Book Report – Reviving Ophelia

TITLE: Reviving Ophelia: Saving the Selves of Adolescent Girls

AUTHOR: Mary Pipher

WHY I READ IT: I’m trying to understand the madness which is the mind of a female teenager. A good friend recommended this book, which she read in college. She said it “explained” her, and she suddenly understood why she did what she did at that age, and why being a teenager was so difficult.

DID I LIKE IT: Good book. Interesting read.
ROBSERVATIONS: The author’s central theme is that, for many girls, transitioning from young adolescence to young womanhood involves no longer living to make yourself happy, but living to make others happy so they will accept you.

Up to age 10 or 11, most girls pursue, and live in, whatever way makes them happy. Playing sports. Excelling academically. Not putting much importance into their appearance. No worries. When they enter high school, that all changes. They suddenly encounter cultural forces which force them to adjust their lives to be accepted by their peers. They have to give up living to please themselves, and instead live to please others.

The author cites as one example a young girl who loved playing soccer, making good grades and just throwing on any ol clothes. When she went to high school, she continued doing what she loved, but wasn’t accepted. Other girls teased her for not wearing nice, fashionable clothes or makeup. Boys either ignored her or treated her like an odd ball. After weeks of miserably failing to fit in, she quit soccer so she could “hang out” at the mall. She started wearing makeup and showing off her maturing body. Suddenly other girls found her “cool,” and boys started paying attention to her. She found acceptance, but only living in ways her peers wanted her to live, not as she wanted to.

To buttress her point, the author relates the story of a middle school class on a horticulture field trip. The younger girls (I think the 6th and 7th graders) are into it, expressing amazement at what they see, asking questions, and excited over the next discovery. Hanging in the back are the older girls (8th grade), who act embarrassed to be there. They ignore what’s going on. It’s beneath them. So childish. Yet only one or two years removed from their ebullient schoolmates.

The book is filled with several case studies across a spectrum of relationships – single parents, distant fathers, contrasting mothers, deceased siblings. There are also chapters on eating disorders, cutting, divorce, running away, sexual identity and violence.

The author offers no overt solutions. She does stress through her many case studies that she begins her counseling sessions asking girls simple questions, such as who are you? What are your goals? What makes you happy? From those threads she weaves a treatment plan in which teenage girls try to build self-esteem and purpose.

My primary pet peeve is the overt political bias of the author. (Early in the book, after bestowing countless positive attributes to a girl such as accepting, nonjudgmental, intelligent and active, she calls the girl “a true democrat.”)

One galling example – the author in one chapter shares three case studies. One centers on a fundamentalist, conservative family; another on a activist liberal family; and the other on a free-thinking, non-constraints hippie family. She reports that the conservative has two wonderful, happy, “every parent’s dream”-type teenage girls, yet cautions that they will probably (emphasis on probably) have troubled young adult years due to the strict, sheltered rules they lives in now which will inevitably fall away.

The other two families had miserable, troubled teens – especially the hippie family. They were angry, disruptive, parental nightmares. Yet the author takes care to note that she followed up with them years later when they were in their 20s, and they appeared to be okay. No such followup is reported for the teens from the conservative family. The reader is left to assume that while wonderful as teens, they more than likely became unadjusted therapy-needing monsters later.

Still, if you are now raising a teenager or will soon will be, I’d recommend this book.


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