When Melissa Febos’s body began changing in fifth grade, she received a book from her mom about those changes, but the book didn’t explain how what was happening to her body changed her value in the world. Later, she noticed female pleasure was absent from her school’s sexual education curriculum. By adulthood, she realized the values women are taught often don’t prioritize their happiness or safety.
In her searching essay collection, “Girlhood,” Febos combines personal, cultural, investigative, and scholarly passages to ferociously dissect the lessons that shaped her, and the result is a book that fills the educational void she’d noticed. She centers her own experiences and the way she makes sense of them almost as a guide for women to redefine themselves.
Febos had not been a fearful child, rather one with calluses on her feet and a toughness that came with being a sea captain’s daughter. But by 12, she was made aware that she “already had a body like those women in the magazines, but it was no prize and they offered me no congratulations.”
She shares an unsettling series of events with a neighbor boy she thought was beautiful — him angrily kicking a soccer ball at her repeatedly in a way that felt personal, challenging her to competitions she couldn’t win, chasing her, and spitting on her — and she acknowledges that it would take her twenty years to understand their power struggle: “that desire led to fear that could lead to hate — all without ever obliterating that original want.” Now finally able to understand how rigged the system was against her, and with the care of friends and family, she’s better able to feel compassion for the little girl she’d once been and the parts of herself she had to submerge for survival.
As a teen, Febos fell into the trap of defining herself through the perceptions of others, with the devastating belief that “wanted was the only thing I was sure I ought to be.” Yet being desired by men puts her in several scary situations and leads others to say she’s “loose as a goose” and call her house to say she’s “a [expletive] whore.”
The elegance of Febos’s transitions, even while writing about such painful things, showcases her trademark lyrical range. Alongside these personal accounts, Febos acrobatically weaves in an analysis of slut-shaming in Edith Wharton’s “The House of Mirth,” a psychological study, a perceptive critique of the teen movie “Easy A,” as well as stories from other women who also experienced horrifying harassment from their peers and schools for their sexual decisions.
In her author’s note Febos says she’s found solace in other women’s stories as “our ordinariness has been curative” and in a triumphant conclusion, she says she’s okay with the term slut because it means she experiences pleasure.
The book underscores the oppressive beauty standards pushed on young women. A fan of the PBS animal show “Wild America,” as a girl Febos used tp enjoy climbing trees and would eat watermelon as it were a fresh carcass, proud of her animal nature. But then, she realizes that being attractive to males meant competing “to be the weakest and smallest and most infantile,” the opposite of what she would have needed to survive on “Wild America.” Steeped in the typical patriarchal shame, Febos reports becoming “sociopathic in cruelty” to her body by the time she reached 13. At 35, she tackles this taught self-hatred by spending time alone, and “free from the bondage of another’s gaze,” she returns to the instinct for self-love that she used to have, as a wild child roaming around Cape Cod.
Throughout the book, Febos lays bare the impact of victim-blaming culture and the silencing it causes. Though she’d considered her apartment a haven from the relentless street harassment New York City women know all too well, Febos experienced regular harassment from a man outside her window at night. “Wasn’t it my job to be desired by them?” she wonders. She includes stories from many others who have experienced night lurkers, many of whom are told by other men to dismiss the peeping, leading to the dangerous assumption “that your body ought to be available to any man passing by.”
“What is the effect of ignoring your body’s wishes for decades?”is a question Febos circles in her essay “Thank You for Taking Care of Yourself.” She describes attending a cuddle party in the city with her friends and struggling to say no to a man’s request to touch her even when instructed to do so during the event’s introduction. This prompts her to interview women about their experiences with consent and attend a second time to practice saying no. The way Febos reframes uncomfortable experiences as an opportunity to learn more about herself is inspiring. As a woman, it’s impossible not to relate to Febos’s essays, and the way she concludes many of them models how we might reframe our experiences as well.
When regret seeps in for Febos that she took this long to find her power and piece herself back together, tries to remember that however long the wait, she got there. Readers of “Girlhood” might thank Febos for accelerating this process for us.
By Melissa Febos
Bloomsbury Publishing, 336 pages, $27
Rajpreet Heir is an Assistant Professor of Creative Nonfiction at Ithaca College.