Thursday, June 21, 2012

Book Review: Reviving Ophelia

Reviving Ophelia: Saving the Selves of Adolescent Girls by Mary Pipher, PhD

In this book, Dr. Pipher argues our American culture with its obsession with body size, promiscuity, and violence has critically damaged the souls of teenage girls. Published in 1994, it is arguably out-of-date, but I was interested in reading it as I was a teenage girl in the 1990s. My own teenage years were relatively stable and, though Kansas Dad says I'm thinking too far ahead, I'd like to do all I can to ensure my own girls have stable teenage years as well.

Dr. Pipher's book is based mainly on anecdotes and case studies provided by her clinical work with teenage girls in distress. Many of these stories are depressing and overwhelming, so should be read with some caution, especially for teenagers themselves. Because she very rarely works with well-adjusted young women, I think Dr. Pipher might be overestimating the effects on young women as a whole in our culture. There is no doubt in my mind that some teenage girls suffer in the ways she describes, but I think a great many teenage girls survive the onslaught of culture and the pressures of adolescence without such trauma.

That is not to say that I believe Dr. Pipher is incorrect in much of her assessment against contemporary media. While reading this book, I watched advertisements and television shows more carefully. I found a great many of her critiques still applied. Women, even strong women in prominent positions (doctors, lawyers, judges) are nearly universally young, slim, beautiful and sexy. One show in particular showed a strong black judge who ended the show wearing a firefighter's jersey, singing and dancing suggestively on a stage. Seriously. Perhaps it's unreasonable to expect anything else of a television show written and filmed to appeal to viewers and advertisers, but we don't have to let our children watch it.

I was disappointed at the lack of footnotes or end notes, especially given the number of statistics she quotes. They would all be out-of-date by now, but I do think it indicates a lack of scholarship. I searched a little online and found the CDC website with current information that is nearly as distressing as what she quotes in the book.

Only one conservative family appears in the book, which receives praise from Dr. Pipher for its well-adjusted daughter and criticism for how it infringes on her independence and creativity. It is unfortunate she could not find a more reasonable example.

Dr. Pipher was clear on her belief that divorce is bad for children, something many people are reluctant to admit.
In the late 1970s I believed that children were better off with happy single parents rather than unhappy married parents. I thought divorce was a better option than struggling with a bad marriage. Now I realize that, in many families, children may not notice if their parents are unhappy or happy. On the other hand, divorce shatters many children.
In addition, while Dr. Pipher does not want to exclude physical intimacy entirely, she admits it doesn't seem to be a good idea.
By high school, some girls may be mature enough to be sexually active, but my experience is that the more mature and healthy girls avoid sex. Because of my work, I see the unhappiness of early sexual intimacy--the sadness and anger at rejection, the pain over bad reputations, the pregnancies, the health problems and the cynicism of girls who have had every conceivable sexual experience except a good one. I'm prepared to acknowledge exceptions, but most early sexual activity in our culture tends to be harmful to girls.
Personally, I think she's being too careful here. I'd say it's a bad idea for all adolescent girls.

Dr. Pipher calls for a change in our culture, for the creation of a society where women have the independence, freedom and choices of our contemporary time with the safety and community of a generation ago. I think that sounds great, but probably unrealistic. We can as parents, however, create that kind of environment for our own daughters at home. Reading this book has given me a few ideas on ways to do that, though there are probably plenty of other books that would be just as helpful.


  1. I read the book when it first came out. My daughters are now 25, 23 and 20. That book really, really impacted my parenting... for the better I believe. My daughters have all turned out to be strong, good young women and they sailed through their teen years without problems. Mary Pipher's next book is good too. I cant't remember the title...

  2. Hi Jane - thanks for commenting! It's hard to guess what my girls will be like in their teen years, so it's especially nice to hear from a mom who read the book and then had daughters go through them.


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