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That’s Me.

April 21, 2009

Phenomenal Woman

Pretty women wonder where my secret lies.
I’m not cute or built to suit a fashion model’s size
But when I start to tell them,
They think I’m telling lies.
I say,
It’s in the reach of my arms
The span of my hips,
The stride of my step,
The curl of my lips.
I’m a woman
Phenomenally.
Phenomenal woman,
That’s me.

Now you understand
Just why my head’s not bowed.
I don’t shout or jump about
Or have to talk real loud.
When you see me passing
It ought to make you proud.
I say,
It’s in the click of my heels,
The bend of my hair,
the palm of my hand,
The need of my care,
‘Cause I’m a woman
Phenomenally.
Phenomenal woman,
That’s me

Maya Angelou really knows how to appreciate her whole self, body and mind, as a woman.
I remember first reading this poem in a book called something like “_X_ Things Every Girl Should Know”, one of the ones my mom gave me instead of “the talk” when I turned 13. Although my mother and her friends gave me really great positive female role models, I think reading this poem was the first time the idea of my body as being an asset to myself as a woman, rather than a liability, really connected to me.

Generally I found these guidance books terrifying, because I had an acute fear of sexual violence, and would always flip first to those sections and ruminate on the dangers associated with my body. I developed early and always felt like my body was a burden in the world, that it made me available to male violence, and I’d rather they not look at it all. I was always concerned for my own safety, and felt dangerous male eyes on me all the time. After I was followed home from the store once after 8th grade, this fear became paralyzing. I had always walked home from school, (and in high school from the bus stop) but now the prospect was terrifying. I would sit in school and panic about those two blocks, trying to come up with excuses on how to get a ride or convince a friend to walk with me. When I did have to go it alone, I would run, looking out at all times for men on the sidewalk or slow moving cars. There were constant calculations of where I would be, who I’d have to be alone with, and the safest possible routes and strategies I no longer liked to walk outside by myself, going downtown scared me, I lost all independence, save the solitary of my own fears, which I shared with no one.

After I began to drive my sophomore year, the fears subsided somewhat. They weren’t so all-encompassing or paralyzing. By now I think they have diminished to the everyday concerns of being a woman, although they flare up unnecessarily sometimes. I can’t entirely let go of this fear, because the dangers are real. It is dangerous for me to walk certain places by myself, my body does provide a liability. The spaces in which it inhabit have changed – there are now concerns about the choices I make at parties, and who I can safely drink around – but the daily dangers of the female body are real. This is an aspect of the woman’s experiences that I often have the hardest time explaining to men: the daily fears and safety issues, being cat-called on the street, our bodies as the sites of violence. There is always a threat.

These fears and dangers are especially present in the trans experience as well, which Combat Queer has a great article about.

While these fears won’t go away, let’s take the time to celebrate the reach of our arms and the span of our hips. We can reclaim our bodies as sites of power, beauty, pleasure, rather than violence.

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. April 21, 2009 5:14 PM

    I also feel like my body is a liability in a lot of ways. Though it may be difficult to explain to men, those who get it tend to be outraged about it. The gentleman in my life did a lot of research on feminism for his comps project and came across a survey asking the members of a class to respond to the question “When did you last feel threatened?” Almost all of the women in the class responded with answers like “It was dark and I was alone on the street.” Men gave answers like “I was in a really bad part of town.” He was baffled by why anyone should feel threatened walking down the street at any hour and furious that women feel that way all the time. I think step one is getting the word out there to men who often times don’t even think about it.

    • Jill permalink
      April 21, 2009 5:26 PM

      I had a somewhat similar response with the gentleman in my life. He and I and one of our female friends were having dinner, and she mentioned an incident of street harassment she had experienced. He asked us how often that happened, and was totally shocked to hear that we experienced it on a weekly–if not daily–basis.

      All the more reason to speak out.

  2. Emily permalink
    April 21, 2009 5:47 PM

    The first time I can ever remember thinking specifically about my body had to have been when I was about five years old. My mom told me not to let anyone touch me *down there* and my head was filled with images of shadowy evildoers, lurking in the shadows, waiting to touch me. I was terrified. I think the ever-present danger of sexual violence defined my sexual and personal development in many ways. I, too, remember being filled with dread about dark parking lots, deserted gravel roads, backwoods paths. This fear of sexual violence has affected my ability to travel alone, my relationships with others, my ability to be open and friendly. It has waned a bit as I’ve become more confident and more knowledgeable, as I’ve learned to deal with male attention. But I agree, Becky, the danger is still there and I don’t think I’ll ever be able to face a dark street without some fear.

    And as to Jill and Amanda’s points about talking about this to men, it’s always hard. I recently had to explain to a lunch table full of men why I would feel uncomfortable couch-surfing my way through Europe. They were sympathetic to my concerns about safety but didn’t really understand. Weren’t the hosts rated by guests on couch-surfing websites? Couldn’t I just “feel out” a creepy situation and make a judgment call to leave? I couldn’t communicate to them the constant threat of sexual violence, that even if I thought a host was trustworthy it wouldn’t erase my feelings of discomfort and anxiety.

    Also, I love Maya Angelou. I can just hear that beautiful voice of hers reading this aloud in my head.

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