“Pretty women wonder where my secret lies.
I’m not cute or built to suit a fashion model’s size…
I’m a woman
–Maya Angelou, “Phenomenal Woman”
“Does my sexiness upset you?”
–Maya Angelou, “Still I Rise”
Tonight, I’m looking forward to honoring a poet from my hometown. St. Louis has been home to several poets, most notably Angelou and T.S. Eliot, and two US Poet Laureates. I’m a pretty big fan of Eliot myself, but there’s something about Angelou that resonates in a very different way.
After a several year period of silence in her childhood, triggered by serious trauma, Angelou opened her mouth and didn’t bother to shut it again. She got loud, though not in volume. She became strong and firm and unwilling to have her voice silenced. She spoke up for civil rights, for women, for people and causes that weren’t necessarily popular.
So who is Maya Angelou to me? What makes her rise through the ranks to come out among the handful of American authors we’re talking about this month?
Quite simply, Angelou’s brazenness inspires me. Her self-confidence defies those who would denounce her. She’s not in this game to impress you. She’s here to show you beauty and strength and wit, all wrapped in a woman’s curves.
Angelou is the confidence that the chubby girl in your gym class needs. She’s the femininity that raises up the girl with a Frida Kahlo unibrow. She’s the one telling us that girls don’t have to be skinny to be sexy. She’s a woman, and don’t you challenge her femininity.
There is a trend that, whether we consciously recognize it or not, is fueling feminine insecurity. There is something that tells us that to be a woman is to always comment on a friend’s weight loss (even if it’s half an ounce) or to mention that new diet fad. There is something that says, “To be a woman is to be small, quiet, unnoticed except for in the slenderness of your being.” There is, of course, nothing wrong with short girls. Or with introverted or otherwise quiet girls. Or with slender girls. There is nothing wrong with not wanting to be the center of attention.
But what Angelou does is offer the woman–be she seven or seventy–the opportunity to defy those standards. Angelou gives us permission to be tall or wide or loud. Or all three. She is one of those women who looks at society’s standards and says firmly, “Does my sexiness upset you?” She gives permission to the supposedly unpretty girls, those of us who won’t ever be in a fashion magazine. We can be sexy. We can be beautiful and opinionated and strong. And none of those characteristics make us unfeminine.
Maya Angelou opens the door for us to challenge a world that doesn’t want us. She shows us how to make a world of our own. She doesn’t change the world by her words. She disregards its standards and asks if it cares to join her in a different paradigm. If not, let the world burn. But Angelou will just keep on being her strong, beautiful self, lifting up the women climbing behind her. May her legacy continue to strengthen the insecure and give us hope. She was, quite truly, a phenomenal woman.