Melissa Febos on Reckoning with the Pain of Girlhood
In Conversation with Maris Kreizman on The Maris Review Podcast
On the trouble of growing up feminist in a sexist culture:
MF: I remember really young, at least as a teenager, thinking, “I know that the media is brainwashing me to hate my body, I know about feminism, and yet I still have an eating disorder and hate my body. What’s the deal?” Of course, intellectually understanding something doesn’t immunize ourselves to it. And in many ways I think the mission of this book is to say, “Okay, then what does?” What deeper comprehension of this knowledge can actually help to liberate us from that brainwashing? Is it possible? To what extent is it possible? Because knowing it has never saved me.
On learning to say no:
MF: I have given readings, taught at conferences, had many, many lunches with people I did not know or did not like, just because it felt easier to hand myself over than to negotiate saying no and my own discomfort at someone else’s disappointment. The conditioning is so deep, from hugging acquaintances to having a coffee where someone can pick your brain about something. The place I arrive when I really start thinking about this is, negotiating it throughout the day just feels like isolated incidents where I say, okay, I’ll compromise; okay, I’ll yield to this; okay, I’ll help this person do this. But the cumulative effect of it is a life that is defined by strangers. My life suddenly becomes oriented around activities that other people have chosen for me. And that is not a life that I want.
On recognizing—and grieving for—her younger self:
MK: You write about a neighbor who spit on you and made you feel uncomfortable in so many different ways, and yet you wrote in your diary in capital letters that it was so fun to hang out with him. You had to lie to yourself.
MF: I would say if anything, that discovery really turned over the engine that drove me through this whole book. Like many of the experiences that I use as jumping off points to look at larger issues in the essays, I had not thought about that experience for years and years. And I’m a memoirist who specializes in confronting shady experiences from my past, and there were so many logs to upturn. I went back and remembered that my neighbor had spit on me and tormented me and that I hadn’t told anyone. And I looked at my old journal from when I was 11 and it was another one of those experiences where I had an emotional feeling of deep recognition and also horror and grief. To see that little me had done such an immaculate cleanup job on my own abuse.
Melissa Febos is the author of the memoir Whip Smart and two essay collections: Abandon Me and her latest is Girlhood. She is an associate professor at the University of Iowa, where she teaches in the Nonfiction Writing Program.