At the start of our fall semester meetings at my job, they have everyone go around and say their name, their position, and a book they read recently that they liked and would recommend. I said The Interpreter. Someone in the row behind me said this book, Girlhood. I knew Melissa Febos from her book Whip Smart, which is about being a dominatrix in New York City. I looked up Girlhood right away, and it was my first library hold of the semester.
This book is about what it’s like to be a girl in the world. I almost don’t know how to describe the experience even though I’ve lived it myself and just read a book about it. It’s secretive and sensitive and lonely. And meanwhile, your physical self gets pushed right into everyone’s attention. Suddenly, everyone is looking and talking about you and at you. This is especially true for someone like Febos who grew breasts first out of her classmates. She also is self-conscious for years about how big her hands are. There are always things like that–ways that your body just does what it wants no matter how you feel about it.
This all leads Febos to interrogate the meaning of the word “slut” (originally it was about being dirty, like not cleaning your house good enough) and her own sexual experiences. Her stories about being touched by guys growing up is hard to read only because, like she says, how can you expect a young girl to know to say no or stop? To have boundaries in a world where she is supposed to be petite and accessible without complaint or guidance. It’s something she only learns way later. She illustrates this point with her trip to a cuddling party with her girlfriend as an adult, where she really has to verbalize what she wants or not.
Best line: “By the time I was thirteen, I had divorced my body. Like a bitter divorced parent, I accepted that our collaboration was mandatory. I needed her and hated her all the more for it. Despite my deep sympathy for all other animals, I was sociopathic in my cruelty towards this one. When she disobeyed me–in her hunger, in her clumsiness–I was punitive and withholding. I scrutinized and criticized and denigrated her ceaselessly, even in dreams. Not before or since have I felt such animosity toward another being” (Febos 109).