The span of my hips,
The stride in my step,
The curl of my lips.
I’m a woman
- Maya Angelou
We’ve all known phenomenal women. They have that special “something,” a glorious glimmer that brightens a room when they enter. Their smile, warm demeanor, or caring presence draws us to them. If we’re honest, we’d like to be more like them, but we’re not quite sure how or where to begin.
Maya Angelou. It harbored the poem I’ve cited above, Phenomenal Woman. I recall the first time I read it, chills ran up and down my spine. My heart burst with emotion. Oh, I thought, if we could only recognize and accept ourselves as the phenomenal women we are! In that moment, I began to ponder how it might be that we come to a sense of our own phenomenal beingness—our “wowness,” as some might call it. Is being remarkable, extraordinary, like Maya Angelou herself, something women are born with, or a compilation of qualities we must cultivate over time? A little voice inside of me whispered, ‘Both.’
I continued to reflect upon the author herself. Maya Angelou was born Marguerite Johnson in Missouri in 1928, an “ordinary” little girl by all appearances. Unfortunately, however, at the age of three, her parents divorced and she was sent to live with her grandmother. A few years later, Maya was returned to her mother’s house where she experienced a traumatic sexual assault, becoming mute for the next five years as a result of the attack. Her childhood, if anything, was not something to be celebrated, but something to be overcome and healed, which she has. Yet, perhaps, this is precisely why this singular woman has led such a distinct life. She was able to tap into her inherent phenomenal nature and cultivate the gifts and talents she was born with, all the while overcoming any challenges life brought her way—notably done with verve and flair.
In many ways, Maya Angelou is ‘Every Woman.’ A woman of unlimited potential who can, by choice, create a life of her own design, no matter the circumstances of her birth, or what hardships she has experienced. With effort, focus, and faith, she can access her essence—the core of who she really is—to become all that she can be. Today, as I read certain lines of the poem once again, I surmise that Maya is referring to qualities that are latent within all of us— "wow” qualities we need only nurture to fruition.
“It’s the fire in my eyes,
And the flash of my teeth,
The swing of my waist,
And the joy in my feet ...”
This fire, this flash, this grace of which she speaks is present as pure potentiality when we are born. It is incubated and fostered within us as we find our way through life. Our wowness emerges gradually as we experience one personal success after another. For Maya, it may have been learning to speak again with the help of a dear teacher, or receiving a scholarship to take dance and drama lessons, or securing a job as the first black female streetcar conductor in San Francisco. The same can be true for any of us. One victory stacked upon another begins to embolden the flash in our smile and the swing in our hips. But only if we let it.
For these moments when we experience our own “wowness” are fleeting at best and we must latch onto them with resolve. We must gather them up and hold them close to our hearts as they will supply us with the courage and confidence we need to continue to move forward in life. The world, its pressures and its nay-sayers, even the failures we experience, can easily cause us to bow down in insecurity once more. They can lure us into feeling we are not phenomenal women at all, just ordinary women struggling to be something that we are not, or can never be.
Yet, our wowness does not come just from striving alone, or from achieving success in the world. Our wowness comes from painstakingly growing ourselves from the inside out. Our wowness expands gradually over time as we quietly affirm our personal triumphs (both inner and outer) and celebrate the woman we are becoming. Our wowness takes hold as we become more comfortable with who we are—more accepting, gentle, and kind to ourselves.
“Now you understand
Just why my head’s not bowed.
I don’t shout or jump about
Or have to talk real loud.
When you see me passing,
It ought to make you proud ...”
Let us make no mistake, this process of acknowledging ourselves as the phenomenal women we are is not characterized by arrogance or pride. The most phenomenal women I know are not self-centered, nor self-absorbed. In fact, as they have grown in stature, they live with a sense of true humility and equanimity toward others. They see in every other woman a woman like themselves—a woman who desires to live free—a woman living from her fullness. By embracing their wowness, phenomenal women naturally desire to reach out, to serve, to uplift other women so that each one can finally experience her own glory, as well.
“It’s in the click of my heels,
The bend of my hair,
The palm of my hand,
The need for my care.
‘Cause I’m a woman
My hope is that each of us will begin to see ourselves as phenomenal women. You are a phenomenal woman, too. Really, you are. And so is every other woman who walks this planet ...
So, how are you doing with embracing your "wowness" these days?
Tell us, what's Wow! about YOU ...
(*Reference: Phenomenal Woman: Four Poems Celebrating Women by Maya Angelou. Random House, 1994.)