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A woman has told how she overcame her eating disorder by pretending to be a mermaid.

Hayley Ivy Di Virgilio – known as Ivy – began struggling with her body image when she hit puberty age 12 and started changing before her peers.

At her lowest ebb aged 19, she became trapped in a cycle of starving herself then bingeing and making herself vomit.

When her friends and family began to express concern at how exhausted she looked all the time, she vowed to work her way back to health.

Then, after getting involved with a company which sends real life mermaids to entertain at parties and events two years ago, she finally learned to love her body.

Ivy Di Virgilio, the mermaid lady (Photo: PA Real Life)

Ivy Di Virgilio, the mermaid lady (Photo: PA Real Life)

Now 20, she says swimming around with her four-stone silicone tail has made her feel ‘beautiful and strong.’

Student Miss Di Virgilio, who also works in a congressman’s office and in a pizza restaurant, wants to inspire a generation of ‘mer-kids’ to believe they can be whatever they want to be.

‘Being a mermaid has helped me overcome my body issues, because you have to be fit and strong enough to swim around in a tail,’ she says.

‘People think mermaids are very thin, but the reality is you need good muscle mass. We focus more on being athletes than just looking good.

‘Working as a mermaid, I initially worried about stomach rolls, but I was surprised to find I felt beautiful in a tail. ‘Now food is fuel for me.

‘As a mermaid, I inspire kids to feel good about themselves and encourage comments on their strength, rather than looks.

‘I help to smash gender stereotypes by telling boys they can be mer-men too.’

Ivy Di Virgilio, the mermaid lady (Wands and Wishes Occasions/PA Real Life)

Ivy Di Virgilio, the mermaid lady (Wands and Wishes Occasions/PA Real Life)

Miss Di Virgilio, of Denver, Colorado, US, says she hated her body throughout school, despite being an average size, and would restrict her diet while doing cross country training in a bid to lose weight.

Her mental state was consumed by thoughts of food, and she felt a lot of guilt for eating what she wanted.

‘I hated my body, and I feel sad now, knowing that I didn’t look how I thought I looked,’ she says, reflecting on her body dysmorphia.

At her lightest, she weighed just over 7st.

‘I would not eat anything for a week then binge and throw up,’ she recalls. ‘I wasn’t changing my body. All I was doing was having a negative relationship with food.’

Then, a couple of years ago she met a group of girls through theatre, who were working for Wands and Wishes – a company which organises events and parties.

Her friends convinced her to audition and, after loving her first gig, she’s been working there ever since.

This January, she was put in her first mermaid tail and had to learn to swim in it.

Along with her mermaid friends, Miss Di Virgilio does games and tricks in the water, including flips, dives, fin slaps, and also educates youngsters about ocean safety, marine life and promotes body positivity.

Her self-esteem now restored, she currently weighs a healthy 8st 7lb.

‘I don’t think there’s anything that makes you feel more beautiful yet more aware of every single flaw as being in a silicone tail,’ she says.

‘They are unbelievably stunning. I feel so magical in one.

‘The mermaid community around the world is so awesome and accepting of all shapes and sizes.’