Friday, February 28, 2014

Famous Speech Friday: Lily Myers's "Shrinking Women"

(Editor's note: You'll see in this take from writer Becky Ham that Myers's body language as much as her words signal her discomfort with this brave spoken-word piece, perhaps appropriately in a speech about women and body image.) 

Lily Myers' "Shrinking Women" has been making the social media rounds since last April, when the 20-year old read her poem at the 2013 College Unions Poetry Slam Invitational at Wesleyan University. Three and a half million YouTube views later, Myers said it was a moment that almost didn't happen. In an interview with NPR's Fresh Air, Myers said she "hadn't decided that I was going to read that poem until about 20 seconds before I went onstage. Actually, you can--I'm closing my eyes at the beginning."

Hesitating to speak? Of course it's ironic given what came next, a poem that offered up Myers' mother as a silent and ever-smaller role model. But it's not surprising to us that such a personal story has become a public moment for many women. We couldn't ask for a better verse version of the challenges that we mull at The Eloquent Woman.
  • Is this space taken? Myers' mother only eats when she's reminded to do so, and then she only allows herself wine in a measuring glass. She "wanes" while Myers' father "waxes," and she becomes ever smaller within the house. The need to claim space is a significant issue for women speakers, whether it be the physical space that they project into as they talk, or space on the agenda for their speeches, as we've demonstrated time and again with the help of our @NoWomenSpeakers project. It's telling that in another interview Myers described her reluctance to share this poem with these words: "I was feeling small at the time. I had a rough few weeks and I was thinking, 'People are going to think that I don't like men'." But speaking up for women doesn't have to mean speaking against men.
  • Should I speak up? The line that got the most boisterous applause from the slam audience? "I asked five questions in genetics class today and all of them started with the word 'sorry.'" There's more than one way for a lady to vanish as a public speaker. Apologizing for your presence is just one way of making your words disappear before they have a chance to land.
  • Where are my role models? To me, one of the most distressing things about this poem is in reaching the end and realizing that Myers' mother has no lines of her own. Myers describes a history of shrinking in silence among the women in her family, a history that stands in contrast to the lessons offered to her brother:
"You learn 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."
The poignant observation is one reason why The Eloquent Woman Index exists. Every Friday, we're breaking another link in this chain of silence, with the words of women like Myers. We hope you can hear these women loud and clear, because they're speaking to you.

Here's the video of "Shrinking Women." Do you recognize yourself in any of Myers' words?

(Freelance writer Becky Ham contributed this Famous Speech Friday post.)

Today is the last day to grab the early-bird registration price for my 2 April workshop in Oxford, UK on women and public speaking, Be The Eloquent Woman. The day-long workshop will help you build confidence and competence as a speaker, and help you subvert the expectations that many women face when they speak. I'm excited today to be giving the workshop its debut in Washington, DC, with a group of motivated, thoughtful women speakers. Please join me for the UK workshop, and stay tuned for more workshop dates to be announced.