I love watching my young daughters watch themselves in the mirror. I love how they puff up their little potbellies, and pull funny faces, and study the grazes on their knees; I love seeing how they inhabit bodies that are not too big or too small, or too fat or too thin, that are neither ugly nor beautiful, as far as they are concerned, but that just are. I can’t remember what it was like to move around the world in that way.
I can’t remember the first time a strange man hit on me, but I am certain it was a man, not a boy my age. At school we practised putting condoms on bananas, though I was off sick that day and never did. After classes we rolled up our waistbands so that our school skirts were as short as possible. Sometimes passing drivers would honk their horns, which we thought was flattering and hilarious. “ Baby One More Time” was number one; we wanted to be Britney Spears, dancing in her sexed-up school uniform. We wanted to be sexy long before we had any interest in sex.
This spring, when the Everyone’s Invited campaign gathered thousands of testimonies from British schoolchildren who reported being harassed or abused by their peers – stories of revenge porn, unsolicited dick pics, cat-calling, groping, rape jokes, rape – what was most shocking to me was how familiar these accounts were. We had it easier as teenagers in the pre-social media era – our humiliations and compromising photos could not be shared so effortlessly or so widely – but the sexism and sexual violence were no different. I phoned my brother to compare notes, and he remembered that a girl was raped in the toilet of a house party he attended. Everyone heard what had happened, and the party went on, the rapist mingling back into the crowd. In my early teens I had no understanding that life might be any different. It was years before I could begin to make sense of the speed and violence with which girls are initiated into the worst aspects of womanhood.
In Girlhood, a collection of eight essays, the writer Melissa Febos uses her own adolescence as a departure point for exploring the fraught and painful process of becoming a woman, an object of sexual desire, subject to the male gaze: “Men act and women appear. Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at,” John Berger wrote. She distinguishes between early childhood and girlhood, the onset of puberty – “a darker time for many than we are often willing to acknowledge”, a time when, as girls, we are socialised to privilege the desires and needs of others over our own.
Febos reached puberty before her peers. By the age of 11 she had the body of a woman. “My hips went purple from crashing them into table corners; I no longer knew my own shape,” she writes. Her mother brought home a book titled The What’s Happening to My Body? Book for Girls. It explained periods and pubic hair, but it didn’t acknowledge the most important changes: that men had started leering at her, that “what was happening to my body changed my value to the world”.
An older boy would spit at her on the way to school; a grown man followed her into the toilets and kissed her; teenage boys assaulted her. Her girl friends first resented and then ostracised and slut shamed her; with time it seemed easier to submit to male advances than to resist them. “If I was going to be defined by the gaze of other people, why wouldn’t I step towards the ones that made me feel beautiful?” she reasoned. By the age of 13 she had “divorced” her body; it had become a “passive thing”. Once she’d been proud of her own strength. Now girls competed over who was the puniest, who could eat the least.
Febos is a professor on the University of Iowa’s prestigious writing programme and the author of two other critically acclaimed memoirs, Whip Smart and Abandon Me, which probe the conflicts of her past as a professional dominatrix who struggled with heroin addiction. Girlhood is at heart a memoir too, though the essays also draw on film and literature, interviews with other women and meditations on some of the best-known experiments in psychology: Jacques Lacan’s mirror tests; Harry Harlow’s doomed rhesus monkeys, who were deprived of touch from birth. She writes fearlessly – there seem to be few experiences she finds too intimate or too painful to commit to public record – and with brilliant, blistering style.
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Sometimes her prose is close to overwrought. A passage in which Febos describes herself as a bookish child who “sensed a deep well at my centre, a kind of umbilical cord that linked me to a roiling infinity of knowledge and pathos that underlay the trivia of our daily lives” prompted the New Yorker’s Katy Waldman to write of her irritation with the “trope of the girl-dreamer”. But it’s invigorating to read memoirists who write without restraint, who over-think and over-feel everything – they have more to share. Febos used to be afraid that she might “simply die of feeling too much”, but as a teenager she grew numb. Girlhood is also the story of how she came to “recover herself”, to rediscover her feelings and this earlier, more immediate way of occupying the world.
So how does she do that? The least interesting way is by falling in love and having good sex (give me a thousand strangers’ uneventful dreams over their smug sex stories). Another is by accepting her mother’s love. Febos is attuned to how the mother-daughter bond can be a source of both harm and healing. She quotes several times from “Girl”, the short story by Jamaica Kincaid that takes the form of a series of maternal instructions: “This is how to sew on a button; this is how to make a buttonhole for the button you have just sewed on; this is how to hem a dress when you see the hem coming down and so to prevent yourself from looking like the slut I know you are so bent on becoming.” The instructions are oppressive and restrictive, and yet they’re also protective, transmitting a strategy for surviving in a patriarchal world.
Febos’s mother is loving and liberal, a therapist who does not issue strict edicts, but as a teenager Febos nonetheless finds herself unable to talk to her about her troubles – the bullies, the boys, the drinking, the drugs. “It is so painful to be loved sometimes,” she writes. She feared inflicting pain on her mother and losing her love. Her mother first learned of her daughter’s sex work and drug addiction when Febos wrote her first book. Only then did Febos understand that her mother’s love was, and had always been, unconditional.
There is no sense, however, that the years of secrecy and separation were anything other than inevitable. Febos’s psychological research suggests to her that the closer the mother and daughter, the more violent the daughter’s efforts to disentangle herself as she grows up. It is anguishing to imagine that as our lives become more similar, my daughters will distance themselves from me. Perhaps by the time a man leers at them and they come to understand that their changing bodies have acquired a power and meaning beyond their control, I will have acquired the invisibility of middle age and they will find it impossible to imagine I know how this feels. Perhaps my efforts to protect them will seem domineering or reactionary.
The most overtly political essay is her penultimate one, a reflection on the meaning and limits of consent that grows out of Febos attending a “cuddle party”, at which lonely, skin-hungry strangers meet to hug it out, paying $25 for the privilege. Cuddle Party is a business that describes itself as a leader of the “consent movement”: participants must seek permission before they touch anyone, and everyone is “encouraged” to change their mind.
If you say “yes” to a hug, and then realise you don’t want it after all, you should say as much – in which case, the proper response from the initiator is “thank you for taking care of yourself”. At the beginning of each party, participants role-play saying “no” to one another. Despite these rules, Febos found she struggled. She said no apologetically, or else she consented to things by default, without interrogating her desires; once she agreed to a back massage because she felt bad for turning down a hug. The party was disturbing and upsetting for her; she found herself repulsed by the “desperation, loneliness and entitlement” of the men.
I understand this reaction. Years ago, I attended a cuddle party in London for a New Statesman piece, and something about these placid strangers’ childlike desire for affection made my skin crawl. I subjected myself to a few cuddles that made me hum with anxiety, and then retreated to a corner and refused to join in. For Febos, who showed much more willing than I ever have to understand the source of her disgust, it offered a lesson in the emptiness of most consent.
How much weight should we give to a “yes” from a girl who has been conditioned to be agreeable and compliant, or from one who is alienated from her own sexual desires (research has shown that women tend to use their partner’s pleasure as a yardstick for their own sexual satisfaction), or a girl who fears an angry retaliation should she say “no”, or who says “yes” because consenting to sex you don’t want is better than being raped, or who says “yes” to a hand job to soften her refusal to have sex.
Febos attends another cuddle party with the express intention of responding to her true feelings and practising saying “no”, without shame or apology. It is an exercise in affirmative consent, the kind of consent she believes we should all be practising, the kind that schoolchildren should be taught – muscular consent that can be withdrawn at any moment, that must be continually reaffirmed. Some will argue that affirmative consent is awkward and a turn-off: who, in the throes of passion, wants to keep asking, “Is it OK to touch here?” or, “Would you like me to remove this?” Really, though, the question is more about who is willing to risk awkwardness: surely the most awkward outcome of all is to have sex when you don’t really want to?
I would take a somewhat softer line than Febos, however. We are often quick to feel contempt or disgust for those who are attracted to us if we don’t share those feelings; it doesn’t harm any programme of self-care to say “no” with empathy and sensitivity. She accuses a boy who cries after a sexual fumble and asks her to stroke his hair of “using [her] emotionally”, and is leery of the “emotional labour” that men seem to demand of women, which includes “the initiation of hard conversations”.
“Are you doing any unnecessary emotional labour?” her girlfriend asks her at the cuddle party when Febos finds herself in conversation with a man who is talking nervously about how his socks don’t match. When did we become so quick to see acts of kindness, attempts to put one another at ease, as a form of work? I was reminded of a viral tweet a few years ago that suggested that before asking a friend for help, it was best to ask if they had the “emotional capacity” to hear your problem, to which this friend could reply: “I’m actually at capacity and I don’t think I can hold appropriate space for you.” When did we start to see our emotional lives in such a transactional way, or kindness as a resource to be rationed? Maybe instead of expecting men to make fewer emotional demands of women, women should feel empowered to demand more of men. No friend or stranger can touch my body without my consent, but I hope any friend who needs someone to talk to will consider me.
Yet Febos’s book is not intended as a manifesto, a political roadmap, or a self-help manual; it is more descriptive than prescriptive. You can take from her personal reflections and investigations what you want. Perhaps in a decade or so I’ll give a copy of Girlhood to my daughters, though much better still would be if one of them pulled the book off the shelf and chose to read it of her own accord. l
Bloomsbury, 336pp, £18.99
This article appears in the 21 Jul 2021 issue of the New Statesman, The Chinese century