POET: Lily Myers
PIECE: Shrinking Women
TOPICS DISCUSSED:
Socialization
SUMMARY:
Citing examples from within her family, Lily speaks about inheriting certain expectations of herself in terms of beauty, weight, and even her right to an opinion.

Key Lines/Phrases

Key Line/Phrase
Discussion

“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.”

“Shrinking Women” by Lily Myers seeks to address the differences between the socialization of men and women by using examples from her family. In the poem, Myers articulates her feelings about her mom losing more and more weight while her dad gets larger over time, as well as the lessons about eating that it’s taught her. She brings to light that her brother was taught to have confidence, while she was taught to accommodate. Myers works to put into words the pressure many women feel to take up less space, to be quiet, to be small, and to eat carefully.

Myers doesn’t really blame anyone (her family members, men in general, society) for that pressure and for her own socialization to think, eat, and act the way she does. She describes each situation matter-of-factly and for the most part leaves it up to the audience to understand from her voice whether she’s hurt, ambivalent, indignant, angry, sad, etc. in the face of each lesson taught by each situation described. Her poem expertly identifies the underhanded and implicit but very real manner in which gender expectations, gender stereotypes, and ideas of beauty affect women in particular on an every day basis.

Full Transcript of Poem

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 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, rotund 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 tell, 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 capstone 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-stained lips from across the kitchen table.
(http://www.wordsdance.com/2013/06/word-of-mouth-shrinking-women-by-lily.html)

In-depth Analysis

“Shrinking Women” by Lily Myers is a poem about inheritance. Not monetary or really even genetic inheritance, but “accidental” inheritance, as she names it in the last line of her poem. The poem explores the lessons she has unconsciously absorbed from her family — lessons about food, space, and entitlement, and how women experience those things differently than men. “Shrinking Women” illuminates the often underhanded and implicit manners in which gender expectations, gender stereotypes, and ideas of beauty are internalized and affect women in particular on a daily basis.

Myers begins the poem by talking about her mother’s relationship to food. Her mother is a shrinking woman: Myers juxtaposes her mother’s delusion that she “does not deprive herself” because she allows herself to enjoy a glass of wine with the image of her mother as “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.” This juxtaposition is deepened with the line “She wanes while my father waxes,” and moves into an explanation of Myers’ lineage of round men and angular women. When Myers says, “A new girlfriend who was overweight as a teenager, but my dad reports now she’s ‘crazy about fruit,’” and a few lines later, “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,” the purpose of the poem becomes clearer. Lily Myers is illustrating the pressure many women feel to take up less space, to be small, and to eat carefully. Or else we won’t be loved, we won’t be cared for, we won’t be able to keep our life partners in our lives.

By painting her parents and grandparents as almost polar opposites in terms of size and shape, but similar in their relationship to food and weight, the audience begins to understand the implications of such examples—especially when Myers begins to explain the differences between how she and her brother were raised. He was taught to have confidence, while she was taught to accommodate. She expertly exposes this difference when she says:
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.

Now the audience understands that Myers herself has inherited her mother’s relationship to food, space, and entitlement. She delineates common gender expectations and stereotypes in just these few lines and explains how she and her brother came to adhere to them: they inherited the expectations and stereotypes; they learned them. In the poem, Lily Myers grapples with this inheritance:
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.

Myers tries not to blame anyone for the pressure she feels to think, eat, and act the way she does. She says, she either mimics or hates her mother but that she doesn’t want to do either anymore. She doesn’t want to begin every question she asks in class with “sorry” or put more effort into deciding whether or not she could have another slice of pizza than her major at school, anymore. These tics “itch;” they are uncomfortable. The first step toward ridding herself of “this circular obsession” she never wanted in the first place is recognizing it. And her poem allows her to do so. The talent Myers demonstrates in this poem is not just her ability to identify the implicit and underhanded ways gender expectations and stereotypes apply pressure to women every single day, but also her ability to recognize her own relationship to food, her actions, and her thoughts as accidental inheritance. Myers moves away from her lineage’s habit of blame and accommodation and toward having confidence as she recognizes and explains her status as a “shrinking woman.”
(Gabbi)

Follow-up Resources/Discussions

Resources
Discussion/Follow-up Questions

Eating Disorders and Media
Disparity between media presentations and actual average of female body size

Eating disorders are the most deadly mental illness and statistics show that various media outlets are partially implicit. This infographic displays the disparity between the way the media presents a physically “ideal” woman and the actual average American woman. These statistics reveal that the way that the fashion and advertising industries influence women’s self-image. (radar program)
Follow-up Sociology questions:

  • How does the poem demonstrate accidental inheritance? What is the speaker accidentally inheriting?
  • Can one inherit more than just traits, characteristics, and mannerismas, idiosyncrasies, beliefs, and even thought patterns? Why or why not? What are some other examples of “accidental inheritance”? Explain.
  • What are the gender expectations of men and women according to the poem? How does the speaker feel about these expectations and how do you know?

Artist Comments

This space is reserved for any comments the author of the piece may have about the points he was trying to get across and the background of why he wrote the poem.