Dr Mary Pipher’s amazing book, Reviving Ophelia, is an eye-opening, heart-breaking, and sobering chronicle of the challenges our girls face as young teenagers in America, told from the stories of real teenage girls. This book should be required reading for anyone who not only has a teenage daughter, but any woman who made it through the gauntlet of the junior high school years and lived to tell the tale. Although written in 1994, the book doesn’t feel dated by any means.
Anyone who has turned on the television and watched ten minutes of shows like Jersey Shore or even one video on MTV won’t be surprised at one of the book’s main revelations that the media is turning our daughters against themselves. Girls look at the scantily clad, stick-skinny models from Abercrombie and Fitch advertisements, compare themselves to these unrealistic ‘ideals’ and find themselves lacking. They learn to hate what they look like and become obsessed with body image and attracting the opposite sex, rather than loving themselves as they are. Sadly, girls can resort to dangerous and unhealthy habits such as bulimia, anorexia, or pill popping to attain and/or keep these unhealthy figures. They see women crawling all over men in music videos and believe it is okay for their male peers to grope them in the hallway or in some cases force themselves onto women. Is it any surprise to anyone, after watching a Lady Gaga video, that girls’ shorts are shorter than they’ve ever been, and that girls statistically become sexually active at a much earlier age than ever before?
Pipher argues that girls choose their friends over their true selves in order to ‘belong’, and it is this choice to ‘sell out’ and be someone they are not that makes adolescents so angry. The stories of the girls Pipher sees in her practice and what they go through in order to ‘belong’ and/or deal with their emotions are heartbreaking: girls cutting themselves, starving themselves, doing drugs, getting pregnant, getting raped and getting harrassed by other girls in school. Some of them are able to overcome racial and financial hardships, abusive family members, and other sad circumstances that would have made most rational adults give up. I was teary-eyed and horrified during several of the stories. Even though we don’t think of teenagers as ‘children’ these days, no one should have to go through what some of these girls went through, especially before they have the life experiences and maturity of adults.
As I wrote about in my review of The Catcher in the Rye on my Modern Library blog, childhood is so brief these days. In a world where you can buy a bikini with padded cups for 8 year-olds (see pic here) and a 4th grader got caught bringing cocaine to school and sharing it with his friends (5 of whom were hospitalized; see the story here), kids aren’t sheltered from much anymore. You and I went through much more during our teen years than our parents did, and our kids will go through much more than we did. I shiver to think what my grandkids will be subjected to. How can we protect them, while still allowing them to assert their growing independence? Knowing what they are up against is half the battle.
Reading Reviving Ophelia generated some revealing conversations between me and my daughter about what she is going through now and what she might be encountering in the next few years. That alone was worth the price of the book. This book was a well written, very compelling read, and will be enlightening for any parent who wants a window into their adolescent daughter’s world. Pipher’s plea for a kinder, gentler, more protected world for our daughters may be idealistic, but is something we all can strive for in our own families, in our own way.