“Spend enough time sitting across from someone and you pick up their habits”
Shrinking Women, by Lily Myers – a Mother’s Perspective
A young and pretty, seemingly gentle and polite, college-aged woman steps up to the microphone. She is slender, wearing a dress. She closes her eyes and takes a deep breath. Preparing herself to take up space and say what few dare to say. I listen, transfixed, as the words calmly, rhythmically, insistently pour out from her. This brilliantly crafted slam poem, Shrinking Women by Lily Myers, captures women’s conflicted relationship with food (and men) and the role that our mothers (and fathers) play in passing down attitudes and behavior towards food. We are, like her mother, “… 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.”
Our obsession with thoughts of food takes up space in our brain that could be used to greater purpose, or at least another purpose. Like the important details she missed in a school meeting when wondering whether or not she could have another slice of pizza, I too have sat in important business meetings and focused more on the plate of gooey, rich, delicious brownies in the center of the conference table than on what is being said or what I could be saying. (Is the brownie worth the calories? How many calories is it anyway? If I eat only half a sandwich, then I can have half a brownie.) Have we women missed chances for greatness because we were too busy wondering what, if anything, we could eat?
My obsession with thoughts of food has receded as I’ve gotten older and become less interested in quantities of food, more uncomfortable when I overeat, and a master at orchestrating my disciplined repertoire of regular meals while accommodating the rest of my family’s appetites. It was different when I was younger, regularly swinging between eating a lot of “bad” food and then punishing my over-indulgence with an abstemious diet and a lot of exercise.
When I discovered I was pregnant with my daughter, 18 years ago, I vowed to raise a girl with a healthy relationship to food and a proud enjoyment of her body. I fear I have failed. In my desire to model “normal” food behavior, here is what I fear I have taught my daughter instead.
- Bye, I’m going to yoga now! = Thin and fit is good. Prioritize eating healthy food and exercising over other activities and even people.
- How do I look? = Looking good is important in order for people to think well of you, even if you have to shop beyond your means.
- Breakfast is ready! = Don’t skip meals, especially not breakfast. But don’t eat too much! Control your appetite!
- Quinoa and chick peas for lunch. = Be self-deprecating about your healthy food choices, relegating them to breakfast and lunch while enabling men and others to make fun of you while they opt for larger portions, red meat, and, of course, dessert.
- I’ll just have a bite of yours. = Dessert is forbidden. Control your appetite!
- I prefer 85%. = Hide your chocolate so you can enjoy it in private without revealing that you do love and desire deliciousness after all and are not always in control.
No wonder my daughter long ago declared that breakfast made her nauseous and irregular meals have become her norm. Like Lily, she has been taught accommodation. Tired of my judgement, but too obedient to rebel, she also swings between respectful mimicry and impatient hatred, as she explores just how much space she is entitled to take up.
I hope that she cherry-picks what she has inherited from my food habits, taking what is constructive and enjoyable while discarding what is destructive about my obsessive control over nutrition and portion sizes as she finds her own way.
And that she never apologizes for asking a question…or for taking up space.
Here is the full text of the poem. I encourage you to watch the video of her powerful performance.
By Lily Myers
Credit: Button Poetry
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
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
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
And I never meant to replicate her, but
spend enough time sitting across from someone and you pick up their
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,
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-stained lips from across the kitchen table.