Combining intimate memoir with eye-opening cultural investigation in seven essays, Melissa Febos (Abandon Me) lucidly articulates the infuriating and redemptive ways women's lives are shaped.
At 12 years old, Febos, with "a body like those women in the magazines," could compel boys to touch her, even when she didn't want them to, a lesson that "disempowerment is power." As she recalls being branded a slut, Febos critically etymologizes the term, arguing that society--with sex ed that normalizes male but not female masturbation, that considers sex a "moral duty" yet demands purity--invented the slut. She disparages movie plotlines that suggest women want stalkers, divulging her own and interviewees' victimizations by voyeurs for which police did nothing ("Lady... I would move"). Women grow up thinking it is their job "to accommodate [men] and their uncontrollable urges," which spawns situations of empty consent, wherein it is easier to say yes to unwanted encounters instead of soothing a man's bruised ego or accepting the possibility of rape.
Girlhood presents undeniably telling evidence of society's disservice to girls. Febos shares small moments that took tenacious grip of her psyche to demonstrate the everyday surviving required of women. They must tolerate the male gaze "as privilege." They must follow beauty standards resembling "physical powerlessness." Yet Febos shares how looking deeply within and acknowledging the "man-sourc[ed]" self alongside her real identity allowed her to jettison internalized misogyny and listen to her body. Girlhood delivers the hard truths society must recognize about its patriarchal norms while encouraging women to resist those precepts by choosing consistent, healing change. --Samantha Zaboski, freelance editor and reviewer