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Monday, January 13, 2014

Young Poet’s ‘Shrinking Women’ Goes Viral

Lily Myers intended her poem “Shrinking Women” to be a personal one.

But a video of her recital at the 2013 College Unions Poetry Slam Invitational was posted to the poetry website Button Poetry and to The Huffington Post, where it went viral.

With more than 3 million views, it continues to circulate across social media websites.

The poem tells the story of women in her family who for generations have been taught to unconsciously shrink while making space for the men in their lives.

“I wrote this poem very much for personal reasons and didn’t ever think it was going to gain this much visibility,” Myers told Here & Now’s Robin Young. “But to be honest, it has opened a lot of dialogues at home that I don’t think would have been open before. And to me that’s the best thing that slam poetry can do.”

The poem 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.

Guest

  • Lily Myers, poet and student at Wesleyan University.

Transcript

ROBIN YOUNG, HOST:

It's HERE AND NOW.

LILY MYERS: 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 to grow out. I have been taught to grow in.

YOUNG: Twenty-year-old Lily Myers, a junior at Wesleyan in Connecticut, reciting a portion of her poem "Shrinking Women" at the 2013 College Unions Poetry Slam Invitational last April. It won the Best Loved Poem prize, and later, after it was posted on the website Button Poetry and the Huffington Post, it went viral with more than three million views, including one by Lena Dunham of the hit HBO series "Girls."

The poem is one impassioned run-on sentence that 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. Lily Myers is at KUOW in Seattle, Washington. And Lily, your thoughts on how far your thoughts have traveled.

MYERS: I feel really honored that the poem has gotten this much attention, but I am kind of in shock that the poem resonates this much with so many people.

YOUNG: What are you hearing?

MYERS: People who are saying that they have experienced similar things, that they have felt similar things and maybe not known how to articulate it.

YOUNG: Yeah, and what is that thing?

MYERS: The kind of insidious, like subtle pressures on what our bodies are supposed to look like and on what we're supposed to put in our bodies, but also how we're supposed to take up space and how - well, really how we're not supposed to take up space.

YOUNG: Well, this is where salon.com in an interview was talking to Lena Dunham, again of the TV show "Girls," about space. And the interviewer, Alice Driver, says to her, one of the things that I love about you in the show "Girls" is the way that you occupy space in an unapologetic, this is mine way.

And the reporter goes on to say that she'd been talking about this with her friends, about the way men are allowed to take up space versus the way women collapse into themselves. And Lena Dunham says, well, yeah, I prize comfort highly. I don't know if you saw that slam poem that went viral a couple weeks ago. Of course it's yours.

And Lena Dunham goes on to say that amazing girl talking about being trained to not take up space. You're that amazing girl.

MYERS: Wow, yeah, that's crazy.

(LAUGHTER)

YOUNG: Well, but also you did something that others might think is very, very brave because while we heard you talk about your brother, that's about five stanzas into the poem. You start talking about your mother. Let's listen.

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.

YOUNG: So you say your mother wanes while your father waxes. How did that go over at home?

MYERS: It was a challenge. You know, I wrote this poem very much for personal reasons and didn't ever think that it was going to gain this much visibility. But to be honest, it has opened a lot of dialogues at home that I don't think would've been opened before, and to me that's the best thing that slam poetry can do.

YOUNG: Well, you say women in your family have been shrinking for decades, learned it from each other the way each generation taught the next how to knit, weaving silence in between the threads. Let's listen to a little bit more about picking up your mother's habits.

MYERS: 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...

YOUNG: So Lily Myers there, talking about your mom. This poem has been shared by young women like yourself. But are you aware of how much mothers are sharing it and saying, oh my gosh, this - I think I did this?

MYERS: Oh wow. Yeah, I'm a little bit aware. I've been contacted by some mothers, and I think that's really powerful. I talk about my own mom, but she was brought up with the same pressures that I was brought up with, that millions of women are brought up with. We're all just kind of in this same pattern.

YOUNG: Well, having written this, what's been the internal impact on you? You talk about realizing you say you're sorry before you start every sentence, or you spend entire meetings trying to decide should I take another piece of pizza. Are you now changing?

MYERS: Yeah, and I am much more conscious now of when I do that. I notice when I say sorry, you know, when it's unnecessary.

YOUNG: Well, did you really, like the poem says, ask five question in genetics class, and all of them started with the word sorry? Did you really do that?

MYERS: You know, I don't know if it was exactly five. You know, it's kind of one of those it's true in essence. It's a reflex. I've heard from so many women who say that they relate to that.

YOUNG: But you were saying - are you conscious of it now?

MYERS: Yeah, I am becoming more conscious of it, and I'm becoming more conscious too of the behavior of others that I'm around and when - when one person in a situation is taking up so much space that another person isn't able to. And I'm really attuned to those dynamics now.

It's also just made me want to do more work beyond just myself but in the world, you know? I want to keep this conversation going.

YOUNG: Well, and how about your mother, how she doesn't feel she deserves to occupy space or eat food.

MYERS: Right, we have had some conversations about that. And you know, I was really using food as a metaphor for space in this poem. It does - the issue with women not - being taught to not take up space does often manifest in relationships to food. And I look around and see so many women I know, pretty much every woman I know, having some sort of troubled relationship with food.

There's this critique, that women are taught to critique, you know, so kind of viciously what they put into their bodies, and I don't see men being taught that same thing.

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.

YOUNG: I've asked you about the response from people when it went viral. But what about when you were in that room and all the finger-snapping and hooting and - as you delivered your poem?

MYERS: Yeah, well, it's funny because so many comments on the video are saying, oh, why is audience making so much noise, that's so rude. But that's what's supposed to happen at a poetry slam. You know, as a poet I love when the audience is reacting. It means they're listening. It means they're engaged. It means they're responding to what I'm saying. So I love their responses.

I 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.

YOUNG: Yes.

MYERS: And I'm kind of deciding. And this was the one that I kind of knew I had to do. And one of my very best friends, who is a very inspirational poet and was our slam coach, really encouraged me to do this poem. She was like, Lily, you just need to do it. This is what people need to hear.

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 question in genetics class today, and all of them started with the word sorry.

(APPLAUSE)

MYERS: I don't know the capstone requirements for the sociology major because I spent the whole 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.

(APPLAUSE)

YOUNG: Lily Myers, thanks so much.

MYERS: Sure, thank you.

YOUNG: Lily Myers. We'll link you to her poem "Shrinking Women" and her viral video from the 2013 College Unions Poetry Slam Invitational. It gob-smacked us. Love to hear your thoughts at hereandnow.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.


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  • Nice00

    Very interesting piece. My family is not like Lily’s. I learned power and strength and taking up space from my mother and my father albeit some of that power and strength from my mom had to do with putting up with my dad. Every family has issues. Eating was never an issue. We love to eat and my brothers and I, all now 50 or almost 50, are not fat. And then my daughters grew into teenagers attending an all girls’ high school and in the spring of 2013 I took one daughter to the doctor who read her the riot act of eat or you will have to enter a program (she lost 20 pounds in 2 months because she was skipping meals and she was already a good weight) and in the fall I took in the other daughter who decided she needed to eat healthier filling up her day’s food consumption with fruits and vegetables – with cross country she dropped 20 pounds as well. We already eat “healthy” in our house. My girls are athletes as am I. Like Lily’s brother I cannot relate to their new found obsession with food or their strange ideas that skipping meals or eating 20 servings of fruits and vegetables a day is good for you. They have friends who have entered eating disorder clinics. The good news is the pediatrician’s explanation to them of healthy weight and healthy eating seems to have stuck for now. I no longer talk about food or weight – not like I ever did but now I am so conscious of it I have become like Lily – filtering every word out of my mouth and making sure they see me putting a wide variety of foods into my mouth including the occasional cookie and dish of ice cream and pizza! With everyone so obsessed with obesity and even school health classes teaching kids that carbs are bad, some kids are heading down a path just as unhealthy as eating too much.

  • Linda Davis

    This is EXACTLY what poetry does (or is suppose to do)!

  • A0220R

    Interesting.
    Also an odd perspective for me, since I regulate my diet and see it as a positive thing. I see resisting the compulsion to overeat as a mark of discipline and commendable restraint and self-control, not as an imposition from a society with unfair standards. The standards aren’t unfair just because they require effort, which is the message I get when people use ‘comfort’ as an ideal. I prize comfort too, but I still get up for work when I’d rather sleep, I still maintain personal grooming habits when I’d rather not even shower, and I still work out when I’d rather be on the couch watching TV.
    But it’s a very different experience I suppose, when the food becomes symbolic of a larger imposition against a gender to conform to ideals of another gender.

  • R. Johnson

    I too found this a very interesting story, but my reactions have nothing to do with food… somehow my wife and I have managed to raise two daughters who are still active, sensible, and very willing to eat a wide variety of foods in generally(!) healthful proportions in their mid and late teens. However, two years ago my oldest daughter was one of three “National Merit Qualifying Students” in her high school class. She received this news from the school principal while sitting at lunch with a group of friends, most of whom were male. As she tells it, the response from the boys at the table was a deafening silence. Not one of the guys made any comment, let alone any show of support. It was a non-event. A few minutes later the principal returned to apologize and announce that he had failed to recognize one of the boys at the table who was one of the other two qualifying students. This news created an uproar! Applause! High fives all around! “Good job, bro! You’re the man! Beast!” After (and only after) he had been recognized did he offer a celebratory high five to my daughter, his erstwhile friend in and out of school since second grade. It would be a gross understatement to say that she was hurt by this turn of events. Standardized tests have never been
    our family’s be all, end all, but test scores are an unavoidable “big deal” to
    college-bound eleventh graders and some of these kids had been her friends and classmates for several years. Knowing these kids as I do I was disappointed to find that in 2012 the boys made a clear distinction between what was cool for a guy and what was cool for girl. It seems as though making a space and breaking free of outside expectations is a battle being waged on more than one front. ( … And so, in our house, we still listen to Annie Lennox!)

  • Moron

    The problem in my adult house is not so much the struggle of eating, or not eating, but eating productive calories or empty calories. Unfortunately, the corporate welfare protectionism environment has evolved to support farm subsidies which rob market value from nutritional value. This has created a situation where affordable food is bad food and good food is a luxury good, not a staple. When I grew up (a generation or two previous to Lily), my mother didn’t shrink. She was a 5′ 2″, force to be reckoned with. She we slim, worked hard and ate well. She took as much space as she needed to get the job done while my dad was out doing his job bring home the bacon for her to cook. There was no shrinking in her camp. She took up way more space than her stature. We ate well, and a lot. None of my siblings are over-weight. This is because she fed us natural produce, dairy, etc. Every day I came home from school I had a plate of ready of apple slices, cottage cheese filled pears with cheddar cheese grated on top. All our meals were cooked from scratch. No microwaved Hot Pockets, no Doritos or fruit flavored squishy corn syrupy thingies. These types of products didn’t exist. Corporate welfare programs which distorted true market prices and undermined legitimate, natural, nutritious food products weren’t in existence. The world is a different place. We need to end the subsidies that make it more financially rewarding to produce and purchase food that makes people fat. Give good food a fair chance.

    • Jane Birdsong

      dear m, you are so lucky to have grown up in a household with a mother who knew how to provide healthy meals and snacks. I too was lucky. How do we pass this on to unlucky ones, without preaching? The information is out there, but too often doctors do not pass it on to the thousands of people who only by the affordable non-nutritive foods. I totally agree with your words and especially that NEED TO END SUBSIDIES FOR FOODS THAT MAKE PEOPLE FAT – and get GMO labeling on ALL FOODS that contain genetically modified genes.

    • Wow

      really cool perspective you have. thanks for offering the well-written insight. i’ve struggled with anorexia and bulimia for 18 of my 30 years (agh… i’m old!) and i’ve never thought about food in the way you presented it. seriously still marveling over your articulation of your healthy, unemotional, clear-minded relationship with food. you could make a living teaching girls how to reimagine the role of food in their lives. cheers to you

  • Doug Kresse

    Several comments. She seems to be arguing that males trending towards obesity is a good thing. Come on. That’s goofy.

    Second, her brother seems to have impulse control troubles. We get the image here that all is rosy for brash boys. It’s not. Hanna Rosin’s “End of Men” shows boys are falling behind in education. The NYT ran a headline “At Colleges, Women Are Leaving Men in the Dust.”

  • clemdane

    It’s not just about eating. It’s about body language. An average woman sitting on a public bench tries to take up as little space as possible. An average man stretches out and takes up space. That and a thousand other little things are going on all the time.

  • Jim Ohio

    What a talented poet! Mother’s Day may be a little awkward this year! – But like she said in the accompanying interview, this poem has opened dialogue within her family. I hope the universe rewards your open and honest poetry with strengthened family relations! Blessings to you.

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