Girlhood, like an onion, needs to be peeled patiently to reveal its true center.Literature Review
It is in part by writing this book that I have corrected the story of my own girlhood and found ways to recover myself.
Author of the acclaimed memoir Whip Smart: The True Story of a Secret Life about her experience as a professional dominatrix (2010) and Abandon Me (2017), Melissa Febos returns with another memoir titled Girlhood — a collection of essays that will take you on an uncomfortable albeit familiar journey of what it is to be a girl or a woman. Febos, with her characteristic candor, writes seven essays that are a compilation of personal experiences that discuss bullying, body shaming, family, relationships, voyeurism, love, physical intimacy and addiction.
Girlhood begins with Febos as a confused pre-teen standing on the precipice of her girlhood. The first few essays discuss the shifting ‘value’ of a girl in the world after she hits puberty. The narrative terrain is built on a young girl’s unpleasant experiences with the opposite sex that involve being spat on or inappropriate physical intimacy. Febos’ younger self can be seen as an unwanted recipient of physical and mental bullying because of her “developed figure.”
At a time when the standard of a woman’s beauty was being as “slender and straight as a fucking arrow,” Febos grew up being shamed for her adolescent body. Her young body is constructed as a reluctant site of contested pleasure that invited attention and shame together. She writes, “…they could claim that part of me in any spirit they wanted, in the school hallway with unwashed hands, as a joke between them, as an act of humiliation or violence.”
Febos writes freely and boldly, narrating seemingly unpleasant, disturbing and intrepid experiences of a young girl. Yet, her writing is candid and sincere as she juxtaposes her thoughts with her actions.
Febos embraces her struggles with her body and sexuality in the essay titled “Wild America.” She shares her changing relationship with her own body particularly towards her “man hands.” The prose piece illuminates the apparent unfairness in the standard of judging men and women in terms of their bodies.
“Instead of eating contests, we had starving contests. Instead of boasting of our strengths, we forged friendships by denigrating ourselves,” she writes.
(Un)afraid of judgement or derision, she confesses of hiding herself underneath layers of oversized clothing for years. Her numerous relationships and multiple partners make her fall in and out of love with her body. From being called “a baby tiger” to being appreciated after a “sublime” lovemaking session, Febos’s narrative about her body gently strums our heart strings with her blatant honesty.
Issues related to the concept of shame, female pleasure and naming are also thoroughly deliberated. Febos traces the linguistic trajectory of the term slut, from a term used to describe a slovenly woman to its current use to describe an immoral, promiscuous woman. She also highlights the inherent linguistic sexism in terms signifying affection like mamacita or mamita meaning little mother.
Febos angrily notes: “I was not a little mother or a hot mama … Sometimes the word itself matters less than the authority with which it is spoken. It is the act of naming that claims you.” Experiences of women of color are also shared to highlight the process of othering through terms that are both objectionable and derogatory.
The essays include a diatribe towards women as co-perpetrators in upholding the judgement and criticism directed towards members of their own sex. The memoir repeatedly reflects on the inconvenient truth that women of all ages are not just prone to criticism but are active participants of this system of “shame.” Febos shares various incidents from her life to demonstrate the severity and inevitability of such attacks. Later in the text she poignantly remarks, “What we are taught as a practice of beauty, of femininity, is actually a practice of submission.”
The story of an unexpected ‘hello’ from a stranger standing outside Febos’s apartment will leave an indelible mark on the reader's psyche. This uncommonly common incident makes our author uncomfortably wonder about the dangerously denuded space occupied by women in the society. Highlighting similar cases of vulnerable young women and providing ample examples from our culture, Febos scathingly mirrors the unchecked perverse tendencies that believably occupy our society. Her extended take on voyeurism and the ‘peeping Tom’ makes for an interesting and detailed study.
Despite a promising start, the memoir slowly weakens with less-connected pieces on “skin hunger” and cuddle-parties and traveling that fail to deliver their intended impact. The piece on “skin hunger” and cuddle parties is connected to various surveys and Ferbos’s personal experiences. The intermingling of the two seems jarred and confusing despite the powerful point she is trying to put across about consent and sexual desires. Michel Foucault, Jacques Lacan, Sandra Lee Bartky and Harry Harlow are also summoned into the narrative at repeated intervals along with other critics and authors.
The last essay also appears to be a little disconnected from the rest of the memoir, reading more like a diary entry of Febos’s trip to Cassis, France. “Using my Lonely Planet guidebook and the free map of the Paris Metro, I found my way to the first hostel on my list. The drab building was on a residential street, and the young woman at the front desk ignored me until I began speaking. As soon as I struggled for a word, she interrupted me in English…I had hardly slept on the plane and was numb with fatigue.”
Due to unnecessary and extended scholarly digressions, classical allusions, and cultural references, the text meanders between meaning and muddled thoughts potentially leaving the reader confused and uninspired. However, Febos’s writing is honest, bold and inviting. Girlhood, like an onion, needs to be peeled patiently to reveal its true center.