by Melissa Febos
reviewed by Marissa Gallerani
Melissa Febos’s new essay collection, Girlhood, arrives amid the continued reckoning of the #MeToo movement. As all facets of female life are being reevaluated, Febos turns her attention toward her own childhood, an oft-ignored time in women’s lives that is not removed from the pressures of femininity. The themes Febos regularly explores in her writing–in Abandon Me (2017), her relationship with her father; in Whipsmart (2010), her career as a sex worker–once again feature here, but with a new appreciation for how Febos’s later life was shaped by the transitional period of her youth.
Opening with an epigraph from Judith Baker, “Destruction is thus always restoration,” the collection includes eight essays, each preceded by an illustrated frontispiece. These illustrations conjure tarot cards in their simplicity and potency. The tarot is often associated with marginalized groups, especially women, who have used the practice to reclaim ownership over their lives. Such tension is prevalent here as Febos explores the inherent contradiction between a young girl’s inner life and the public persona society expects her to adopt. Febos emphasizes just how much the events she and other young girls endure are beyond their control. Starting with the onset of early puberty at age eleven, Febos traces how the changes in her body lead to different treatment from her peers, both male and female. She is ogled and ostracized at a female classmate’s pool party, and a male classmate taunts and spits at her at the bus stop. More horrifyingly, Febos recounts a series of encounters with men, sometimes twice her age, who either do not know that she is a child or do not care.
The essays cover many topics, from how men forcibly inject themselves into women’s lives, in “Intrusions,” to empty consent and its lifelong consequences, in “Thank You for Taking Care of Yourself.” Each essay explores a different gender expectation as it is imposed on women and girls. After recounting the daily harassing phone calls decrying her as a “fucking whore,” Febos explains how she felt she could only suffer alone; even if she went to her parents, she was unsure of what they’d do to help her. The more harassment Febos endures, the more she erases herself. As she notes,
[The body’s] physical form becomes impossible to see because your own eyes are no longer the expert. Your body is no longer a body but a perceived distance from what a body should be, a condition of never being correct, because being is incorrect. Virtue [for women] lies only in the interminable act of erasing yourself.
In addition to their wide-ranging subject matter, the essays also include myriad astrological, mythological, and academic references. Febos has always been skilled at drawing disparate threads together into a coherent narrative, and she continues this tactic with varying degrees of success. “Mirror Test,” one of the most compelling essays in Girlhood, is an elegy on the opinions of others and their influence on one’s own beliefs. It contains a number of obscure scientific and academic references, like Jacques Lacan’s theory of Innenwelt and Umwelt and Heinrich Kramer’s treatise Malleus Maleficarum, that seem misplaced in the narrative. Only upon finishing was I able to understand their significance. Febos’s subject matter is powerful enough that additional academic references are not required to make her point; her anecdotal experiences are sufficient. The surveys Febos undertakes as part of her explorations in “Thank You for Taking Care of Yourself” feel more integrated and organic.
As Girlhood progresses, Febos transforms from a young girl who measures her worth against others’ opinions to a self-assured woman who can reflect on her youth and see its impact on her now. Not just a collection of harrowing encounters, Girlhood ends by offering a catharsis, a hope for claiming yourself. In particular, in “Les Calanques,” the closing essay and a beautiful retrospective on her time in France, Febos offers this: “Now, I am so careful. The more I know my own worth, the less I have to fling myself against anything.”
Bracing at times, Girlhood forced me to reconsider my own girlhood. I can no longer ignore the harassment I received, the situations I felt trapped in, the empty consent I have given to escape worse. Far from feeling traumatized by these reminders, I felt validated that mine was not a singular experience. While on a walk recently, I became aware that a man was following me. As I took a circuitous route home, I could only reflect on how, even in the most mundane matters, my existence as a woman is not safe from commentary. A powerful read, Girlhood explores a delicate time in women’s lives that is ripe for reexamination.
Published on June 7, 2021