Women, Food, Space: Thoughts on ‘Shrinking Women’

women helping women mentoringIf you follow the poetry world, YouTube top videos, or like me, you follow all things NPR, then you’ve probably heard about the recent phenomenon that is Lily Myers. Myers, a student at Wesleyan University, recently wowed the slam-poetry crowd at the 2013 College Unions Poetry Slam Invitational with her poem, “Shrinking Women”, a poem that gives details of her mother’s relationship with food, the way she has inherited her mother’s eating habits and society’s messages about women and size.

I first heard Lily’s poem on the popular public radio show, Here and Now. I was mesmerized by her words, her emotions, her voice. It all stopped me in my tracks. The poem starts with her mother disappearing into her wine glass and concludes with Lilly’s own awareness that she’s taking as little oxygen out of the room as possible.

As someone who is all too aware of women’s learned desire to take up as little space, physically and emotionally, as possible, my mission is to teach women to do the opposite: to confidently be present and to fill a room with moxie.

Hear her for yourself. I continue my thoughts below.

Shrinking Women

By Lily Myers

Across from me at the kitchen table, my mother smiles over red wine that she

drinks out of a measuring glass.

She says she doesn’t deprive herself,

but I’ve learned to find nuance in every movement of her fork.

In every crinkle in her brow as she offers me the uneaten pieces on her plate.

I’ve realized she only eats dinner when I suggest it.

I wonder what she does when I’m not there to do so.

Maybe this is why my house feels bigger each time I return; it’s proportional.

As she shrinks the space around her seems increasingly vast.

She wanes while my father waxes. His stomach has grown round with wine, late nights, oysters, poetry. A new girlfriend who was overweight as a teenager, but my dad reports that now she’s “crazy about fruit.”

It was the same with his parents;

as my grandmother became frail and angular her husband swelled to red round cheeks, round stomach,

and I wonder if my lineage is one of women shrinking,

making space for the entrance of men into their lives,

not knowing how to fill it back up once they leave.

I have been taught accommodation.

My brother never thinks before he speaks.

I have been taught to filter.

“How can anyone have a relationship to food?” he asks, laughing, as I eat the black bean soup I chose for its lack of carbs.

I want to say: we come from difference, Jonas,

you have been taught to grow out,

I have been taught to grow in.

You learned from our father how to emit, how to produce, to roll each thought off your tongue with confidence, you used to lose your voice every other week from shouting so much.

I learned to absorb.

I took lessons from our mother in creating space around myself.

I learned to read the knots in her forehead while the guys went out for oysters,

and I never meant to replicate her, but

spend enough time sitting across from someone and you pick up their habits-

that’s why women in my family have been shrinking for decades.

We all learned it from each other, the way each generation taught the next how to knit,

weaving silence in between the threads

which I can still feel as I walk through this ever-growing house,

skin itching,

picking up all the habits my mother has unwittingly dropped like bits of crumpled paper from her pocket on her countless trips from bedroom to

kitchen to bedroom again.

Nights I hear her creep down to eat plain yogurt in the dark, a fugitive stealing calories to which she does not feel entitled.

Deciding how many bites is too many.

How much space she deserves to occupy.

Watching the struggle I either mimic or hate her,

And I don’t want to do either anymore,

but the burden of this house has followed me across the country.

I asked five questions in genetics class today and all of them started

with the word “sorry.”

I don’t know the requirements for the sociology major because I spent the entire meeting deciding whether or not I could have another piece of pizza,

a circular obsession I never wanted, but

inheritance is accidental,

still staring at me with wine-soaked lips from across the kitchen table.

I could spend hours unpacking this profound piece. There is so much dissonance between what is inherent and what is taught in our society. I appreciate her comparison to her brother and her comments about her father/grandfather; a lot of us can relate whether it be with brothers, partners, or friends. I feel like the relationship to space with men needs to be an entirely new conversation, so for this piece I’m focusing on the woman to woman and internal themes within the poem.

To me, I see shrinking as a great comparison to our relationships to food, our desire to be smaller physically, and as a depiction of our history as second-class citizens. Women were silenced for so long and even now, we grapple with being too weak or too overly confident, and thus being labeled the “b” word. This is the struggle that women writers, like Sheryl Sandberg and her concept of “Leaning In” are addressing currently.

I see women around me shrinking every day. Family members will come to me with work-related problems and will talk about negativity in the workplace. I will suggest them confronting the people who are causing the tension, only to hear them say that they don’t want to cause any more problems. They sacrifice internal peace for the fear of taking up too much external space.

Clients will come to me wanting more clarity and direction in their lives, but when they can’t even tell me 3 things that they truly love about themselves, they will never find an authentic path. The feel they don’t deserve space.

As Lily points out, if I hear one more women start a question with “I’m sorry” or “I don’t know, but…” I’m going to scream. We tend to be a supportive creature by nature; we generally like to lift each other up, give each other advice, but how can we affectively allow each other to live our best lives when we, as Myers says that we have been, “taught to grow in”? If we don’t have the courage to fill space for ourselves, we will never be able to help others fill theirs.

My space shrinks with food. I have a big personality and am thus comfortable with taking up space, but do I want my body to do the same? Hell no! I want to be thin. Not supermodel thin, but yes, I give in to the societally accepted norm of desiring to be thin, whatever that means. I want to fit in to the clothes at cute boutiques, just like the girls with petite bodies and those women I see on TV. I don’t take it to the extreme, but there was a time in high school when I did. Learning from the years of watching my mom go from diet to diet, I ate 500 calories a day to ensure that I was one of the pretty, popular girls, you know, because thin equates to being automatically more likeable. Oh, the lies we tell. Fortunately, I had amazing friends, family, and lots of interests that helped me snap out of my dangerous eating habit. Some girls aren’t so lucky.

I’m tired of seeing women shrink, and even more so, I’m tired of the desire for shrinkage. Lily talks about inheritance as the accidental cause for her shrinkage and I’d like to add the point that peers cause the desire to shrink as well. Our desires and acceptances must change together. So, ladies, let’s start growing out!

This doesn’t literally mean expanding our bodies, but instead, embracing the bodies we have. We must take comfort in our own skin. Our relationship to food must change from food=size, to food=ability to live in a desirable space. We must also take up more space in rooms through our thoughts and our voices. Let’s be unapologetically confident.

Do you dare to take up more space? Here’s a few ways that you can get started:

    • Have a conversation with your best girl friend. Talk about space and what it means. Talk about your relationships to food. Chat about confidence in uncomfortable situations.
    • Now talk about your real desires with space, food, and confidence. What do your most desirable versions look like?
    • Now that you know where you are and where you want to go, how will you get there? Talk about small actions you can take to live out your best versions. What is one small way you can embrace your space today? What are some positive thoughts about food that you can embody tomorrow? How will you show up and be present in your space at that networking event later this week?

This conversation is vast and unfinished. Let’s continue it in the comments.

-What was your initial reaction to the poem?

-What have you been taught about space?

-Are you shrinking? Or have you ever shrunk in the past?

This is a tough conversation, but one that needs to continue for change to happen. Do you dare to take up more space?

Rhonda Hale Warren is a life coach and personal brand consultant who helps people dominate life’s ups and downs through powerful, personal brands. A firm believer in strengths-based living, she helps people live their “awesome” with authentic confidence. Connect with her on FacebookTwitter, and LinkedIn. Contact her directly via her website: www.rhondahw.com

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