This book gutted me. No book captures the turning point from childhood to girlhood with the precision that Febos brings to the page. This essay collection takes readers to the darkest parts of girlhood – sexual assault, body image, slut-shaming – and asks us to analyze these facets that are all too common to the universal experience of girlhood. She excavates old trauma in a way that is demonstrative rather than exploitative. Febos is a brave and gifted essayist who packs tiny universes of lush imagery and necessary truth-telling into each piece. This book is like an offering of forgiveness to your childhood self.— From Kait
National Book Critics Circle Award Winner
Lambda Literary Award Finalist
NAMED ONE OF THE BEST BOOKS OF THE YEAR BY TIME * NPR * The Washington Post * Kirkus Reviews * Washington Independent Review of Books * The Millions * Electric Literature * Ms Magazine * Entropy Magazine * Largehearted Boy * Passerbuys
“Irreverent and original.” –New York Times
“Magisterial.” –The New Yorker
“An intoxicating writer.” –The Atlantic
“A classic!” –Mary Karr
“A true light in the dark.” –Stephanie Danler
“An essential, heartbreaking project.” –Carmen Maria Machado
A gripping set of stories about the forces that shape girls and the adults they become. A wise and brilliant guide to transforming the self and our society.
In her powerful new book, critically acclaimed author Melissa Febos examines the narratives women are told about what it means to be female and what it takes to free oneself from them.
When her body began to change at eleven years old, Febos understood immediately that her meaning to other people had changed with it. By her teens, she defined herself based on these perceptions and by the romantic relationships she threw herself into headlong. Over time, Febos increasingly questioned the stories she'd been told about herself and the habits and defenses she'd developed over years of trying to meet others' expectations. The values she and so many other women had learned in girlhood did not prioritize their personal safety, happiness, or freedom, and she set out to reframe those values and beliefs.
Blending investigative reporting, memoir, and scholarship, Febos charts how she and others like her have reimagined relationships and made room for the anger, grief, power, and pleasure women have long been taught to deny.
Written with Febos' characteristic precision, lyricism, and insight, Girlhood is a philosophical treatise, an anthem for women, and a searing study of the transitions into and away from girlhood, toward a chosen self.
About the Author
Melissa Febos is the author of the memoir Whip Smart, the essay collection, Abandon Me, and a craft book, Body Work. A 2022 Guggenheim Fellow, she is also the inaugural winner of the Jeanne Córdova Nonfiction Award from LAMBDA Literary and the recipient of fellowships from The National Endowment for the Arts, MacDowell, Bread Loaf, Lower Manhattan Cultural Council, The BAU Institute, Vermont Studio Center, The Barbara Deming Memorial Fund, and others. Her essays have appeared in The Paris Review, The Believer, McSweeney's Quarterly, Granta, Sewanee Review, Tin House, The Sun, and The New York Times. She is an associate professor at the University of Iowa, where she teaches in the Nonfiction Writing Program.
“Febos's own voice is so irreverent and original. The aim of this book, though, is not simply to tell about her own life, but to listen to the pulses of many others'. In her author's note, Febos writes that she has 'found company in the stories of other women, and the revelation of all our ordinariness has itself been curative.' This solidarity puts Girlhood in a feminist canon that includes Febos's idol, Adrienne Rich, and Maggie Nelson's theory-minded masterpieces: smart, radical company, and not ordinary at all.” —The New York Times Book Review
“Anyone who has ever been a girl or a woman will recognize the patterns Febos uncovers: the unwanted touch, the expectations of our bodies, the way we become complicit in the traps laid out for us along the way by the patriarchal structures that govern so many of our social, professional, and interpersonal spheres . . . By following Febos' distinct paths between the past and present, we might realize there's room to forge our own, and that we've just been handed a flashlight that helps illuminate the way.” —NPR, "Books We Love"
“The harrowing nature of transformation is Girlhood's core subject, and in seven chapters Febos explores the interconnected aspects of patriarchy and the marks that they've left on her . . . The book's centerpiece is a magisterial, seventy-six-page essay on what Febos terms 'empty consent'-not merely agreeing to unwanted sex, but the ways in which women are programmed to collaborate in their own diminishment . . . Febos has some idea of how to break this cycle . . . She is also, perhaps, correcting the story of the girl-dreamer, whose elegy, it turns out, may have been premature-she lives to mother the woman.” —The New Yorker
“I wish I could have read Girlhood when I was young . . . Over the course of eight essays with poignant illustrations by Forsyth Harmon, Febos interrogates the strength, savvy and vulnerabilities of 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.” —The Washington Post, "Best of the Year"
“In eight haunting essays, Melissa Febos unearths the trauma of her adolescence as she picks apart the burdens that accompany being a young woman. In sharing the darkness that clouded her coming of age, Febos asks pointed questions about the expectations placed on women and how they impact a person's sense of self.” —Time, "Must-Read Books of the Year"
“Febos is an intoxicating writer, but I found myself most grateful for the vivid clarity of her thinking . . . disquisitive and catalytic--it doesn't demand change so much as expose certain injustices so starkly that you might feel you cannot abide them another minute . . . I never once needed trigonometry and I couldn't find Catullus in a crossword these days, but Febos' education is a kind I surely could have used.” —The Atlantic
“Febos combines personal, cultural, investigative, and scholarly passages to ferociously dissect the lessons that shaped her, and the result is a book that fills the educational void she'd noticed . . . A guide for women to redefine themselves.” —Boston Globe
“Intellectual and erotic, engaging and empowering, Girlhood lays bare the process of unlearning the most deeply ingrained lesson of female adolescence-that we ourselves are not masters of our own domain-and offers us exquisite, ferocious language for embracing self-pleasure and self-love.” —O, the Oprah Magazine
“I read Girlhood in a long, marvelous guzzle and plan to teach it. Its language and emotional candor deepen the conversation on sexuality and the horrible liberties taken when we're way too young to consent. But there's not an ounce of victim in Melissa Febos and she's a hero without ever trying to be. A classic!” —Mary Karr
“To counter society's patriarchal standards and stereotypes enmesh girls in a web of unreachable expectations of mind, body and soul, Melissa Febos offers ideas to disrupt the normative narratives surrounding girlhood and encourages us to recreate ourselves according to ourselves.” —Ms.
“Drawing on personal history, cultural analysis, and investigative reporting, Melissa Febos interrogates the meaning of girlhood, the narratives we've been sold, and the realities of growing up a woman.” —Buzzfeed, "Most Anticipated Books of 2021"
“Melissa Febos is a precise, visceral chronicler of what it means to be a woman in the world . . . [Girlhood] is fierce and lyrical, furious and tender; a vital read for anyone figuring out who they really are, and have always been.” —Refinery29, "Best New Books"
“Melissa Febos brings lyric and merciless scrutiny to how women are conditioned to accept misogyny as their due . . . By drawing upon cultural materials for her kaleidoscopic investigation, Febos does for girlhood what Maggie Nelson did for pregnancy in The Argonauts.” —The Rumpus, "Most Anticipated Books of 2021"
“Her whole life, writer Melissa Febos has been forced to understand her body primarily through other people's conceptions of it. If that sounds familiar to you, Girlhood--a mix of investigative reporting, memoir, and scholarship around what it truly means to be a young woman--might be right up your alley. (And if you're a parent struggling to understand what your teenage daughter is going through, it's safe to say this book might help.)” —Vogue.com
“This is a book you'll wish you had in your youth, but one you'll be glad to have now.” —OprahMag.com, "Most Anticipated Books of 2021"
“Febos is a balletic memoirist whose capacious gaze can take in so many seemingly disparate things and unfurl them in a graceful, cohesive way . . . She dances deftly between her own autobiography and exposing the pervasive social history that marked--sometimes literally--her personal experiences and those of many, many women.” —OprahDaily
“Febos' book forces us to linger in the nuances of sexuality, gender, consent, and eroticism. Her essays dive deep into all those gray waters of being a girl and then a woman: how self-loathing and self-love can crash against each other, creating a certain kind of dissonance that can take a lifetime to escape, if we ever do. If there is a way out, it might be through books like this one that give us a shared language for all the murky things we as women feel--but too rarely speak.” —Popsugar
“Fusing memoir, cultural commentary, and research, critically-acclaimed writer Febos explores the beauty and discomfort of girlhood (and womanhood) in her newest essay collection. With her signature lyricism and haunting honesty, the essays explore the ways girls inherit, create, interrogate, and rewrite the narratives of their lives.” —The Millions, "Most Anticipated Books of 2021"
“For her third book, Melissa Febos has turned the lens on her own adolescence. Using a blend of theory and autobiography, she recounts her difficult early sexual experiences and time spent as a dominatrix and questions the patriarchal forces that shape the collective girlhood narrative.” —Vulture (NY Mag)
“In each of Girlhood's essays--which are accompanied by gorgeous illustrations by artist/author Forsyth Harmon--Febos works to interrogate her own behaviors as she navigates relationships, love, sex, and addiction and, bolstered by research and interviews, comes out the other side with a clearer understanding of what it might take to make girlhood a less-destructive experience.” —Shondaland
“Febos is widely considered one of the most respected and beloved contemporary essayists and memoirists, and a pillar of thought and encouragement for other writers. The essays in her latest collection read like sculpture: sentences chiseled and combined into profound, moving works. Whether she's writing about a childhood soccer game or a cuddle party or a hike in France or sex or Greek myth or addiction, her essays dance between philosophical, humorous, and sensual.” —BOMB Magazine
“Girlhood is an exquisite collection. In lapidary, lucid prose, Melissa Febos dissects the traumas, terrors, and pleasures of the fraught passage from girl to woman. Febos's insight is devastating, the examinations of her world – from the female body, queerness, consent, slut-shaming, and intimacy – are rigorous and compassionate. This is a book for mothers, daughters, and our deepest selves, a true light in the dark.” —Stephanie Danler, author of Sweetbitter
“In this book, Febos proves herself to be one of the great documenters of the terrible and exquisite depths of girlhood. Here, that terrible and beautiful aeon is dissected, sung over, explored like ancient ruins. These essays are moss and iron-hard and beautiful-and struck through with Febos' signature brilliance and power and grace. An essential, heartbreaking project.” —Carmen Maria Machado, author of In the Dream House and Her Body and Other Parts
“Melissa Febos is part poet, part theorist, and all writer. In this lyrical, searching, profound, and personal collection, Febos examines childhood, femaleness, and love in its many forms with a sensuous ferocity that is all her own.” —Ariel Levy, author of The Rules Do Not Apply and Female Chauvinist Pigs
“Melissa Febos just revived me in the most spectacular way. Girlhood blazes through the stories we've been told with a dazzling fury and a brilliant beauty. Whatever we are or were, this is a map to a new becoming. Between the intellect and the body a third term emerges, dissolving binaries and reinventing the space of erotic power and creativity. A fuck-all guide to resilience and reclamation, a breathtaking reimagination of who we might be in spite of what we've been told. Girlhood will bring you back to life.” —Lidia Yuknavitch, author of Verge
“At once intimate and didactic, lyric and wise, Girlhood is a must-read hybrid text for women looking to define themselves from the inside. This book is an exorcism of social messaging and external gazes, and Febos is a warm and erudite exorcist.” —Melissa Broder, author of The Pisces and Milk Fed
“Reading Girlhood felt like having a spell whispered into my ear. You carve yourself, Melissa Febos writes, and the phrase becomes command, elegy, incantation. In these pages she conjures not only the past, but an allegory of experience at once universal and exquisitely personal. Intimate, urgent, and stunningly beautiful, this is a book that will be passed from hand to hand, from heart to heart.” —Alex Marzano-Lesnevich, author of The Fact of a Body
“American patriarchy teaches so many of us to hate our own bodies and stifle our own desires-to make ourselves smaller in every way. Girlhood is a smart, fierce, gloriously sensual critique of these lessons by a writer who has fought hard to unlearn them. Thank you, Melissa Febos, for charting this magnificent route of queer feminist resistance!” —Leni Zumas, author of Red Clocks
“A gorgeously written, perfectly calibrated investigation into the traps, paths, and challenges of being female in this world. It's a stunner of a book.” —Jami Attenberg, author of All This Could Be Yours
“Lucid and timely...The great surprise of Girlhood is how masterfully Febos reinvents the path to womanhood, a philosopher's eye turned protectively towards the tenderest parts of the writer's former self.” —Wendy S. Walters, author of Multiply/Divide
“Vibrant, haunting, and absolutely unforgettable . . . A modern masterpiece of brutally honest self-reflection.” —Bust Magazine
“What a delight it is to read the new book of a writer you adore and be knocked out all over again. With Girlhood, one of the queer community's favorite writers, Melissa Febos, has written her career-best.” —The Advocate
“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.” —Guernica
“Girlhood is a striking assortment of essays that examine the expectations of womanhood, the forces that perpetuate them, and what it takes to reject these narratives and define one's own life. A genre-bending work that combines journalism, memoir, and scholarship, Girlhood is a sincere and searing guide to transforming the self and society.” —LAMBDA Literary, "Most Anticipated Books of 2021"
“Febos's new collection could be thought of as a song--one whose music speaks to girlhood, lost, now reclaimed. Regardless of gender, one need be simply human to recognize the melody, however faint, of the child lost to the invisible social structures in which we are embedded.” —The Rumpus, "Most Anticipated Books of 2021"
“Mixing memoir, scholarship, and reportage, Girlhood, the third book by Febos, is a gifted reckoning with and reclamation of the author's sensual and intellectual identity… Girlhood speaks aloud the author's silences, silences so firmly rooted in the psyche that they have yet to be fully named. This book is the readers' story as much as it is the author's.” —Los Angeles Review of Books
“[Febos] picks at the ways women are taught to be “female” - and what it means to remove oneself from such expectations. Febos' lyrical, meditative writing makes it all the easier to ponder her critical questions and explorations.” —San Francisco Chronicle
“How do you heal from the pain of growing up? This question, refracted through a feminist lens, lies at the heart of Melissa Febos's essay collection, Girlhood. With psychological clarity and emotional precision, Febos revisits the past to rewrite the future.” —Columbia Journal
“Raw and unflinching, this dark coming-of-age story impresses at every turn.” —Publishers Weekly, "Best Book of the Year"
“Profound and gloriously provocative, this book. . . transforms the wounds and scars of lived female experience into an occasion for self-understanding that is both honest and lyrical. Consistently illuminating, unabashedly ferocious writing.” —Kirkus Reviews
“Melissa Febos's writing is always luminous, fearless, and blazing with intelligence.” —Lit Hub, "Best Reviewed Books of the Year"
“In Girlhood Febos not only offers herself a new playbook, scrutinizing the assumptions she has placed upon herself, she also examines how our culture prizes the narratives of boys over girls, often erasing the girl altogether in favor of a more understandable story. By looking at the social and cultural context in which we become women, this multileveled narrative affirms that our shared attitudes and beliefs about girls and the women we expect them to become are more important than whatever benefits we gain by denying and distorting them. Girlhood offers the plausibility that on the other side of personal and collective awareness lies the choice to play a different game.” —Chicago Review of Books
“Febos's newest collection of essays addresses misogyny from the inside out. . . With her signature rhythmic style and stream of consciousness propelling the narrative, the author's critique of becoming is as tender as it is relentless. Febos's writing possesses the same heartbreaking elegance and haunting lyricism as that of feminist authors Roxane Gay, Caitlin Moran, and Carmen Maria Machado.” —Library Journal
“Combining intimate memoir with eye-opening cultural investigation, Melissa Febos lucidly articulates the infuriating and redemptive ways women's lives are shaped. These seven illuminating essays unpack the experiences of living as a female under the destructive influence of patriarchal norms and warped ideals of femininity.” —Shelf Awareness, starred review
“In this book of liberating inquiry and divine depth, Febos again and again connects the constellations of herself and the world she and all women must learn to live in.” —Booklist, starred review
“Anyone raised as a girl will be able to relate to something in Girlhood, and those who weren't will marvel at this book's eye-opening, transformative perspective.” —BookPage
“Girlhood is a book that deserves to be savored, to be read more than once, to be given to all the people in your life - not just the girls and women - because we are all responsible for ensuring that every person be able to live by their own narrative.” —Washington Independent Review of Books, “Favorite Books of the Year”
“Girlhood does what an essay collection should do at its best: offer the reader a companion, fellowship beyond the aspirational profit economy models of self-care. Girlhood is our girl, there for us, sincerely and enduringly, as we begin to reconsider the circumferences we may place on the stories we tell of ourselves.” —Electric Literature