“All of Me” by Melissa Febos
(Click here to read an excerpt of the essay.)
“Tattoos,” writes Melissa Febos in her sharp, soulful essay on art, self-destruction, and salvation, “express multiple desires: to be seen, to attract, to repel. But I have also marked myself in order to remember.” Febos is referring here to how she has gradually transformed her body into a chart of past strains and exhilarations, a map to be explicated with new lovers and referred back to privately as a source of creative germination and peace of mind. But in the phrase “marked myself,” it is impossible not to also hear another meaning—marked as in placed a target on. Marked as in a marked woman, certain to be hunted down.
And in fact it was Febos’s discussion of the attention her tattoos attract—the touch of strangers on subways and at gyms, the intimate questions routinely posed in coffee shops and classrooms—that drew me into this piece when I first read it. The past year has seen a particular proliferation of opinion and memoir writing that addresses safety and sexual politics, some of it written in response to the shootings at UC Santa Barbara, or written in response to those responses. “All of Me” is not one such project. But, in presenting a nuanced and careful account of the complicated business of inhabiting a woman’s body, the piece does resonate with much of the most powerful writing on the subject, while avoiding the reductionism or overbreadth that might creep into a less effective piece.
Perhaps what I like most about this essay is that it resists the temptation to make easy pronouncements about right and wrong. The essay comes to rest instead in difficult territory, with the writer faulting herself for her own systemic passivity in the face of unbearable pain. While Febos does not exactly look back with fondness on her drug use and other unhealthy involvements, she acknowledges that these phases in her life were spurred by the same desire for surrender that drives her now to give herself over to art, the same all-consuming impulse to buckle under. She returns again and again to her Billie Holiday tattoo, a rendering of an unflattering photo taken near the end of Holiday’s life. “The image of that kind of pain is an echo,” Febos writes, “a dead star’s light reaching the eye long after its demise.” She goes on: “Being recognized hadn’t saved Billie from death, but it saved me.” For Febos, her tattoos symbolize her need to be seen and understood and saved, the community and compassion that took her so long to cry out for.
Febos poses difficult questions, to the reader and to herself, about whether or not she is responsible for events both past and present. She ponders, when thinking of her “dark turns”—dropping out of school, abusing drugs, venturing into sex work—whether they constituted happenstance or active choices. The same goes for what Febos terms “the pull of an illustrated body.” In answer to her own question about whether or not she is responsible for the unsolicited attention of strangers, she concludes that the answer is yes—that she has “exposed something that draws attention, and thus invited it.” But at the same time, she squarely rejects the idea that any woman presenting herself in an eye-catching way is asking to be approached, citing the inappropriateness and “flawed logic” of streetside catcalls. She positions her tattoos as separate objects from the form of her body, and yet she also acknowledges that people trying to interact with her tattoos are physically taking hold of her as she goes about her day. These are fine lines to walk, but Febos and the map of her complex past are up for the challenge.