A few weeks ago while browsing the $1 shelf at the Book Parlor on a coffee date with my mother, she pulled a book off the shelf—Reviving Ophelia by Mary Pipher. I read this when you were a kid, she said, I remember it resonated with me at the time. Eager to see my adolescence through her eyes, I decided to read it.
As I read, I remembered acne being the end of the world. I remembered always sizing up every girl in the room, trying to justify myself as the prettiest. (Pipher calls this lookism.) I remembered spending hours in the bathroom every morning—sometimes getting up at five thirty just to make sure I’d made every zit invisible. As I read, I remembered crying in the car on the way to school and refusing to get out, unable to handle the scrutiny of my classmates, hoping my mother would give in and let me go back home with her. I remembered my friend telling me (because she was “looking out for me”) that Carl had said my makeup made me look like a prostitute. I remember Clara’s long eyelashes and wondering if she had sex with boys. I remembered wanting to stay in my room until my face cleared up—even if it took years. As I read, I remembered my best friend turning on me one week into the school due a unanimous judgement by the girls in my grade that I was “annoying.” In Pipher’s school girls scapegoated by saying the undesirables “had germs.” In my school annoyingness was the unforgivable sin—and conveniently subjective. I remember having a lot to say about how I thought the world should be and only my mother and my journal to say it to. I remember identifying with men, sometimes feeling like my intellect was manly because all the books we read were written by men and history was only HIS story. As Pipher discussed the cultural oppositions to the selves of girls in the 1990s, the memories of my own struggles came flooding back.
With memories of adolescent struggle came new insights into the things that got me through. As I weathered the storm, there were some circumstantial graces that helped preserve my Self.
My parents stayed together, they supported one another. I respected them as a source of moral authority. They both believed that the best way to love their daughters was to love one another.
At first my writing was childish and it, like everything else it was an attempt for me to portray myself in a socially acceptable light. I wrote like I lived, with my peers as audience. Sparkly gel pen. Gossip. Doodles. By the end of my freshman year in high school I relied on my journal to understand my thoughts and their significance in the world. In those pages, I was able to stretch my thoughts and feelings into an intelligible and linear format.
Pipher stresses that it is important for girls to see themselves as part of a larger story. At age 15, I discovered the story I belonged to with striking clarity that has only increased with time. I was a fallen child of God, ransomed by the blood of Christ, and brought back home into a family. I found myself in the arms of a mighty father whose will was only good. He heard me when no one else did, he led me when I felt lost, his constant delight in me made it so the gaze of young men had less power. His will was a river running through me—nothing I did could stop me from receiving what he’d promised. I told everyone I knew this incredible news.
In 7th grade, lots of boys had crushes on me. My social life was going my way. But when things weren’t so smooth in the 8th grade, I began to observe my world more carefully. I saw that in a group of my peers, everyone wanted to be heard and no one was listening, so I stopped trying to get a word in. That same year, I saw that social acceptance was a roller coaster and there was nothing I could do to control it, so I found a couple of friends I liked who also flew under the social radar and stopped fighting for such fickle status.
Instead of fighting the storm, I waited it out. Waiting it out made it so that I had more Self left when the sun came out.
5. PARENTAL FORTITUDE
Pipher says, “It’s important for parents to watch for trouble and convey to their daughters that, if it comes, they are strong enough to deal with it. Parents who send their daughters the message that they’ll be overwhelmed by problems aren’t likely to hear what’s really happening.”
My parents always told us that they loved us and that they were proud of us. However, being people they could be proud of was not a prerequisite for love and affection in our family. It was an underlying an unalterable reality of being their daughters that we were loved. They even told us periodically that if we ever got pregnant—or if we were underage drinking and needed a ride home—they wanted in on it, they could deal with it, and they would still love us.
6. ANDROGYNOUS PARENTS
“Parents can help daughters be whole by modeling wholeness. Androgynous parents are the best. Good fathers are nurturing, physically affectionate and involved in the lives of their daughters. Good mothers model self-sufficiency and self-love and are responsive, but not responsible for their family members.”
My mother is a badass. She was not frail, she didn’t wait for Dad to get home to help get things done. She studied math in college. Did software programming for Boeing. Now she does Ironman triathlons. My mother broadens my idea of what it means to be a woman.
My father is firm, formal, goal-oriented, romantic, and sentimental. I always felt pushed by him. And I often pushed back. But after a confrontation, he’d wait until my sobs were dwindling, and he consistently followed up with tenderness, apologized when necessary, reminded me of his love.
7. BEING HEARD AT ALL HOURS
“Parents can help by listening to their daughters, who need as much parent time as toddlers. Teenagers need parents available when they are ready to talk. Usually girls want to talk when it’s most inconvenient for their parents. This is no accident. I found that both my teenagers were more likely to talk if I had my nose in a book. If I seemed interested in their lives and eager to talk, they pulled back.”
I was a homebody with a lot to say. I found ears in my mother. I would talk to her while she transferred laundry, went to the bathroom, made herself a cup of coffee—anything. And she let me. I don’t remember every being pushed away or stopped mid-conversation. I could not have processed or understood myself in the same way had I chosen to speak primarily to my peers. I consider her availability one of the most profound influences on my development.
8. HAVING INFLUENCE
“When listening, parents should listen to what they can respect and praise in their daughters’ talk. Whenever possible, they can congratulate their daughters on their maturity, insight or good judgment. It’s important to validate their autonomous, adult behavior and support their barely emerging maturity, insight,or good judgment. It is almost never helpful to label girls as young and immature.”
My mom took this a step further. Not only did she understand and validate me, while still letting me become my own person, she took my ideas in and thought about them and learned from them. My mother learned from me! I owe so much of my development as a self to my mother’s regard for my ideas and her consideration of them in her own life, despite the immaturity that accompanied them.
As I move forward in my life and decide who God made me to be, I find myself looking back more and more to how I became what I already am. It was difficult to explain to people why I would read a book on teenage girls’ psychological issues when I neither am nor have a teenage girl. “Because my mother read it” was a reason that made sense in my heart, but it felt sentimental coming out of my mouth. Nonetheless, I’m grateful to have taken the time to read Pipher’s insights and stories as a vehicle for exploring my own.