Girlhood is a time of life that’s often idealized as innocent and safe. This, of course, speaks to our gendered expectations for the so-called fairer sex. But the truth about girls’ early lives is more complex. Girlhood can be exploited just as often as it is protected, and Melissa Febos brings these complications to the fore in Girlhood, a collection of seven memoiristic essays.
The author of Whip Smart, about her time working as a dominatrix, and Abandon Me, another essay collection, Febos is a dab hand at the memoir genre. The essays that compose Girlhood tell a story of Febos’ life that reaches back to her childhood on Cape Cod and her young adulthood in New York City to examine her internalized beliefs. While her route to making sense of her own life is usually circuitous, her thoughtfulness as she reaches toward a conclusion is a delight to follow.
Many of Febos’ girlhood experiences stemmed from her body developing maturely at a young age. She fearlessly interrogates her adolescent reaction to these changes and the attendant shame, voyeurism and almighty male gaze that subsumed her young life. Each essay is layered like a sfogliatelle: Recollections of a growing girl in a sexist culture lay upon her adult analyses and rich cultural references, from Greek myths to 20th-century French philosopher Michel Foucault. Sources listed at the book’s conclusion range widely from Black feminist and race theorist Kimberlé Crenshaw to British art critic John Berger.
In one of the strongest essays, “Thank You for Taking Care of Yourself,” Febos and her partner attend cuddle parties. Based on the belief that there is a primal need for human touch, a cuddle party is when strangers gather together to experience consensual, nonsexual touch. These parties prompt Febos to examine her history of accommodating and prioritizing men’s needs over her own.
Girlhood offers what some may view as a dark portrayal of young adulthood, in which opportunities for degradation are seemingly limitless. And some of Febos’ later-in-life experiences, such as heroin addiction and sex work, won’t be shared by every reader. But anyone raised as a girl will be able to relate to something in Girlhood, and those who weren’t will marvel at this book’s eye-opening, transformative perspective.