If Only Out of Vanity // Staceyann Chin
Coming of age can be a gritty process, and rarely do our teachers or parents explain to us the ins and outs of youth. ‘Adolescence’ may as well be synonymous with a period of confusion, angst and a total sense of anger at a world that is unable to understand us. Being a girl in this process of confusion brings about its own unique confusions. In Staceyann Chin’s epic spoken word poem, ‘If Only Out of Vanity’, Chin faultlessly captures the damaging expectations placed on women.
Chin begins by ironically musing ‘if only out of vanity / I have wondered what type of woman I will be’. In just two lines, Chin subtly critiques the expectations placed on young women. By pondering ‘what type of woman’ she will be, Chin critiques the limited views of women in society. As we have seen in the recent Tory leadership election, women cannot enter certain fields without being compared to other women, or without having their femininity being discussed, rather than their individual attributes.
Furthermore, by bringing the idea of ‘vanity’ into the equation, she exposes the male gaze that is often placed on female self-empowerment. Kim Kardashian’s topless instagram? It was only out of vanity. Want to spend ages perfecting on-point smokey-eye eye makeup? You’re only doing it out of vanity.
Chin finds a crack in the literary canon and forces it open. She snakes her way around the little explored black female voice and shouts it out from the rooftops. For, indeed, her poetry is distinctively female, and not only that, but queer:
‘Will I still be lesbian then
or will the church or family finally convince me
to marry some man with a smaller dick
than the one my woman uses to afford me
violent and multiple orgasms’
While often crude (she is perhaps not one to read with the grandparents), her expression captures the deep-set anger of what happens when you silence a voice a minority voice; the voice breaks free into a scream, an ‘orgasm’ of anger and empowerment.
Yet her final stanza expresses the difficulty of writing about the female experience. It can be all too easy to homogenise womanhood as a unified group in order to fight the female entrapment. While ‘Girl Power!’ and ‘Sisterhood’ are great expressions of unity (and in greater numbers comes a greater force), it is important to remember that there is no ‘female voice’. There is no female ‘type’. In a literary world in which men can be anything from Holden Caulfield to Mark Renton, let’s ‘erase the straight lines’ so women can be just as gritty, just as inspiring, just as iconic as any male protagonist.
‘I want to go down in history
in a chapter marked miscellaneous
because the writers could find
no other way to categorise me
In this world where classification is key
I want to erase the straight lines
So I can be me’
Words by Juliette Rowsell, as appeared in the feature ‘For all the girls when they have grown: Five stories of inspiration for growing girls’ on The Indiependent