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Book Review: My Girls

Book review of Jasmin Sandelson's My Girls: The Power of Friendship in a Poor Neighborhood (2023)

Published onMay 15, 2024
Book Review: My Girls

My Girls: The Power of Friendship in a Poor Neighborhood, by Jasmin Sandelson (2023). Oakland, CA: University of California Press.

Warm and reflective, Jasmin Sandelson’s ethnography My Girls: The Power of Friendship in a Poor Neighborhood is at once an examination and celebration of young women’s friendship. Set in North Cambridge (NC), Massachusetts, an inner-ring suburb of Boston, Sandelson follows nine working-class, high school-aged girls over the course of several years. The result is an intimate look at how these girls’ friendships uniquely empowered them in the face of systemic and structural disadvantage.

Sandelson’s book offers a refreshing take on young people’s friendship. Where many scholars study how friendships sway youth into “risk behaviors” such as alcohol and drug abuse, pregnancy, or delinquency (p. 4), Sandelson focuses on the ways in which friendship enriches the girls’ lives and meets basic needs that family or school could not. This departure is particularly poignant because, as Sandelson points out, research in poor urban neighborhoods disproportionately focuses on Black and brown boys, whereas girls are either overlooked or discussed in relation to motherhood or violence. My Girls defies these norms.

Cell phones and social media were a constant presence in the girls’ lives and, accordingly, are examined throughout the book. Sandelson brings nuance to the scholarship on social media – demonstrating that, rather than isolating teens, it was instead a fundamental source of connection. Social media allowed the girls to maintain, grow, and monitor their relationships with others in ways that helped them ease boredom, grieve for loved ones, and otherwise handle life in the housing project.

My Girls is divided into three parts. Part 1 (Chapters 1-4) explores how the girls cared for one another and met each other’s needs, underscoring how emotional labor can pay both social and monetary dividends. Part 2 (Chapters 5-6) describes what happened to these friendships under more challenging circumstances. Part 3 (Chapter 7) and beyond look at how the girls’ friendships fared after they graduated high school. The book ends with Sandelson’s follow-ups with the girls, now women, ten years later.

Chapter 1 considers how money played into how the girls met their needs, both physical, like food or transportation, and intangible, like the need for social status and respect. Sandelson briefly discusses how the girls acquired money through jobs, friends’ generosity, or boys – skillfully attending to the nuances of gender relations as well as the girls’ drive toward self-sufficiency. More time is spent on what the girls did when money was not available. When the gregarious Aisha calls on Marshall to sneak them into the movie theater for free or coaches Joanne on how to creatively get past train turnstiles, we see how holding jobs or otherwise finding money was not always necessary in meeting their needs.

Chapter 2 revolved around time, offering an important contribution to the anthropology of work. Sandelson notes that boredom “was one of the girls’ chief complaints” (p. 47). As scholars delve into how work structures time, this chapter offers insight into how the girls “play” with time in the absence of work. We witness the girls using technology to handle the hours that “unspooled tediously” (p. 46), watching as Zora and Florence gleefully take and post selfies to magnify small moments, eking out as much entertainment from as simple an action as possible. Furthermore, the girls’ need to fill time is contrasted with their middle-class peers, whose days are typically overscheduled with extracurriculars. Learning to manage multiple demands on one’s time, however, is a valuable tool for life. As we watch the bright and starry-eyed Joanne later crumble under pressure at UMass Amherst, we fully appreciate how the girls’ ability to ease their boredom, a necessary skill in NC, failed to set them up for success later in life – an unfortunate effect of poverty on some of the girls’ future outcomes.

Chapter 3 covers how pivotal the girls’ friendship was when they were in need of emotional support. Friends bore witness to each other’s problems, ranging from turbulent parental relationships to casual racism and sexism, and offered validation and comfort. Support from friends happened both in person and online via social media. Crucially, friendships offered affirmation and dignity to the girls when faced with the material and emotional challenges presented by poverty.

Chapter 4 discusses the girls’ relationships with their bodies, boyfriends, and sex. Sanderson describes how the girls were expected to “[walk] the line” (p. 103) between societal expectations and their own desires. As the girls’ bodies matured, they were subjected to pervasive, belittlingly racist beauty norms. Though romantic relationships could lend security, love, and validation, friendship could not insulate the girls from the stigma, shame, emotional anguish, or physical danger that boyfriends and sex could also bring. Despite this, Sandelson argues, the friends acted as “constant, loving witnesses to one another’s lives” (p. 104), a steadfast support system.

Chapters 5 and 6 address heavier themes, teasing out how friendship operates amidst strife. In Chapter 5, the girls cling to each other in the wake of a fatal neighborhood shooting, the death of a friend’s brother, and an old classmate’s involvement in the 2013 Boston Marathon Bombing, all in short succession. Sandelson carefully monitors Twitter exchanges and bios during this time. She reveals how social media became a site for processing anger and grief, where friends publicly performed and reaffirmed their closeness and support.

Chapter 6 deals with difference. When the girls engaged in “risk behaviors” such as experimenting with drugs and alcohol, they did not succumb to the monolithic “contagion” effect (p. 135). Rather, the girls’ responses varied; some looked past their friends’ differing behavior, while others policed and sanctioned them. Regardless, the girls emphasized a group identity built on their similarities, what united them as friends – offering another contribution to the anthropology of work, as researchers examine how diverse coworkers can build solidarity and collective strength when confronted by exploitative capitalists. 

Chapter 7 looks at how the girls’ friendship stood up against the separation following high school graduation. Though still supporting each other through social media, this chapter reveals how essential in-person care networks can be. Sandelson contrasts Florence’s loneliness and self-destructive behavior away from home with Aisha’s ability to find new friends, building new support systems that translated to academic success. In this chapter and the follow-ups ten years on, we read about how the girls slowly drifted apart or severed ties completely. The weight of the emotional labor at the heart of friendships, whether in-person or online, becomes excruciatingly clear.

My Girls is the result of four years of deeply embedded fieldwork, combining in-person ethnography and digital ethnography to capture the girls’ lives both on- and offline. In the introduction and again following the conclusion, Sandelson carefully scrutinizes her positionality as a young, white, British woman in graduate school at an elite U.S. institution. She handles her privilege sensitively, foregrounding the girls’ wishes and rooting her work in that of experts such as bell hooks, Patricia Hill Collins, and Aimee Meredith Cox.

Drawing on a wide range of sociological and anthropological literature, Sandelson makes forceful and convincing arguments about the importance of friendship in these young women’s lives. This literature appears throughout the ethnographic sketches that dominate the book, deftly sidestepping the often-unwieldy and theoretically dense “background” chapters in other ethnographies. Sandelson is typically invisible in these sketches. Generally, her unobtrusiveness makes the sketches more immersive, but it sometimes leaves the reader curious as to her role in particularly charged situations (like visiting Angelina, recently shot, in her home) and how her presence may have affected the events of the book.

Nonetheless, the book is suffused with the deep care that the girls have for each other, for Sandelson, and Sandelson’s care for the girls. As the girls invite Sanderson into their rooms, share intimate details, and allow her to grieve alongside them, it is clear that the girls truly came to trust Sanderson. My Girls demonstrates that this trust was not misplaced. 

Author Biography

Aryn G. N. Schriner studies historical and contemporary labor practices as a doctoral candidate in the University of Maryland’s Department of Anthropology. Their current work examines how frontline workers in a Washington, D.C. museum use interpersonal relationships to resist surveillance and navigate workplace injustice.

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