With the publication of Reviving Ophelia: Saving the Selves of Adolescent Girls in 1994, Mary Pipher brought widespread attention to the loss of authentic self experienced by girls in early adolescence in the United States, a topic which had not been formally explored in depth by psychologists. Pipher refers to girls of this age as “saplings in a hurricane” because they are like “young and vulnerable trees that the winds blow with gale strength” (22). Despite some cultural changes that have taken place in the 12 years since Reviving Ophelia was published (such as the advent of the Internet’s World Wide Web), the major internal and external issues facing adolescent girls are still the same, giving the book continued relevance.
With a doctorate in psychology and a background in cultural anthropology, Pipher describes herself as “a relationship-oriented cognitive behaviorist… influenced by the humanistic psychologists and also by social learning theorists” (249) and declares a particular interest in “the role cultures play in the development of individual psychology” (26). She notes that adolescence is particularly fascinating to her because it is a time of life in which the individual undergoes rapid internal changes as well as indoctrination in cultural expectations (26). One developmental psychology textbook describes this time period in terms of Erikson’s identity-versus-identity-confusion stage, in which the individual seeks his or her unique gifts and explores possible future roles (Feldman 420).
Despite many advances in gender equality during the twentieth century, aspects of traditional female gender roles still play a damaging part in the social training of adolescent girls. At the onset of puberty, Pipher writes, “Girls who were the subjects of their own lives become the objects of others’ lives” (21). This idea reinforces Erikson’s belief that females tend to seek intimacy and then base their identities on these intimate relationships (Feldman 421). Pipher believes that the pervasive influence of the media-both the advertising industry and general portrayals of gender roles in movies and on television-is partly to blame for the eradication of girls’ self-esteem and sense of identity. Adolescent girls used to have only their peers in the same town for comparison, but television and movies have turned the world into “one big town-a sleazy, dangerous tinsel town with…few protected spaces” (27).
Pipher also acknowledges many ways in which life is more dangerous for girls of this generation than in previous eras; teenagers now face more serious threats than their mothers did at the same age. For example, the issue of sexual activity in adolescence has always been a source of fears about pregnancy, venereal diseases, and social respect, but these days both parents and daughters worry about AIDS and the ever-present threat of sexual assault (28). Girls are also being faced with decisions about sexuality at a much younger age. Feldman claims that 7% of high school students say they had their first sexual intercourse before the age of 13 (440). Issues that used to be tackled in college are now faced by girls in junior high (Pipher 247). As Pipher puts it, “The lessons are too difficult and the learning curve too steep” (264). Girls are further harmed by the cultural expectation in the United States that adolescents must necessarily become distant from their parents, who might otherwise be a source of emotional security and information (23). Because of this familial distance, teenage girls must rely on their peers instead. Feldman notes that peer relationships are more important during adolescence than at any other time in life, offering social comparison to help explain the teenager’s own experiences in addition to modeling roles and behavior (Feldman 433).
Pipher describes several inborn traits of adolescent girls that can be exacerbated by external cultural factors. Girls this age are extremely self-absorbed, secretive, and contradictory (21-23). Feldman adds that teenagers’ “personal fables” lead them to believe that what happens to them is unique and not experienced by anyone else (Feldman 397). Pipher notes that teenage girls tend to suffer from metaphorical problems such as eating disorders, self-mutilation, and phobias that cover up the real source of their distress (20). An example is anorexia, which kills up to 20% of its victims (Feldman 390), illustrating the tendency of girls to “overshoot the mark” in their attempts to conform to societal expectations (Pipher 44).
Furthermore, adolescent girls cannot put events into perspective, so anything that goes wrong feels like the end of the world (57-58). Feldman notes that 24-40% of teenage girls report experiences with depression, a slightly higher rate than that of teenage boys (425). Pipher also refers to what psychologists call the “imaginary audience” (60), defined by Feldman as “fictitious observers who pay as much attention to the adolescents’ behavior as adolescents do themselves” (Feldman 397). All of these traits make it unlikely that an adolescent girl will be able to cope with the barrage of issues presented by the modern world, or be willing to seek assistance from parents or other adults. Echoing developmental psychologist James Marcia’s concept of identity diffusion (Feldman 423), Pipher states that the “loss of wholeness, self-confidence and self-direction” experienced by teenage girls in American culture can last well into adulthood: “Many adult clients struggle with the same issues that overwhelmed them as adolescent girls” (25).
Having examined the cultural and psychological causes of girls’ loss of authentic self, Pipher offers suggestions about what can be done to prevent the loss of authentic self in future generations of adolescent girls. On the family level, an authoritative parenting style that features both a high level of control and high acceptance will produce adolescents “who are independent, socially responsible and confident” (83), an assertion that is supported by Feldman (272). Pipher suggests that girls be encouraged to write poetry or keep a journal in order to further develop their sense of identity (255). Girls can also be reminded to view our culture from an anthropological perspective in order to maintain a healthy distance from unreasonable expectations (256) and to maintain aspects of their lives outside of school, such as family activities and volunteer work, that expose them to people of other generations (288).
In terms of necessary changes in society on a broad scale, Pipher writes that effective paths toward healthier adolescent girls might include recognizing that intelligence does not necessarily indicate emotional maturity (162); teaching children that pain is an expected part of being human rather than an anomaly (202); redefining adulthood to mean more than simply “being old enough to consume harmful chemicals, have sex and spend money” (202); and addressing society’s tendency to restrict women’s freedom in lieu of making their environment safer (292).