Trigger warning: Article describes extreme habits of eating disorders.
Once upon a time, Singapore’s first mermaid was a teenage girl struggling with an eating disorder.
Syrena, who exudes shiny, happy, Disney princess vibes, is sharing this in an interview for the first time. Considering she’s not exactly unknown, her candid admission comes as a surprise.
Since making a splash after embarking on her unique profession 4 years ago, the professional mermaid has received ample media publicity. In every photo and video, she is the epitome of self-confidence, gamely posing in bikini and tail.
But Syrena hasn’t always had the best relationship with her body.
Born with “the kind of body that won’t ever become extremely thin” meant she would rarely see the results she wanted. Everyday, she would severely limit her calories, religiously jotting down each meal intake and becoming unduly upset whenever she broke her ‘plan’.
“I would restrict myself even further, and get so hungry that I would binge on my favourite foods. Then I’d punish myself by purging what I ate. I was stuck in a crazy, vicious cycle.”
At her worst, she even had second thoughts about taking cough syrup when she was ill, because she didn’t know how many calories were in it.
“Once, I refused to drink from someone’s cup because they had eaten a burger, and I didn’t want to possibly ingest any calories from their lip marks.”
After her parents sent her to a counsellor, she was forced to adopt normal eating habits, which set her on the path to eventual recovery.
Away from the limelight and the pool, Syrena the mermaid is Cara Neo the entrepreneur. While I don’t address her as such throughout our week-long communication, it’s only on hindsight that I realise the 25-year old never alludes to her real name either.
At first, I assume that she wants to keep her personal and public life separate for privacy reasons. However, she shares: “Naming has always held great power and excitement for me. I used to dream up all sorts of magical names for myself when I was young. Occupying the name of Syrena enables me to step out and be a better version of myself.”
If it seems that beneath the sparkly mermaid exterior is still the same girl keen on maintaining an ideal of who she truly hopes to be, this is only normal. Most of us choose to present our best selves publicly anyway – Syrena is simply upfront about it.
“Syrena is a selective version rather than a separate extension of myself. With Syrena, the positive parts of my life and personality are brought to the forefront and magnified. For example, where I might occasionally be clumsy on land, when I become Syrena, I strive to be completely graceful and powerful underwater.”
“I wanted to create a community that celebrated diversity and body positivity, that emphasised unity and supported each other’s goals, and that realised each and every mermaid is a limitless spark.”
Through the mermaid experience and learning about the empowering representation of the mermaid, she hopes her students take away the values of love, strength and beauty: “I love that mermaids are represented as vulnerable yet ferocious, beautiful yet terrifying.”
Interestingly, this enigmatic description evokes the mermaid of the same name from Pirates of the Caribbean 4. In PotC, Syrena is known for ‘swimming against the tide’, and is a fighter in her own right – a quality also present in the Syrena I speak to.
“A lot of them experienced great pain that whittled away at their self image. It’s breathtaking to me that they’re so brave to share their stories and work through the old rhythms of hurt and control with the mermaid pod.”
Hearing Syrena’s story, it feels irresponsible to suggest that having been through hard times is precisely what gives her the clout to talk about self-love without sounding preachy or self-indulgent. Yet knowing she has overcome personal demons makes her mermaid school relevant and important in a way that transcends novelty schtick or self-care mambo jambo.
All she wants are for her students to internalise what she has learnt the hard way – that there exists an infinite spectrum of beauty.
For a start, she teaches this through a comprehensive theory syllabus: “We have a specific class on the Mermaid Mirror, where we talk about times that we’ve been forced to look into a mirror and see something that hurt us. Then we share ways we can combat that by actively challenging ourselves to love what we see.”
Syrena explains: “I do my best to outlaw self-derogatory phrases like ‘I’m so fat’, ‘I hate the size of my boobs’, ‘I wish I looked more like X’, and so on. These words are absorbed into our psyche, so it’s essential we are conscious of what we say about ourselves, even when we’re joking.”
If the goal is self-confidence, then she may have already succeeded merely 1.5 years into her business.
“It’s amazing to see girls coming in, a little shy and insecure about themselves at first, then opening up and blossoming into confident, powerful mermaids. You really notice the transformation when they skim underwater. They look and feel free, so much more than what they’ve been told they have to be.”
One of her students, 39-year old Nicole Ding, no longer feels conscious about wearing a 2-piece swimsuit. She joined Syrena’s school a year ago to meet new people but instead found a strong support system.
“The other girls also had insecurities but we would always reassure each other that we look fine the way we are. We never criticise each other because of our shape,” she says.
Even though she no longer has an eating disorder, she acknowledges that image issues remain a perpetual struggle.
“I won’t lie and say that my inner voice is never critical now or that I’m 100% okay. Something like that remains with you. It rears its ugly head every now and then, and it’s an ongoing struggle to remind yourself that you are stronger than that voice and the thousands more that society raises at you every day.”
It appears the glossy veneer is just a fraction of who she is; Syrena the mermaid is only human. For all her musings about self-love, perhaps the most consequential lesson here is that she walks the talk.
So if her unadulterated honesty about her life inspires her students to be similarly honest with themselves, to just keep swimming against darker undercurrents, perhaps mermaid magic really does exist after all.