Book cover: Bloomsbury Publishing
“I got my period when I was ten, and I’d been reading Judy Blume books for a while so I knew it was coming,” said Tanaïs. “And when it came, I wasn’t prepared for it anymore.” A 2011 American Association of University Women (AAUW) school survey shows that early development is the most common attribute of sexually harassed students, followed closely by perceived prettiness.
“You sort of feel alien in your own skin and ashamed for existing,” said another woman I interviewed. “Being a busty eleven-year-old was difficult,” said another. “My breasts were a burden to me. I felt ashamed of them because of the constant comments and attention they got from everyone of all ages.” “In my cultural milieu of Bangladeshi people living in America,” explains Tanaïs, “being light-skinned and slender and straight as a fucking arrow is beautiful . . . I knew very early on: I’m not a light-skinned, skinny, fuckin’ straight-as-an-arrow bitch. I’m not that person at all.” She goes on, “I had very thick Coke-bottle glasses, braces, hairy upper lip and legs, acne, and an adolescent, emerging voluptuous body—my face didn’t change until four or so years later.”
Most of the literature on this topic, including a 2009 Social Psychology Quarterly article, “The Double Standard and Adolescent Peer Acceptance,” finds that “the term ‘slut’ is typically applied by females to other females whose bodies or behaviors deviate from group norms. Exotic beauty or premature physical development may then be enough to threaten the status quo and result in a girl’s exclusion from female peer groups.”
“‘Shame’ is the word I keep coming back to,” Tanaïs, who is strikingly beautiful, continues. “The way that my body developed did make me feel shame in that space . . . I felt undesired by all, since South Asians were considered ugly and unfuckable, and I suspected a list circulating about the ugliest girls in middle school included me.” She adds, “In ’90s heroin-chic white hegemonic beauty standards America—without Black women and Bollywood (even with its light-skinnedness) I’m not sure I’d ever come to find my beauty.”
Leora Tanenbaum, the author of two books about slut-shaming, adds, “‘Slut’ serves as an all-purpose insult for any female outsider. All the social distinctions that make a teenage girl ‘other’ are collapsed into a sexual distinction.” I interviewed twenty-two women who’d experienced this kind of sexual harassment before writing this essay, and nearly all of them qualified during adolescence as some kind of “other,” whether it was a designation earned by race, body shape, economic class, gender presentation, or family background.
There was another way to be collapsed into a sexual distinction, though. Now I can see the perfect trap of it, how the solution to feeling disgusting would become the proof to all that I was.
It was the first real hot day of summer, the summer before I turned twelve, and we were watching boys play basketball in Kimmy’s driveway. There was Ty, a pretty-faced sixteen- year-old with tennis-ball biceps, and three of Kimmy’s brothers. My hair stuck to the back of my neck, and the cars were too hot to lean against. Down the potholed street, a mirage shimmered, a puddle of heat.
They were huge, these boys. They smelled of Old Spice and menthol cigarettes. There was anger pushing up inside them; I could hear it in their clipped voices, feel it in the sharpness of their gazes. Their bodies, even in graceful motion, were always fighting. Their limbs swung and flew, threads of sweat tumbling off them. They were louder when we watched. When they glanced at us, I shimmered like that mirage at the end of the street. Their attention quickened me, turned me into something lithe and bright—less body than flash of light. What a relief it was.
When an older guy sauntered up and one of the boys yelled his name, Vega, I lurched in recognition. When I was younger, my father would lift me onto his shoulders and teach me the names of stars. One arm wrapped around my shin, the other pointing up, he’d breathe their strange sounds into the dark: Sirius, Polaris, Arcturus, Vega. In summer, Vega could always be found above the top of our street, flickering its changing colors. That was its atmosphere shifting, my father had told me. It became my favorite star, this celestial body that was always becoming a different kind of beautiful. This Vega in Kimmy’s driveway was kind of beautiful, too, with his tiny mustache and golden arms. He was, in the way of men and space, both unfathomable and familiar.
“This one’s for you,” Ty said with a wink, and wove his way through the grunting clot of bodies to sink the ball through the hoop. Kimmy screamed. She had fallen on a tree branch, and a piece of wood the thickness of a finger had lodged itself into her thigh. She wailed, suddenly a child. Her brother carried her into a car, and someone drove them to the hospital. I managed to get left behind.
“In body dysmorphic disorder,” writes Thomas Fuchs in a 2003 Journal of Phenomenological Psychology article, “the patient is overwhelmed by the others’ perspective on himself, while feeling his own self-devaluation in their gazes.” Living inside my body had already become a fraught existence. If I were going to be defined by the gaze of other people, why wouldn’t I step toward the ones that made me feel beautiful? I didn’t know yet how temporary that feeling was. “Since this devaluating (self-)perception, as we saw, is corporealizing at the same time, it prepares the ground for a reified body perception . . . The vicious circle of corporealization and shameful self-awareness has become fixed. The ‘body-for-others’ now dominates the lived-body.”
Wanted was the only thing I was sure I ought to be. There it was, bright in the eyes of every boy in that driveway. A reflection of me that bore a different mark—at least, it felt different—and I wanted to feel another kind of different.
Vega carried two cans out of the kitchen and handed me one. He seemed so comfortable in Kimmy’s house, as if it were his own.
“Here, mamacita.” Milwaukee’s Best, it read. I set mine down on the carpet by my foot. I had only ever tasted the foam from my father’s occasional Dos Equis. I perched on the edge of the couch and sucked in my belly. Vega sat beside me. MTV was on and a man and woman rolled around on the beach, sand stuck to their bodies. He took a long drink from his can, then balanced it on the arm of the couch, the muscles of his back shifting through his white T-shirt. It was new; I could make out the creases from its fold inside the plastic package. A black tattoo crept out of the sleeve and down his arm. He was handsome, with sharp features and long eyelashes, but at least twenty-five, a grown man.
On the TV a woman stood beside a poster of a fatter version of herself. She kicked the picture away from her and marched toward me, holding her arms out to display her new skinny body.
“So, you got a boyfriend?” Vega asked. “No,” I said.
“Oh yeah? You ever date a Puerto Rican boy?” “No,” I told him, “but my dad is Puerto Rican.”
“Oh yeah?” he says. “So you are a little mamacita, huh?”
I was unfamiliar with the term, and though I didn’t speak Spanish, I knew enough to parse out its literal meaning. If it had been my abuela who had said it, maybe after she taught me to cook plátanos maduros fritos, I would have glowed with pride. But in the mouth of this strange man, I knew it meant something different. I smiled nervously in agreement, because he seemed so pleased and I wanted to please him so badly, this strange grown man, without knowing why. His tone was thick with knowing, and I understood that he recognized something in me.
I didn’t know then that mamacita is different from mamita, that though the literal translation is also little mother, “the moniker is never really used to describe an actual mother,” as Laura Martinez wrote in a 2014 op-ed for NPR. She explains that the term is “inextricably linked to a man’s perception of a woman as an object of sexual desire.” Which is to say that it communicates a desire to impregnate a girl—to make her into a mother—more than any sense of diminutive endearment.
I was not a little mother or a hot mama. I was an eleven-year-old girl. Now, it seems to me a startlingly efficient way to age a child in a single word. Sometimes the word itself matters less than the authority with which it is spoken. It is the act of naming that claims you.
When I walked across the room toward the bathroom, my sneakers sank into the carpet like it was sand. I closed the door, but the lock was broken. I peed, running the faucet to hide the sound. After washing my hands, I leaned toward the mirror to inspect my face.
When the door opened, I was surprised and not surprised at the same time. He slid his body into the narrow space behind me, and I hunched forward, as if to let him pass. He didn’t pass. My hips pressed against the sink. Afraid to see his face in the mirror, I looked down at the shape of my breasts under my T-shirt. I could feel the outline of his body, its heat an image reflected on me.
He leaned down and kissed the side of my neck. Hot breath against my skin, his face in my hair, huge hands clasped around my waist, fingers pressed into the bare skin above the belt of my jeans. My breath came shallow, like it did when I was afraid. I was afraid. The empty house around was suddenly vast, as if we were flung into space. Vega’s stubbly cheek grazed the back of my neck, and his hands slid upward.
A car door thunked outside. I raised my eyes, and they met his in the mirror. It felt like bursting up out of water, into light. I could move suddenly, and I did, clasping my chest. I felt his fingers shift beneath my hands, and even with the fabric of my shirt between us, his felt as if they were inside of me, a part of my own body.
“I am suddenly caught,” explains Fuchs, “as it were, in a force field, in a suction that attracts me, or in a stream that floods me. I am torn out of the centrality of my lived-body and become an object inside another world. The other’s gaze decentralizes my world.”
Here is a story: around other girls I was fat and misfit, condemned by some inherent flaw in my body’s constitution. Here is another story: around men I was desirable, possessed of a flickering power that I did not know how to control. Here is another story: when Kimmy got back from the hospital, she asked why I hadn’t come. You stayed here? she said. By yourself? I told her Vega had stayed, too. Her face twisted, and I flushed with shame. Or did I flush with shame and then she made a face? In any case, we built it together: a story that wasn’t true, but which we both believed. Eventually, she told it to others. Here is another story: 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.
My body seemed to literally transform, depending on what eyes beheld it, like a superhero or a monster. Years later I would feel it when I went home, all those child selves clamoring back into being. I would itch to get away and return to my adult life, so that my body could morph back with each mile’s distance.
The specular self does not stay in the mirror, of course. Fuchs explains, “The mirror represents the perspective of the others on my body: by taking over this perspective on myself, self-consciousness is constituted. An essential step in this process is marked by the development of shame.”
The story of the self will be written no longer by the child’s anticipation, or what she knows as inevitable in the Innenwelt. It will be written by the birthday girl with the greased chin. It will be written by the men whose hands mold her into being. It will be written by the mother and the father and the neighbor and the magazine and all who stand to benefit from claiming her. In Lacan’s words: “This moment at which the mirror stage comes to an end inaugurates . . . the dialectic that will henceforth link the I to socially elaborated situations.”
The self becomes a collaboration with other people, a series of fantasies that lead to “the armour of an alienating identity.” Have you seen a suit of armor? There are so many pieces. Here is where a strange man named me. Here is where the girls stared. Here is the school report card. The plates clink and move together like one. The self underneath is invisible to others. We are completely alone inside ourselves.
“Once grasped by the other’s gaze,” Fuchs writes, “the lived-body has changed fundamentally: from now on, it bears the imprint of the other; it has become body-for-others, i.e., object, thing, naked body.” It is a cliché that adolescents care too much what their peers think, more sobering to think of the power we give to others at that age. Not Like me, but Conjure me.
Excerpted from Girlhood. Copyright © 2021 by Melissa Febos. Published and reprinted by permission of Bloomsbury Publishing.
Read an interview about Girlhood between Melissa Febos and Public Seminar’s Madeleine Janz.
Melissa Febos is the author of the critically acclaimed memoir, Whip Smart (St. Martin’s Press 2010), and the essay collection, Abandon Me (Bloomsbury 2017). Febos currently works as an Associate Professor at the University of Iowa, where she teaches in the Nonfiction Writing Program.