Scrutinizing the Ties That Bind: Melissa Febos’s Girlhood
The summer I was twelve, my friends and I spent every day at the neighborhood park hanging out with boys. We played ping-pong under the shade of a tree, braided macramé keychains out of candy-colored plastic strands. We whiled away the time on the see-saws, using our weight to push each other up and down with studied cool, careful not to be seen enjoying the whoosh of the movement like a child. Over by the sandbox there were swings shaped like rockets, shiny red and white missiles. One boy who came around occasionally, Mark, was a few years older than us. He was husky, tow-headed, with a buzz cut. I remember his eyes as cold and green. One day, as we were gathered around the swings, Mark climbed up on one of the rockets and started pumping. He threw his weight into the movement, pushing it back and forth, the red nose of the rocket protruding lewdly between his legs. He mimicked thrusting it into someone—tongue out, eyes leveled at the girls, swinging it harder and harder. Everyone laughed, including the girls, including me.
We knew very little about sex at the time. But already we understood dimly that there would be something breathless and hard and possibly unforgiving about it, when it came. We sensed (again dimly) that it was our duty—even our privilege—to surrender ourselves to it. We were already being primed to mistake ferocity for devotion, to believe blood spilt in the act of possession was proof we were prizes worth taking. Yes, we all agreed, through our consenting laughter: this is the way things are. I suspect the indelible quality of this memory stems from its unsettling mix of menace and jovial complicity. It offers an object lesson in how the wounded female body is at once eroticized and banalized.
It is a memory that came lurching back when I first started reading Melissa Febos’s new essay collection, Girlhood. The eight essays within, haunted by images of scraping, scarring, and binding, explore the archaic traces our bodies bear from the patriarchal culture that shapes us from birth. In the prologue, aptly entitled “Scarification,” Febos catalogues a lifetime spent negotiating how and where her body opens, and to whom, spelling out her history as “a marked thing.” In the essays that follow, she takes us on her journey to recapture something of the freedom and agility and capaciousness of the female body before it has been disciplined by a patriarchal culture.
Of course, culture is to some extent synonymous with discipline. As Philip Rieff writes in The Triumph of the Therapeutic, renunciation—a certain cutting or curtailing of the self—is the price we pay to be part of a community of shared values. The constructivist argument can tend toward a species of nostalgia for a lost plenitude before “society” (in Freudian parlance, the patriarchal “no”) sundered us from our natural selves. But this nostalgia is not what Febos is after. Patriarchal discipline is not equally distributed across bodies, and Febos’s essays are fine-grained examinations of the peculiar and asymmetrical violence with which female bodies endure its cutting force. “It is the thing I have been trying to undo in myself and it has been a life’s work,” runs the epigraph to the book’s penultimate essay, juxtaposed with illustrator Forsyth Harmon’s stark woodcut of a tightly-laced corset. Along the way, Girlhood’s eight essays—beautiful and searing as objects of art in themselves—also become a DIY manual for any reader who seeks to gain a clearer grasp of these ties that bind.
Febos’s body pre-puberty feels free, fathomless, like the kettle hole pond in her backyard that gives its title to the collection’s opening essay. Kettle hole lakes, she explains, formed fifteen thousand years ago when blocks of ice split off from melting glaciers and “drove deep into the solidifying land.” Once the ice melted, these punctures in the earth’s crust filled with water. As a child, Melissa imagines the center of her backyard pond as unfathomably deep—fifty feet; on hot summer days, she swims out to the middle to feel where the water turns cold at its deepest point: “It was a mystery big enough to hold a whole city. I could swim in it my whole life and never know what lay at its bottom.”
When she develops breasts and hips at eleven, the body with which she had moved fearlessly through the world begins to attract attention; the boys in Little League call her “Mrs. Babe Ruth”; men in cars lean out windows to stare and whistle. Her childhood friend Alex begins to target the girls at the bus stop, whispering gossip behind their backs, grabbing and chasing them, only relenting when he receives the tributary emotion—tears and blushes—that he desires. Melissa holds out.
So, Alex begins to spit. “I didn’t realize that he’d spat on me until I felt the wet between my hair and the vinyl bus seat,” she recalls. “I reached behind my head and pulled my fingers away, wiping them on the leg of my jeans as I stared out the bus window. I felt a new sensation in my chest, behind my breastbone. It pulled, a hand gathering cloth.” When she finally cracks and cries, Alex professes his admiration for her; he admits that, in fact, the spitting had only meant he “liked” her. Febos writes, “But Alex’s mouth was my awakening. In some inchoate way, I understood that desire led to fear that could lead to hate—all without ever obliterating that original want” and “I came to understand the lessons about my female body, the ones that tell us punishment is a reward, and that disempowerment is power.”
“Perhaps,” she concludes, “to let them win was the better way, after all.” The vast depths of the earth-scraped kettle pond, once a metaphor for the mystery and power of her body, increasingly looms as the very type and figure of an abyssal threat. She decides she will wreck herself before she ever gives a boy the satisfaction of thinking he has conquered her. “So I let my friend’s older brother close the closet door. I let the persistent older boy dig under my clothes and between my legs.” Eventually, she gives herself to Alex. With each encounter, ferocity and love become more entangled: the boys (sometimes men) who court her are “loud and brash, and it wasn’t possible to tease apart the allure and the threat of them.”
This girlhood lesson, that allure and threat go hand-in-hand, takes a more sinister twist in the essay “Intrusions,” Febos’s meditation on her experience with stalking. In a scenario that could be lifted from the opening scene of any slasher film, Febos describes how she turns off her reading light and is settling down to sleep one night in her ground-floor Bushwick apartment when she feels a shadow pause outside her street-facing window. “Hey, baby,” a voice purrs. “Are you ready for me?” When Febos eventually storms out into the street to confront her stalker, he appears more pleased than embarrassed by the encounter, asking blandly if she’s “busy” and whether she “has a boyfriend.” “As though these behaviors all fell under the same umbrella of romantic pursuit,” writes Febos. Spit or kiss, it is all the same.
The stalker’s apparent inability to discriminate between peeping and courting deviates little from widely accepted cultural tropes. Febos documents the curious cultural intertwining of these two narratives—stalking, romance— in American film and literature, from Brian DePalma’s Body Double to noir crime fiction to Law and Order: Special Victims Unit, “the second-longest-running scripted prime time television show in history.” In all of these genres, Febos notes, stalking or peeping “is as likely to be a precursor to romance as it is to murder”; which of the two it will be is often a matter of indifference when compared to the thrill of the chase. “When we are supposed to yield to our stalkers and when to run from them is left up to us,” Febos notes sardonically. One of these narratives—that “crazy love” can lead to either wedded bliss, or to murder—is truer than the other: 89% of murdered women experienced stalking within the twelve months leading up to their deaths, Febos reports. The link between intimacy and violence against women is one of the most consistently documented facts in criminology, yet it is one we as a culture appear incapable of (or unwilling to) remember.
Of course, the genius of patriarchy—or any cultural system invested in maintaining asymmetrical power relations—is that it doesn’t need to rely on external force to be effective; the very bodies it seeks to tame internalize its images and scripts, and thus do the policing for it. “Patriarchy is a ghost,” Febos observes, and Girlhood is as much about the myriad ways she’s cut and curtailed her own body in an effort to be a “good girl” as it is about how her body was cut and curtailed explicitly against her will. Febos zeroes in on the way a girl’s own sense of ease within her body—that unconscious grasp of what it can do and be, its size and strength—is soon eclipsed by the self-in-the-mirror, the self-for-others. Febos tries to make her body conform to the image in the mirror: making it smaller, more delicate, more docile, less hungry. Her hands—big, strong, scarred—are for a long time the only part of her body that keeps an open channel to the powerful, authentic seat of pre-adolescent agency that the girl-in-the-mirror has tried to extinguish. Her hands “were maps that led to the truth of me… I used my hands—they were marked by things and left marks. They would never let me become the kind of girl I had learned I should be.” She hates her body for its defiance, and punishes it accordingly: starving, puking, running, choking back words and feelings.
By the end of the collection, Febos has managed to rewrite or erase entirely many parts of the patriarchal script that held her bound. “I no longer hated my body. I loved my big hands and my passionate nature. Never would I suffer a stalker as I had in my early twenties, nor even a creepy gawker on the subway.” One of my favorite scenes in the book is in the closing essay, “Les Calanques,” where Febos recounts her time at a writing retreat in the south of France. In this scene she sets out for her daily swim in the Mediterranean, giving exactly zero fucks about how her body might appear to an outside gaze: “Now I walk to the beach in a pair of rubber water shoes that I bought for ten euros in town. I have smeared my exposed skin with sunscreen and I wear a cheap straw hat that I bought with the water shoes. I am not wearing waterproof mascara. I have not shaved my armpits or worn antiperspirant for a year.” She wades into the water and lets its salty warmth buoy her up.
Yet Girlhood is no simple catalogue of a body victimized, and Febos is not speaking solely as a victim. Indeed, the subtlety of the collection lies in Febos’s keen awareness—and unswerving dissection of—collaboration, complicity, and ambivalence in all its most tortured forms. “Misogyny filters so granularly into action,” Febos observes at one point; she knows that our dismantling of it will, necessarily, have to be granular as well. Binary categories of victim and executioner will only get us so far.
The collection’s penultimate essay, “Thank You for Being Kind to Yourself,” recounts Febos’s experience attending a “cuddle party” in Brooklyn with her girlfriend and a mutual friend. Founded by Reid Mihalko and Marcia Baczynski in 2006, the cuddle party arranges therapeutic get-togethers for people experiencing “skin hunger” and gives participants opportunities to give and receive touch in non-sexual ways. Cuddle parties places a heavy emphasis on affirmative consent: not only does the person being touched have to voice verbal and enthusiastic consent at every stage of the touching, but anyone requesting touch—whether the offer is accepted or declined— is coached to respond, “Thank you for being kind to yourself.”
What Febos discovers in attending the cuddle party is how extraordinarily hard it is for her to refuse touch, even in a situation explicitly primed for saying no. During the training session before the actual cuddles got underway, she finds herself hard-pressed to refuse her mock-partner’s request for a snuggle. “‘No,’ I said, and my mouth involuntarily stretched into a smile, as if I needed to soften the refusal. My face grew hot, and I felt myself blinking quickly.” She consents to spooning with an eager participant in a “teal onesie” but realizes instantly afterward how little she actually wants or enjoys the touch. She leaves the cuddle party baffled by “how powerful my instinct was to give them what they wanted, as if I didn’t have a choice.”
Like patriarchal self-policing, “empty consent” is a name Febos develops for the very specific skill set women intuitively acquire of consenting to some degree of unwanted touch or interaction in order to avoid a perceived greater harm. She undertakes an informal survey of other women in her demographic, and is shocked by the results: “entire lives punctuated by unwanted touch.” Many women explained that it is “easier” to consent to unwanted sex than to articulate their true feelings, which would lead to embarrassment for the man or a sense of sexual failure for the woman (she would be perceived as “frigid”), or both. Almost all the respondents recorded times they had consented to unwanted touch of one sort or another as a way of staving off the perceived risk of physical violence: consent to sex rather than endure rape; consent to a blowjob as compensation for denying intercourse; smile at a street harasser in order to avoid an escalated confrontation. In all of these scenarios, what gets played out is the same dynamic: “to protect ourselves, we must protect them, devise a way to avoid ever rejecting them, ever forcing them to confront their own wrongs. Our bodies are often the only currency we have in this effort. It is not a matter of how to avoid compromising ourselves, but how to mitigate that compromise.”
The odd floating sensation of depersonalization Febos experiences while cuddling with the man in the teal onesie reminds her of previous encounters with unwanted touch, both in her early adolescent experiences with boys, and during her four-year stint as a dominatrix when she was in her twenties. As a domme, she learned to cut herself off from her feelings of repulsion when clients demanded touch, what she calls “dimming the lights.” She writes: “Later, when people asked me what I felt during these sessions, I answered honestly, ‘Nothing.’” She also thinks back to her early initiations into sex with boys which, while technically consensual, were nonetheless permeated by a sense of coercion. She recalls the time in a bathroom with an older boy, her only real memory the blue-flowered pattern of the hand towel behind his head as he put his fingers in her. She recalls her tryst with Alex in the woods behind her house, “the green glowed stars of leaves above as the boy who spat on me finally kissed me.”
This dimming resembles the “depersonalization” experienced by trauma victims. Brain scans of people re-living trauma show “an empty field, marred only by pixelated blemishes here and there… The frozen self doesn’t feel the affect of that self, though it is recorded in the body. The body, it turns out, is an abacus that never forgets, even when our memories do.” Yet while dimming, freezing, and depersonalization are all strategies Febos recognizes as techniques she cultivated for dealing with unwanted touch, she refuses to label her experiences “traumatic,” or to claim the title of “victim.” To be sure, her experiences with empty consent left a lasting imprint on her. “When the dynamics of abuse underlie all of heterosexuality’s conventions, even consensual interactions share trauma-related effects,” she notes. She is also careful to qualify that there is an enormous difference between “touch that feels bad and touch that is forced upon us.” We need, she suggests, to develop a vocabulary for talking about these in-between events—the experience of being “frozen,” feeling “nothing”—that does justice to the marks they leave without collapsing them into trauma and victimhood. “I have often wished for a different word, one that implies profound, often inhibitive change, but precludes the wound and victimization inherent in trauma, which has become such a charged and overused term outside its clinical definition.” Without such granular vocabulary, she observes, “terms like abuse and trauma get overused and misapplied, while other profound forms of psychological affect get overlooked completely.”
At her girlfriend’s urging, Febos goes back to the cuddle party—this time with a clearer grasp of the script she had so blindly, distressingly, followed during her first round, and committed this time to break its dissociative spell. At the first cuddle party, as the session leader spells out the ground rules, she is struck by rule number six: “You are encouraged to change your mind.” The leader assures participants that, “You can simply say ‘I’m done’ or ‘This isn’t working,” and Febos feels her eyes well up: “I thought of myself as a girl and as a younger woman—with all those boys and men and even women who I had never wanted to touch me… What if we had all been taught that we could walk away whenever we wanted?” At her second cuddle party, Febos says “no” to each man who advances to request a cuddle—politely, but without apology. Each time, “I watched the quick but transparent digestion of the word move through them, producing flickers of surprise, hurt, disappointment, anger, and a kind of surrender as they finally uttered the phrase, ‘Thank you for taking care of yourself.’ I understood that I was watching, and enacting, a resocialization beyond my own.” What if, she wonders, the boy who had first spat at, then kissed her, “had learned to redirect that route from desire to fear to hate and aggression?”
Girlhood feels like a landmark book, timed to help us navigate our recovery from Trump’s four years in office and his administration’s numbing, daily assaults on women and the LGBTQ+ community. Girlhood is a call to order but not to arms. It is an invitation to collective soul searching, beyond rage and retribution. Febos’s voice is that of righteous anger tempered by cool, patient analysis and compassion. It is just the voice we need right now.