“Phenomenal Woman” published in 1978, as part of a collection titled, “And Still I Rise,” is a poem written by Maya Angelou. “Phenomenal Worman” is a poem that resonates with many women. Throughout the work, Angelou explains how she is a confident, strong woman, and mirrors that confidence with each line, she goes on to list by line what parts of her body show that assuredness. Women around the globe often put themselves down and deal with low self-esteem based on modern society’s definition of beauty, and listen to those around them. This poem empowers women and girls by showing that a woman is not the construct of outer beauty, it is not what makes a woman. Each stanza, through imagery, tone, and symbolism, displays how inner strength and confidence are what defines a woman.
Angelou uses symbolism to indicate her confidence as a woman. She tells us how she holds her head high even though she knows she isn’t perfect Angelou writes, “I’m not cute or built to suit a fashion model’s size,” in line 2. That acknowledgment demonstrates her confidence even though she is not what society likes to deem pretty or beautiful. While not tall or skinny, Angelou still finds her worth and beauty. Angelou goes on in lines 6-9, “It’s in the reach of my arms, The span of my hips, The stride of my step, The curl of my lips.” Each body part could hint at different symbols. Her arms could symbolize her efforts to reach for her dreams, “The span of her hips” might allow people to see that regardless of how full her hips might be, it will not diminish the confidence within herself because she understands and embraces her beauty. “Stride of my step” pairs with the hips and shows Angelou walks with confidence and esteem. In the statement, “Curl of my lips,” we can see where Angelou might be referring to the corners of her mouth curling up into a smile; a smile is beautiful on everyone. In every move of her body, others can see the beauty she owns, although perhaps she, herself, sees it differently. An attractive personality holds more power than an attractive appearance, or the ability to fill a role that is impossible to obtain. A good personality goes farther than being skinny and aesthetically gorgeous. Angelou witnessed first hand how people of color faced the prejudices of the white community, and her poem reflects what many females of color experienced at the hands of others. Forced to witness these horrible atrocities naturally would tear a woman down. The symbolism the poem portrays is of such a dynamic any woman can strive to reach that place within themselves where they also feel phenomenal, it can assist women in finding and exhibit their inner strength through confidence in themselves.
Compassion and deep understanding of the female psyche, combined with determination and confidence, all set the tone for this poem and make it easy to understand. The pressure placed on women and young girls to be what the media, movies, magazines, and televisions say is beautiful have forced many to do whatever it takes to reach the unobtainable goals of looking like the supermodels, who are not exactly what they appear, thanks to editing software and technology. Angelou gives others the push they might need to become the best version of themselves that they can, without losing who they are. Maya Angelou explains this by using the tone of the poem to remain proud of the way they look and to maintain the confidence in themselves. At the end of each stanza, “Phenomenally, Phenomenal woman, That’s me,” as we see for the first time in lines 11-13, shows her confidence in herself, the sense of pride in being a woman. Using it repetitively strengthens the meaning of the phrase by placing emphasis on it. Since the term, ‘phenomenal,’ is defined as extraordinary and very remarkable, Angelou uses the word to explain how she is different from other women, but in many ways, the same. Furthermore, no matter what anyone else may think of her or her appearance, she recognizes her beauty, and will continue to keep her head held high because she knows herself, she is phenomenal. Lines 30-34 Angelou focuses directly on men and what they think of her, “Men themselves have wondered, What they see in me. They try so much, but they can’t touch, My inner mystery.” These lines show us that while society may have deemed her “not beautiful,” she still attracts male attention. She knows that her confidence and inner beauty is what draws them. While there are indeed those shallow enough only to see appearance, Angelou has learned that personality and confidence win out over outer beauty alone. The tone and voice of the poetry are strong enough that readers can feel the pain Angelou endures but sees her inner strength and her confidence. The tone also conveys the point that every woman is phenomenal in her own way, which correlates with beautiful.
The manner in which Angelou wrote the poem makes the imagery of each stanza easy to see. Maya states, “it’s the fire in my eye, and the flash of my teeth, the swing in my waist, and the joy in my feet,” in lines 22-25. With this quote, we can visualize a woman entering a room with her head high, and proud of who she is, precisely the way Angelou characterizes herself. We can see through Angelou’s words, the smile the woman wears as she walks in, the swing of her waist and sway of her hips screaming confidence. The reader can picture Angelou’s inner strength with Maya’s descriptive words. “I don’t shout or jump about, Or have to talk real loud, when you see me passing, it out to make you proud.” Lines 48-51, allows us to imagine a calm woman that does not necessarily want to attract attention, yet, people are still drawn to her, wondering what is unique or captivating about her. One does not have to be loud and overbearing or the center of attention. Quiet confidence has a greater effect than being overdramatic. It doesn’t matter what Angelou has gone through in her life, or what has occurred at some point to cause her to lose all self-confidence, and make her feel anything but beautiful, but, Maya is still able to grasp the concept that she is beautiful despite the past. Through language in poetry, she conveys that confidence to anyone that reads “Phenomenal Woman.
There are those who will argue that Maya does not show inner strength through her symbolism, the works tone, and the imagery. They might wonder if her symbolism isn’t about her inner strength or confidence, and shows that she is nothing more than conceited or thinks she’s better than others. While Angelou’s choice of grandiose words to describe herself might seem off-putting to some, she does so without any fear. She shifts seamlessly between what she isn’t and what she is. Even then, there are those who will say that the tone has nothing to do with anyone’s confidence, either, and it merely sounds strong. In reality, you can understand most of the poem through the tone alone. The imagery might not directly show the confidence Angelou holds, but when you read or close your eyes, you can picture everything the author says, it says a lot about the work. The imagery is strong enough that you cannot miss the confidence Maya holds inside.
Maya Angelou is a strong poet and capable of producing works where any of her readers can understand them and know what she means with each poem. “Phenomenal Woman” shows Angelou’s confidence, and due to the manner in which it was written, you can easily discern what she is talking about when you begin to read. Although in the poem itself, she is referring only to herself, any other woman can relate to her words because it might be how they wish they could carry themselves, without the judgment of others pulling them down. Maya says, “I’m not a fashion model size,” in line 2, but in line 56, says, “The need for my care.” She knows she is not for everyone, as no one is, but because of her confidence, she speaks up and lets the world know she is proud of who she is. Maya knows that many men want a woman in their life in some capacity, and not every man will only go for the most beautiful woman. Some men will look at what lies beneath the surface. Angelou shows her confidence through inner strength and for that reason readers are able to understand through the use of tone, imagery, and symbolism in each stanza of the poem, that a woman is not the construct of outer beauty; it is not what makes a woman. “Phenomenal Woman” is a work of female empowerment.