Guernica Magazine

Melissa Febos: Trailheads of Discomfort

The author of Girlhood talks about patriarchy, empty consent, and being aware of her feral qualities.
Photo credit: Beowulf Sheehan.

Girlhood, the dazzling new essay collection by Melissa Febos, captures the potency of a woman’s adolescence—an experience that is at once singular and universal, familiar and uncharted, ordinary and remarkable. By plumbing the depths of her own coming of age, interviewing other women about their early sexual encounters, and interrogating depictions of female sexuality in literature and film, the author unravels the stories women learn to tell—and believe—about themselves. In particular, the book probes experiences that Febos believes “marked” her: events she wouldn’t qualify as trauma, but that imprinted on her psyche in ways that became damaging.

She describes being sexualized by men as early as age eleven, then slut-shamed by her peers for the attention. Like many of the women she interviewed for her essay “The Mirror Test,” Febos internalized the stories others told about her (one boy had described her as “loose as a goose”) and, in turn, perpetuated them. In a later essay, she identifies the consent she granted boys during her early sexual encounters as “empty”—a kind of passive deferral that many women will likely recognize. After all, we’re taught to prioritize the needs of men, to protect the male ego and, with it, our own safety. But bargaining with our bodies comes at a cost.

As an adult, Febos can see with clarity what she could not during her formative years. Over centuries, she argues, white male power structures have invented and perpetuated myths about women in order to control their bodies and isolate their minds: the concepts of “witch” and “slut,” as well as the idea that a woman might enjoy being stalked by a voyeur, or hugged by a stranger. The slope is slippery by design, facilitating the minimization and gaslighting that keeps women silent about quotidian humiliations. It’s not like you were groped. It’s not like you were raped. It’s not like you were burned at the stake.

The book begins at the

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