As with her 2010 memoir Whip Smart and previous essay collection Abandon Me, former dominatrix turned award-winning writer Melissa Febos draws on her past for her latest work of non-fiction. In Girlhood, however, Febos also looks beyond her own experiences and blends them with investigative journalism to considerable effect. In seven powerful essays she sets out to reframe a set of values and beliefs that do not prioritise girls’ personal safety, happiness or freedom.
How did writing this book help you correct the story of your own girlhood?
For a long time I thought that I had had a particularly troubled adolescence – that my anger, self-loathing, confusion, inability to say no and shame were extraordinary, symptoms of something fundamentally askew in me. Actually, those reactions are perfectly reasonable response to growing up female in a patriarchal culture, a culture that sexualises and objectifies girls’ and women’s bodies. Many of the experiences I wrote about in this book helped clarify that for me, as did the process of writing the book.
Many of the essays in Girlhood have appeared elsewhere. Did you consciously write about this theme or is it one that revealed itself to you through existing work?
I took each of these essays as independent projects, driven by distinct questions, each with their own particular set of challenges and narratives. It wasn’t until I was about two-thirds through the book that I realised I was writing it. Then, I was astonished that I had managed to obscure how intertwined they all are. Sometimes I have to hide the full scope of my undertaking (I’ve done it with every book I’ve written) until I am too far into it to turn back. It would be so daunting to glimpse at the outset! I’m not sure I’d be able to run toward it with the necessary momentum.
Your previous works Whip Smart and Abandon Me are memoirs while Girlhood also takes in the experiences of other women. Tell us about your research, how that changed the writing process, and why it was important for you to do so.
In Whip Smart, I was really learning how to write a book, and figuring out the anatomy of traditional western narrative structure. I was digging into some heavy questions about my own experience, identity and choices, and I was also figuring out how to tell a story that would hold a stranger’s attention, that might be both pleasurable to read and meaningful to have read. It was the best thing I’d ever written at that point.
Abandon Me I wrote as an essay collection. I was still inside the personal narrative that drives that book, and writing my way out of it. That meant that I didn’t have a lot of perspective, and I didn’t know the ending until I got to it, so I had to rely pretty heavily on other literary modes, like the lyric, repetition and intertextuality to make sense of my own story. When it was done, my editor and I agreed that the essays were more closely bound than most collections, that the book lay somewhere between essays and memoir, which is why we decided to put “memoirs” on the cover.
Girlhood employs all of the devices of my previous books – some elements of traditional plot structure, lyric modes, personal narrative – but I was ready to turn my gaze outward to an unprecedented extent. It dialogues with other texts, like Abandon Me, but I also entered into conversations with actual people. Partly this was a function of my roving hunger for a challenge and investigative journalism felt like a completely new realm, one that scared and excited me. Partly, it was a natural outgrowth of the material. Once I figured out that my experiences in adolescence were fairly ordinary, despite how acute and isolated they’d felt, I had a profound longing to talk to other women, to share our stories and find the company in each other that we’d all been cut off from, and which we’d needed so badly. Those conversations were so intimate, and they also felt revolutionary. Naming the granular shared harms of oppressive power structures is the first step toward undoing them, and shatters the illusion of personal culpability that shame thrives upon.
How does capitalism impact on early female experience differently to the male experience?
Well, I can only speak to my own experience, but capitalism is always selling us something, and what it sold me (among many other poisonous, time-worn ideas) was an absolutely impossible ideal of beauty that was informed by patriarchy and white supremacy. It hijacked my brain at about 11 years old and stole a lot of time and energy from me that might have gone toward the things I actually loved and was suited to, all so that I could perform my little role in the prevailing systems of power and dump my money into industries that perpetuated them. I know the same is true for men, but the nature of the image they are sold is different, and it is harmful in different ways. I’m sure it takes the same kind of work to undo that conditioning.
Tell us about the role of animals in Girlhood. Animal imagery is often used against women but you identify with them throughout the book, such as in the Mirror Test where you reclaim the slut-shaming “loose as a goose” expression.
Honestly, I love animals, I identify with animals – because I am an animal, lol. I’ve been marvelling at the perverse hierarchical nature of humans since childhood, the ways we convince ourselves we are better, that we are born into a gender and that that gender might be violated by the most basic expressions of our animal nature. I was a really wild, free, and happy kid, and part of my feminism is about reclaiming that, rejecting the internalised scripts that tell me femininity cannot be fierce and hairy and strong and loud and ravenous. So, it comes up a lot in my work.
Covid has forced us to renegotiate our physical boundaries with people, something you explore in essays including Thank You For Taking Care Of Yourself. Are there lessons we can take from the pandemic that we can carry with us into our lives after it?
Well, I think one of the few positive opportunities that the pandemic has given us is the option (for some) of redefining our own physical boundaries. Everyone is used to waving instead of shaking hands, not hugging, and keeping our distance from others, especially in public spaces. For me, this time of social distancing has felt simultaneously like a loss and a gift. Even as an adult, before the pandemic, I habitually submitted to hugs from people I barely knew and didn’t particularly want to be squeezed by. Right now, as we are easing back into touch, it feels more possible to raise a hand and say, “no thanks,” to assert our bodily sovereignty and listen more closely to what actually feels comfortable and desired.
What is the most important lesson we can teach girls?
How to comfortably say no to others and yes to themselves.