When Melissa Febos was only 11, a girl growing up in Cape Cod, her body began to change. Purple splotches bloomed on her hips from catching them on table corners. A book her mother brought home – ‘What’s Happening To My Body?’ Book for Girls – explained the science behind breasts and pubic hair, but not what it meant to possess this “new body with its power to compel but not control”. The book, Febos writes in her new essay collection Girlhood, did not “explain why or even acknowledge that what was happening to my body changed my value in the world”.
Girlhood is a familiar subject in popular culture. Films, texts and songs have been devoted to that specific adolescence. It’s often depicted as a series of dream-like vignettes. Training bras, daisy chains, tear-stained cheeks, swapping secrets down a landline. Less has been written about when the voice on the other end of the phone hisses “slut” at you before you know what the word means. Girlhood’s underbelly is equally tender but poisonous. Girlhood, Febos argues, is a “darker time for many than we are often willing to acknowledge”. Though today, over Zoom, the writer insists with a laugh that she is a “generally cheerful person”.
And she’s right. Febos is chatty and affable – a more bubbly person than the heavy subject matter of her work would suggest. Her black hair is gathered away from her face in a ponytail, her eyebrows arched severely over pale blue eyes that might’ve been piercing but instead are warm. Still, she is a tricky interviewee. What do you ask an author who has built her name on candour? Febos’s previous two books, her 2010 debut Whip Smart and 2017 follow-up Abandon Me, were remarkable and intimate accounts of sex work and heroin addiction. They were critically lauded; the second was a Lambda Literary Award finalist. The former professional dominatrix is now an associate professor in non-fiction at the renowned writing institute, University of Iowa.
If Girlhood is about “the mindf*** of being an adolescent girl”, as Febos has described it, then it is equally a compelling treatise on how to un-f*** it. She revisits her own adolescence with the lucid scrutiny of a 40-year-old award-winning writer. Mixing memoir, scholarship, and reportage, Febos unpicks the patriarchal ideas that one begins to internalise in teenagehood – and examines the marks they’ve left on her decades later. Febos is hopeful that one can unlearn a lifetime of lies about self-worth – but being hopeful takes work.
“There was the work of not only writing the book and figuring something out on the page,” she tells me today, “but of actively changing a dynamic from inside myself that would change the way that I related to the outside world.” It is slow work, hard work and in Febos’s case, it is also the meticulous work of reconstructing memories.
“Writing has always been a space where I can create a diorama of my lived experience,” she explains. “So, I create the set piece and re-enact those moments, filling them in with awareness and agency that I didn’t have at the time.” The result is that adolescent memories – being spat at by an older boy at her bus stop; being followed into a bathroom by a 25-year-old man when she was 12; rushing to answer the home phone in case it was her former BFF calling again to tell her she’s a slut – possess an alarming immediacy. “I wanted to really go back and build that diorama and try to find the aspects of those experiences that I wasn’t comfortable looking at,” she says. “So, in many cases, writing them down like that was the first time I had ever looked at them. And in some cases, the first time I’d even experienced it emotionally because when that stuff was happening, I was shut down to one degree or another.”
Girlhood often feels like an attempt to find the right words. Febos is a sumptuous writer, but the book’s best moments come from her ability to dredge up the messy muck of unnamed experiences and spit them out fully formed and perfectly articulated in some unexpected way. It’s at least part of the reason why the book’s truths still come across as surprising and new. That feeling is nowhere more evoked than in Girlhood’s centrepiece, a mammoth 76-page essay titled “Thank You For Taking Care of Yourself”. The chapter is partly set between two cuddle parties that Febos attends: one near the beginning of writing the book, the other at the end.
A cuddle party, Febos explains, is a gathering where participants engage in non-sexual touching: spooning, hugging, holding hands, that sort of thing. People must ask for verbal permission prior to touching and nudity is forbidden, as is touching anyone’s “bikini area”. Cuddle parties function as both a means to satiate “skin hunger”, as well as a lesson in affirmative consent. In the essay and through her experience, Febos coined the term “empty consent” to describe the act of agreeing to unwanted sex. Empty consent will, for many people, be a known and lived experience. It’s the kind of consent that feels hollow at best and coerced at worst. The kind that doesn’t feel like consent at all.
“When writing that essay, I kept saying, ‘Instances when I consented to touching that I felt ambivalent about or actively didn’t want.’ And that’s a cumbersome phrase to keep on repeating!” laughs Febos. “So, I needed to find a shorthand for the drafts, just for myself. But by the end of the essay, it felt like a term I’d always known.” Others felt the same. Readers routinely parrot it back to her in conversation. The two words slip off the tongue as if they have been waiting at the back of the throat forever. “It’s not a mistake that we don’t have names for these things,” she says. “Because once we do, it’s so much easier to see it and to share our experiences with other women and therefore stop doing it. But there’s a society that doesn’t want us to stop doing it. There’s a reason we haven’t been given a name for it.” But language is elastic. The dictionary is not set in stone, but rather evolves with “our thinking and our talking and our recognition of our own experiences”.
Often in Girlhood, Febos’s memories are fleshed out by theory. “The Mirror Test” threads together Lacan’s psychoanalytic theories about the origins of self-consciousness with the etymology of the word “slut”. Elsewhere, Samuel Johnson, Foucault, John Berger, Kimberlee Crenshaw and Edith Wharton make appearances. Other times, Febos bows out completely. Across the book’s eight chapters, she passes the baton to other women who can speak to experiences beyond her own as a self-identified white, Hispanic, Native American queer woman. The result is a fuller story. The other voices help to round out the book’s discussions and account for their complexity and enormity. Still, Febos is hesitant to call her book representative of anything. “I had a lot of anxiety about being perceived as trying to speak for anyone but myself because I have no desire to speak for anyone but me,” she says. “It’s happened in the past where I’ve been interpreted as speaking for that whole community, which of course, no one could.” She smiles. “Certainly not me.”
Dredging up the wreck of past experiences for examination is not an easy task, but it’s one that Febos now knows how to handle. “The beauty of it is that because it’s my creation, I can stop anytime I want. I can walk away from it.” Sometimes stepping away means taking a break for six months and going to therapy – as she did with her debut Whip Smart. “I showed some early pages to readers who asked, ‘But why did you choose sex work?’ and I didn’t have the answer. The story I was telling myself was that being a sex worker paid better than waiting table, but that wasn’t sufficient, so I went to therapy to try and work it out.”
Other times, it’s about knowing when to stop. “There is a common attitude around writing that you have to dredge up all these crazy monsters and open a vein on the page or whatever,” she says, mock-theatrically. “And I don’t want to open a vein on a page! I don’t want a bloody manuscript. I feel it’s more fruitful for me to be generous and gentle with myself and with the reader.” That doesn’t mean not going to dark places – “I want to get as close as I can” – but it becomes unproductive when you start to detach, shut down or be re-traumatised. “I don’t think I have to walk through every single detail of an experience in order to process it on the page. It’s OK to be loving with myself.”
Febos knows that a lot of Girlhood is treading familiar ground. We know that patriarchy is bad – the whole book hinges on the expectation that these experiences and feelings will be familiar – but as she notes in her introduction, “knowing about it was not enough”. Girlhood speaks it aloud and in doing so draws a map out of its serpentine clutches. “It’s that process of speaking the secret thing and it losing its power,” says Febos. “No matter how much it feels as if our survival depends upon rewriting the narrative of our experiences, there’s a part of us that longs feverishly to acknowledge that deeper truth.”
It’s a long process. Febos is still in the midst of it. In the meantime, she has found relief in ageing. “My freedom just increases with every birthday,” she says. “The less society sees me as in the running to achieve this completely unattainable ideal, the less I feel the conditioned pressure to achieve it.” She grins. “I’m really looking forward to being an old lady who gives zero f***s about anything.”
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies