauty are not exclusive to Southerners.

It seems most of us—man or woman, Southern or no—have some idea of what it takes to be beautiful, especially when it comes to ourselves.

Calling into question our individual perceptions of beauty and the insecurities we have about our own physical appearance, a small film crew has recently documented the answers of 50 people to just one question:

“If you could change one thing about your body, what would it be?”

As one can imagine, the adult response garnered an array of perceived flaws, head to toe:

My ears.

I’d like to be taller.

My skin.

My forehead.

Bigger eyes.

One respondent laughed and queried: Just one?

Which is precisely how I would respond. Just one?

How can I count the ways? Eyes. Hands. Horsey smile. Hips like the Himalayas. Stomach, stomach, stomach.

The unabridged catalog of my personal nominees for imperfection is long and all-encompassing. In fact, I’d be doing well to limit them just to the categories of form and function.

And I’m not alone. At least not among the small group of adults videoed for this project, all of whom were quick to reveal at least one area of dissatisfaction, no mulling period required, no follow-up clarification needed. It would seem that we grown-ups are well acquainted with our weaknesses. We tend to keep our faults and failings ever before us.

When asked about those, we know whereof we speak. And we have a ready answer.

But adults numbered only half of those interviewed. Children made up the other half, and their answers were very different.

What would children change about their bodies if they could?

Just one thing?

A shark’s mouth.

To eat a lot.

Extra pointy ears.


Legs to run fast like a cheetah.

A mermaid’s tail.

One child laughed and said: I don’t think there’s anything to change. Another responded, I like my body actually.

And who among us would tell them any differently?

Are they not fearfully and wonderfully made?

Are they not radiant creatures, just as they are, confident and unashamed, a many-splendored wonder of unique design?

Are they not the very portrait of unabashed beauty?

Are not we also?

We, the self-same individuals, who as teachers, neighbors, parents, tell our children that they are indeed beautiful, that they are indeed loved, that they are indeed whole, just as they are, nothing added, nothing changed, nothing taken away.

We who tell our children that everyone is different and that everyone is beautiful and strong in their own way, in their own time.

We who marvel when they believe us.

What is it we are telling ourselves?

Unlike the adults, the children in the video did not have a ready answer for how they would change their bodies. Even after giving the question a few moments of thought, their answers did not indicate an assessment of shortcomings or a comparison of themselves to other children. They did not wish to change or discard any feature they already had.

They responded just with embellishments, wanting only to add on to what was already theirs. A way to make the satisfactory extraordinary. To do so they did not even look to humankind at all. They looked instead to the realm of the wild or the fantastic. Wings. A shark’s mouth. Extra pointy ears.

We are told—and tell ourselves—dozens of things about beauty: Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Pretty is as pretty does. Beauty is only skin-deep. The Lord makes all things beautiful in His time.

Of course we hear those things and think, Yeah, right. Pity the beholder. I wonder what exactly it is that pretty does anyway? It’s probably more fun than what I’m doing. Skin deep goes pretty far in this small town. And, any day now, Lord. Any day.

I admit I am nowhere close to meeting any idealized standard of beauty, Southern or otherwise, and I’m certainly a long way from calling myself beautiful. But I am ready for good enough. I’m ready for satisfactory and the extraordinary.

I’m ready for a better answer.

“If you could change one thing about your body, what would it be?”

Just one thing?

A mermaid’s tail.


mermaid tail pic Reference:
Comfortable, short film by the Jubilee Project;
of the 50 subjects interviewed,
a smaller group is shown in the video.

Video link:
This blog neither condones nor endorses the linked site or organization, including its content and comments wherein.

mermaid pic from laura

[photograph of an illustration published in skirt! magazine, November 2014]

unless otherwise noted * graphics, photographs, text © 2014/2015 hilary hall