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Melissa Febos’s ‘Girlhood’ brilliantly illuminates how women are conditioned to be complicit in their own exploitation

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I wish I could have read “Girlhood” when I was young. While I am decades past the era investigated by essayist Melissa Febos, her third memoir resonated with my own fraught emergence under surveillance and scrutiny. Though the bodies and behaviors of girls are measured according to standards over which we have little control, we tend to internalize those judgments and make them our own.

Gathering with other women after reading “Girlhood,” I found myself sharing passages to offer solace and connection: “The worst and most lasting part of that time was how completely alone I felt. This is the brilliance of shame as a tactic of domination: it conditions us to maintain our own isolation. The genius of a social structure is that you cannot see it; it is built to be invisible to you, this machine that compels you to perpetuate it. But I was not alone. None of us were, or are.”

Over the course of eight essays with poignant illustrations by Forsyth Harmon, Febos interrogates the strength, savvy and vulnerabilities of girlhood. Mining personal experience, cultural references, scientific studies and philosophical sources, her methodical yet kaleidoscopic arguments invoke Jacques Lacan, the mirror test, Edith Wharton, Wild America, intimacy, intrusion, Audre Lorde, addiction, Greek myths and the panopticon. That institutional structure — a circular building with cells that surround a warden’s room — serves to control prisoners regardless of whether they are under active observation. Conditioned by fear of punishment, the prisoners monitor themselves.

So, too, women.

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An associate professor at the University of Iowa’s nonfiction writing program, Febos honed her lyric autotheory with two other memoirs: “Whip Smart,” her debut about the years she spent as a dominatrix, and “Abandon Me,” an inquiry into love and loss that was a finalist for Lambda Literary and Publishing Triangle awards.

In “Girlhood,” whether examining adolescent bullying and the etymological roots of the word “slut” or exploring the evolution of consent against the backdrop of cuddle parties, Febos illuminates how women are conditioned to be complicit in our own exploitation. Like much of her scholarship, it begins with somatic knowledge of the self.

“Your body is no longer a body but a perceived distance from what a body should be,” writes Febos of how “punitive and withholding” she became as her developing form was evaluated by predatory gazes, including her own. “Virtue lies only in the interminable act of erasing yourself.”

Achieving moral purity through self-denial is a concept with puritanical roots that flowered in American capitalism, wherein thinness is both status and symbol. “To hate my own body was to suffer from an autoimmune disease of the mind,” Febos writes.

That abnegation is an illness that has reached pandemic-level proportions under the panopticon of white-supremacist patriarchy, which seeds division among women through social pressure. Schoolgirls aren’t even safe among supposed friends.

Born to an Indigenous father whose flickering presence conveyed damage described in “Abandon Me,” Febos was raised by a worried, welcoming and sometimes bewildered mother and a kind Puerto Rican father who spent long swaths of the year at sea. “Around my family I was messy and loved. Then I was a liar. I was possessed by a power they did not know how to control.”

Deceiving our families turns them into fools. That alone can be enough for a girl, bent on wildness by any available means, to sustain “the terrible possibility that what torments you, what you loathe in yourself, is the truest part of you — the singed and poisonous center that can never be scraped out.”

Surviving myriad girlhood assaults and adult addictions, Febos forges a new path toward cyclical self-forgiveness modeled on the myth of Persephone, whose descent into the underworld leads back to the harvest and sowing for which her mother Demeter is known.

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To do so, Febos must repeatedly jettison the self-loathing that many mistake as “intrinsic to our survival.” Among such cherished and hurtful values are the “misapprehension of beauty as freedom, the idea that if a woman succeeded by the impossible terms of patriarchy she might graduate in some way from its hold.”

Febos left behind the cruel vagaries and fumbling predations of men and embraced being queer; “divested from the systems that benefited from my self-hatred,” she gained independence from the prurient accusations that might have silenced other women.

No longer holding herself responsible for what happened to her childish body, adolescent reputation and womanly psyche, Febos got free. To bear witness to her liberation is, as she writes, “terrifying and beautiful, like all my favorite journeys.”

Kristen Millares Young is the author of the novel “Subduction,” a finalist for a Foreword INDIES Book of the Year Award and two International Latino Book Awards.

Girlhood

By Melissa Febos

Bloomsbury. 336 pp. $27

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