Welcome to On Beauty, a series where we take an in-depth look at a person’s relationship to beauty, how that relationship has transformed over the years, and how they experience being seen. This week we are talking to Melissa Fébos, author of the critically acclaimed memoir Smart whip and the collection of essays Abandon me. His second collection of essays Youth, was released on March 30, and she has a craft book, Body work, to be published by Catapult in March 2022.
Here, Febos discusses the importance of storytelling, growing up as a girl, and how she finds joy in oppressive structures.
“After I published my first book I came back and started writing essays and material based on that book ie material about being pro Dom, about work. sex, addiction – it started showing up in my new essays. as I was trying to get rid of it. I was like, ‘No, I already gave you 300 pages, I can’t.’ My worst nightmare is people reading my work and thinking, “She’s starting to spank again.”
“But when you’re an artist or a writer, you know that when something calls out to you in your work, it has that kind of emphasis; it does not disappear. I’ve learned that once it moves to the conscious part of your brain, it snaps until you let it hang out somewhere. When I did that I realized I had totally new things to say about these topics and it was really compelling to write about them again. And then I heard other people say it was compelling to see me move through a change of mind on the page.
“The trials of Youth It’s basically about taking an old, familiar story and sort of taking that more familiar tale away and saying something that might be a little more true today for me. I think especially now, especially with social media, when it has given us a lot of beautiful things, it has made it scarier to change your mind and decide that you are thinking something different about the big things in your life. But I find it really heartwarming to read that people are developing new perspectives.
“With this book, I wanted to articulate the ongoing challenge of having this double consciousness – as I think anyone who lives in our society and doesn’t have a hyper-dominant identity faces – and how we understand that structures of power that we exist inside was not created for us, we’re in it, and we’ve been conditioned by it and we’ve internalized it.
“There is this long-standing tension that I have experienced between what I know to be true, that women in this country are held to a standard of beauty that most bodies cannot meet, and that impossibility is makes the point because it’s used to manipulate us into buying things and hating us and being submissive bodies in a system that exploits us; at the same time, I’m spending a lot of money at Sephora. And there’s a lot of pleasure in that.
“I’ve always been aware of the ways the beauty industry can be harmful, but also, I don’t want to make it my life’s work to fight it. I’ve been a high woman my whole life, I want to wear heels, I want to wear makeup and I want to be able to choose my own battles. I ask myself the question, is this actively causing harm to me or other people? And if the answer is no then I am free to have fun.
“The privilege of beauty is real, and there are benefits to being seen as beautiful in society, but it’s also a myth. In some ways, I think it’s a huge mistake on the part of these people. systems, where it’s like, ‘No, don’t look in Running for the office, look for cosmetic surgery!’ It really keeps us crippled by this obsession with looks that works in so many ways in our society. And certainly, there are a lot of negative repercussions in not running this beautification campaign. who doesn’t want us to get close to the top.
“The greatest of all is that we are supposed to put all of our energy into looking a certain way and trying to achieve an impossible ideal, but we are also supposed to pretend that we are not trying to do it. As women, we are sort of socialized to look down on ourselves so that this effort is visible.
“When I was a teenager and ate in a messy way, I still had this other consciousness where I knew it was bullshit; I knew it was crazy that I was a good student and a good athlete and yet I spent all that time obsessed with eating string cheese for the whole day.
“I remember thinking, ‘God, I wish I could take all the energy I ever spent counting calories in my head, or just walking past store windows and looking around the corner. ‘eye to see what my silhouette looks like and put it towards my writing.
“At this point, I feel like I recognize that these habits are older than any other habits I have; they are so deeply ingrained in me. And I can find ways to express them that are less harmful. or that also have good consequences. I can indulge in beauty with my queer community, with people who don’t fetishize whiteness. I can find routes where I feed myself too and feed other people. I want to try to align these instincts with other practices that build community and are perhaps radical in some ways.
“I just finished reading this amazing book by Sonya Renee Taylor titled The body is no excuse. I had always thought that beauty and bodily shame was a personal affliction and perhaps a social affliction. But his book really puts it in political terms. It helped me see radical self-esteem as a political practice. I really think it’s about finding that balance between a kind of rigor and joy. I want to take responsibility for how I participate in harmful systems. And I also want to have some acceptance of how I have been irrevocably conditioned by my society and find joy in the short time I have here. ”