Saving the Selves of Adolescent Girls

I encourage girls to search within themselves for their deepest values and beliefs. Once they have discovered their own true selves, I encourage them to trust that self as the source of meaning and direction in their lives” Mary Pipher, Ph. D. Clinical psychologist Mary Pipher has brought widespread attention to the loss of true-self, experienced by adolescent girls in her critically acclaimed book, Reviving Ophelia: Saving the Selves of Adolescent Girls. Whitaker, 2006). In her book, Pihper addresses the development issues of adolescent girls, the culture they live in and how their needs are and are not being met. She explains that our failure as a society, is not giving our children good, sound advice on how to become a decent, functioning adults and our unwillingness to do so, is destroying our culture (Pihper, 2002). She also offers insightful advice as to how, we as a society can encourage our adolescent girls to remain true to their authentic selves.

Reviving Ophelia: Saving the Selves of Adolescent Girls More than anything, I want to save my children from the pain and self-imposed isolation I experienced during adolescence. As a parent, I want to shelter my children, make all of the hard decisions for them and protect them from any harm that comes their way. As a realist, I understand that the experiences of adolescences are necessary to build character, strength and integrity. As a dreamer, I want my children to magically transcend into adulthood, unscathed from the trauma of their teens years.

As a future psychologist, I agree that our children are growing up in a poisonous culture and without intervention; we will all suffer (Pipher, 1994). When I looked up this book and noticed its publication date (1994), my first thought was, “How relevant can this book be, it’s almost 20 years old? ” The issues adolescents faced in the early 1990’s are not the same issues that my children are dealing with in 2013. American cultural has changed significantly in the last 20 years.

Society as a whole, has become more aware, more understanding and more proactive; we’re willing to acknowledge the faults of past ideology and we’re eager enact positive change. We’re involved; we’re conscientious and we’re dedicated the betterment of society. Yet with all of our good intentions, our adolescent girls are drowning in vast sea of negativity and losing their true authentic selves, to an over sexed, hypercritical, media crazed culture. The most important message it took from Mary Pipher’s book, Reviving Ophelia, is how damaging and belittling our culture is to the development of adolescent girls.

We are living the “information age” and there is very little parents can do to shield or protect their children from the harmful influences of the media. The internet and social media has taken over society and negatively impacted our culture in numerous ways. Children are exposed to sexual, violent content so often and from such an early age that they’ve become indifferent to it. Even the movies, music and television programs that are specifically geared towards adolescents, often advocates under-age drinking, drug use, defiant behavior and overt sexuality. As a result, our children are growing-up too fast.

My twelve year old daughter is dealing with issues that were once considered to be taboo even for adults, such as sexting and posting naked picture online. Parents and the media often contradict one another, which further confuses adolescents (Pipher, 2002). Parents are trying to establish healthy boundaries and instill moral values, such as kindness, respect, consideration and modesty. Their goal is to produce happy, well adjusted, morally sound adults. The media, on the other hand, purely wants to make money by pushing products and opinions (Pipher, 2002).

All facets of the media push, sell, and glorify sexuality over newsworthy content. These types of media encourage self-doubt and insecurity in girls by teaching them to worry about their sexuality, popularity and attractiveness (Pipher, 2002). Pipher blames the inescapable influence of the media, in part, for the eradication of self-esteem and loss of true identity among young impressionable girls (Whitaker, 2006). Throughout time, the needs of our children have not substantially changed (Pipher, 2002). They still need love, understanding, protection, acceptance and guidance to grow and thrive.

It’s our culture and expectations, or lacks thereof, that have changed; we no longer expect people to do the right thing. Our culture has become much more sexualized, violent and dangerous for adolescent girls; 44 percent of all rape victims are under the age of 18 (Rainn, 2009). Startling statistics like these make it difficult for parents to balance their adolescent’s need for safety against their need for autonomy. These changes have also made it much harder for young women to identify and ultimately get what they need (Pipher, 1994).

Our culture encourages adolescent, girls and boys, to distance themselves from their parents (the people that care most and know them best) as a sign of independence (Pipher, 2002). When adolescents are in their most vulnerable/impressionable state, their parents are unable to help them navigate difficult life altering situations. For the lack of better option, adolescents turn to their peers and media (Facebook) for advice and guidance: which leads to confusion and loss of self (Pipher, 2002).

Mary Pipher explained, the problems that girls (adolescents) are having is not because of dysfunctional families, as much as a dysfunctional culture. I found this perspective refreshing. For many years, family members, especially mothers, have been blamed for their daughter’s (adolescents) unhappiness and emotional issues (Pipher, 1994). Parents are not the only ones responsible. They cannot protect their children from everything and everyone. Our culture and society are responsible as well; we all have an obligation to the youth of our nation.

As a society, we are failing to provide a safe, nurturing environment for our children to flourish. As a culture, we are failing an entire generation of young women by allowing the media to dictate the value of external and internal beauty. We are also allowing the media to teach our culture, that it’s acceptable to view children in an overly mature, sexualized manor (Pipher, 1994). Adolescence has always been a time of turbulence and strife but in today’s culture, girls and young women feel overly pressured to conform to society’s unrealistic expectations of beauty, sexuality and femininity.

During childhood, girls are praised for their kindness, academics, sports ability and natural talents. During adolescence, their childhood accomplishments and personal strengths are minimized or devalued and their sense of “self” becomes dependent upon their perceived level of attractiveness (Pipher, 1994). Girls who do not feel attractive or “normal,” see their bodies as a personal failure and are left feeling worthless and/or excluded. Pipher explains that an adolescent’s lack of emotional maturity, makes it difficult for them to hold onto their true-selves and not fall prey to our over sexualized culture.

Girls are encouraged to sacrifice their true-selves and they are expected to mold themselves into what society wants from its young women. In a sense, their identity is strip away so their sexuality and attractiveness can surface. Society has little concern for who these young women want to become or what they’re capable of accomplishing (Pihper, 1994). Our culture doesn’t typically embrace or reward individuality, unless it comes in a pretty, blatantly sexualized, package. Girls respond to cultural or societal pressures by being angry, developing depression, withdrawing and by conforming (Pihper, 2002).

Pipher explains that insecure girls often “lead with their sexuality,” as if it’s their only redeemable quality and all they have to offer. As a parent, how can I help my children navigate a media obsessed culture that I do not truly understand? How do you limit the dangerous influence of the internet and Social media; it’s everywhere, all the time? This is not the culture or society that I grew up in, the rules have changed and the stakes are much higher. I feel like I’m running a never ending race against peer pressure and media influence; whoever wins the race gets to keep my child’s soul and dignity.

The idea of losing my sweet, loving twelve year old daughter to title wave of uncontrollable, irrational hormones is terrifying. Like most parents, I fear adolescence. I clearly remember my own “war path” through my teen years. I needlessly pushed and distanced myself from my family. I was very “uncool” to get along with your parents. I fought viciously for independence, which really meant doing whatever I wanted. I lied, skipped school, snuck out at night, stole liquor and drank to the point of passing out. I felt misunderstood and disconnected from everything.

I deeply craved companionship; so much so that I allowed myself to be used by unworthy, equally damaged people. The peer pressure was so intense and my need for acceptance ruled my life. It was a very confusing time and I tortured myself and my parents. I remember how lost I felt, how hopeless it all seemed, how angry I was and how much I hated my body. I was too short, too fat, teeth were crooked and my chest was too big. I breast developed quickly; in junior high, I was 34 C-cup and by high school, I was a 36 D-cup. I got a lot of inappropriate and unwanted attention, that I didn’t know what to do with.

Men/Boys liked me too much and women seemed to be bothered or intimidated by me. Some of my girlfriends were jealous, while others were overly critical. The attention I received permanently changed how I saw myself and how I interacted with the people around me. I went from being a tiny, abrasive tomboy, who was always fighting to be seen as an adult, to being viewed in a completely sexualized manor. The media has taught women, of all ages, that their most revered, important qualities are sexuality and appearance (Pipher, 1994).

Adolescent girls are constantly bombarded with distorted, over sexed images of what beauty should look like. You have to be tall, ridiculously thin, wear expensive clothes, have perfectly straight teeth, flawless skin and above all else, exude sex (Pipher, 2002). When young women compare themselves to the images they see on television, in movies and on advertisements, they’re often left feeling inadequate and confused about their own bodies. The media’s idea of what constitutes attractiveness or what beauty looks like is often unattainable, unhealthy and unnatural.

The average fashion model is 5’10/5’11 and weighs 110 pound (Pipher, 1994). According to the Center for Disease Control (2007-2010) the average American girl, at age 11 is 4’11” and weighs 104. 8 pounds; an average American girl, at age 15 is 5’4” and weighs 139. 6 pounds; the average American women over the age of 20, is 5’4” and weighs 166. 2 pounds. These statistics are mind-blowing and sad. How can we expect adolescent girls to have a healthy understanding of beauty and body image, when the average 11 year old girl (at the beginning of adolescence) is just 6 pounds shy of the average fashion model?

How, as a society, do we expect our young women to develop positive attitudes about weight, height and appearance when we continually glorify an unrealistic and often unattainable standard of what beautiful is? When the media portrays “beauty” in such an unnatural way (being supper skinny) adolescent girls will do unhealthy, extreme things to be thin; which often leads to eating disorders (Pipher, 1994). Bulimia Nervosa is the most common eating disorder among young adolescent women, ages 14-24 years old (Duke University, 2010).

People with bulimia will binge eat or consume large amounts of food in a short amount of time; an average of 3,000 – 5,000 calories within an hour (Smith & Segal, 2012). After binging, the bulimic feels compelled to purge or rid the body of the recently consumed food by vomiting, excessively exercising, or abusing laxatives and diuretics. Approximately 1 out of every 50 American women will suffer from bulimia at some point in her life (Duke University, 2010). Bulimia Nervosa can become all-consuming and take over the adolescent’s entire thought process.

Every decision, in one way or another, is about food. In the beginning, bulimia makes them feel powerful, in control and invincible. For the first time in their life they can eat whatever they want, it doesn’t count, the calories don’t matter because they can get rid of them. No harm, no fowl! Slowly, over time, they come to realize that they are not in control, they’re eating disorder is. The uncontrollable compulsion to binge and purge interferes with relationships, daily routine and their life in general.

In an attempt to hide their eating disorder, adolescents may isolate themselves from friend and family, which only exacerbate their illness. Pipher offers some great advice on how, we as a society, can encourage and effect positive change in the lives young women. She list 6 essential things that all adolescent girls need. First) Physical and Psychological Safety: Girls need the ability to thinks clearly and the permission to feel what they feel, without fear of punishment or ridicule. Second) Love and Friendship: Girls need the love of their parents.

They need to develop lasting relationships that are based on mutual respect, love and understanding. Third) Useful Work and Skills: Girls need feel useful and purposeful by develop skills that promote personal accomplishments and success. Fourth) Opportunity to Grow: Girls need time, compassion and guidance as they develop into total functioning human beings. Five) Self-Defense Training: Girls need to feel empowered; they need to know that they can take care of themselves, that they are not passive victims.