5 powerful spoken-word poetry performances about body image

Tackling everything from non-binary bodies to the gender dynamics of taking up space.

by Blair Cannon
11 July 2017, 5:10pm

poet kate hao. image via youtube.

Body positivity is having a moment like never before. Brands are releasing un-retouched ad campaigns, editorials and runway shows are increasingly inclusive of different shapes and sizes. It's important to remember, though, that the message must also extend beyond the realm of the visual and commercial. We might swap the term "body positivity" for something more like "body honesty."

Spoken-word poetry has always been a powerful mode of expression for social and political forces. Below are five poets who deal with body image and acceptance issues in raw, honest, and realistic ways. (Proceed with caution, though, as several poets discuss eating disorders and self-harm.) Each of these performers leaves a refreshing trace of real power and magic behind them, perceptible even via YouTube. Their talent shines - and rhythmically beats - through even the darkest conversations.

Lily Myers
Lily Myers's performance of the spoken-word poem "Shrinking Women" has garnered 5.5 million YouTube views since its 2013 debut. It's not difficult to see why: the poem becomes increasingly universal as Myers describes watching from the outside as someone - her mother, in this instance - struggles with an eating disorder. She also reflects on being a daughter who quickly learns the gender dynamics of taking up physical space. "My house feels bigger each time I return," the former Wesleyan student relates to her audience, "it's proportional. As she shrinks, the space around her seems increasingly vast." "She wanes while my father waxes," Myers continues. These musings, which she turns over and over during the performance to reveal a festering frustration, elicit choruses of snaps. In fact, the response to the video ultimately led to the publication of her YA verse-novel last month. This Impossible Light takes on eating disorders from the perspective of a young girl.

Honey Sanaa
Rising Mississippi poet Honey Sanaa has an achingly beautiful writing and speaking voice. Her performances often explore her experience as a black woman - "You Are What You Eat" is a particularly powerful example - and at other times, her jarring sexual experiences. The poem which captures her battle with beauty standards most poignantly is "For Telling the Truth Even When It Hurts Me" (listed elsewhere as "Taste of Shame"). It begins with Sanaa recounting a moment in which one of her students called her a derogatory term, spotlighting her size in front of the class. Sanaa's attention shoots immediately to a student "who still carries her baby weight like a security blanket" and she connects to this girl's silent prayer not to be noticed. Sanaa describes the shame that follows her everywhere from the scale to the airplane seat: found in a mother's insensitive questioning or an embarrassed partner's neglect. Her poems are striking and occasionally disturbing, but her ability to articulate the experiences that push someone to the edge is flooring. She'll probably bring you to tears.

Ollie Shminkey
Non-binary transgender activist and spoken-word poet Ollie Shminkey makes work that covers both personal and political ground. Performances titled simply "Boobs" or "Pubic Hair" dig into questions like why they have shaved their pubic hair "over 415 times," or what happens when society wants you to shave some body parts and won't let you cut off "perfectly healthy" others. "How to Love Your Body in 10 Easy Steps" covers dealing with anxiety, the comments section under pro-transgender articles, chest-binding, self-blame, and self-love. Schminkey's poems cover sexual trauma as well. Their personal experiences are never neatly categorized but beautifully woven into a full picture of a human being. Their understanding of identity, the strength of their survivorship, and their sense of humor collide in each performance, and no matter your gender or experience you can't help but finish each video feeling as though you've witnessed something incredibly intimate. "I am not trapped in my body," Schminkey protests. "I am trapped in other people's perceptions of my body." And later, most importantly: "I am more than my body."

Aisha Oxley
Recent Princeton grad Aisha Oxley is a multidisciplinary artist - she makes everything from short films to what she calls "wearable art" - but she is probably best known for the spoken-word poem "Skinny." In the piece, Oxley describes what might be considered the opposite end of the body image spectrum: the struggle of feeling too thin. She relates the quiet turmoil of chugging weight-gain concoctions and being disappointed by her angular reflection in the mirror. The most upsetting image in "Skinny" is likely the group of girls whose "sticky, sweaty palms [wrap] around the perimeter of [her] limb." The poet does a shrill impression of a peer calling, "Look at Aisha's wrist! It's so tiny, look at it!" Oxley's experience of thin body-hatred is not much discussed, and if it is, then it is often glamorized into triviality. In another poem titled "Good Hair," she acknowledges that some people find her attractive, and think of her as "that bitch." Oxley recites, "Sometimes I wish I was that bitch. Wish I could find my place between blackness and beauty." Even if society is willing to extend its definition of beauty toward you, or you're willing to extend yourself far enough toward it, things aren't that easy or simple. "I'm not complaining," Oxley says defiantly. She acknowledges the systems that oppress and then seem to uplift or "compliment" her, and how those hypocrisies leave her feeling "like shit."

Kate Hao
Washington University student Kate Hao's poem "In Which Every Poem That I Write Becomes a Poem About My Body" strikes a chord with female or femme artists who find themselves constantly circling back to the topic of their body and their sex. In the poem, Hao's sheer exhaustion with her body's overbearing presence in her life comes through in her voice, which grows higher and harsher as she becomes more exasperated. She cries, "it doesn't let me breathe without reminding me of its presence! So of course, every poem that I write stinks of my body's breath." In "Lessons for the Girl I Was," Hao remarks that men whose stares follow her "always seem to know more about my body than I do." Something which haunts and entraps her still feels as though it belongs to others - a feeling so many women feel and which Hao articulates masterfully. She ends "In Which Every Poem" with what feels like a resolution: "But my body has always stayed. Call it loyal, if nothing else." Her face is ambivalent, but her words demonstrate acceptance and understanding.


Text Blair Cannon

body image
aisha oxley
honey sanaa
kate hao
lily myers
ollie shminkey