Study Guide

In the Waiting Room Women and Femininity

By Elizabeth Bishop

Women and Femininity

black naked women with necks
wound round and round with wire
like the necks of light bulbs.
Their breasts were horrifying. (28-31)

Elizabeth is overwhelmed by the experience of seeing these women in the magazine. She tries to understand them by comparing their neck coils to light bulbs – to something she's familiar with. But this doesn't work out so well. She's still horrified by their breasts – by the markers of feminine maturity that she sees in these women.

Without thinking at all
I was my foolish aunt. (48-49)

After she hears her aunt cry out, Elizabeth finds a kind of connection with this other woman. She imagines that she's experiencing the same pain as her aunt is. It's a kind of collective – or group – traumatic experience.

What similarities—
boots, hands, the family voice
I felt in my throat, or even
the National Geographic
and those awful hanging breasts—
held us all together
or made us all just one? (77-83)

Elizabeth asks: what connections hold humanity together? What tears us apart? Interestingly, in these lines, Elizabeth's vision of humanity is pretty female. We've got her aunt, the women in the magazine, herself. Maybe she's asking more specifically: what binds the women of the world together?

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