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The Woman Behind 'Reviving Ophelia' Reflects On Teen Girls' Mental Health, Then & Now

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Are The Kids Alright?

25 years ago, the book Reviving Ophelia started a national discussion about young women and mental health. Here, the author's daughter examines what has changed for teens since then, and recalls what it was like to be the original “Ophelia”

SOMETIME IN THE mid-1990s, early in my college career, I found myself in the produce section of my local Lincoln, Nebraska, supermarket, shopping with friends for ingredients for (most likely) a complicated vegetarian concoction. I had pink and purple hair, a pierced nose, and was rocking a grunge look pieced together from the sale rack at Family Thrift. Then, as now, I was chubby, irreverent, and goofy.

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A cardigan-wearing 40-something woman passed our little group, took in our attire and raucous attitudes, and muttered under her breath, “Reviving Ophelia? More like drowning Ophelia.”

Well then.

She was referring to Reviving Ophelia, a book which became a national phenomenon after its release in 1994, spending three years on The New York Times’ bestsellers list, including 27 weeks at number one. Reviving began a cultural conversation about adolescent girls’ mental health in the face of objectification, misogynistic advertising, and societal messages about beauty, thinness, and femininity. It made its author, Mary Pipher, a household name. In Lincoln, where Pipher’s from, she was a well-known therapist and educator, and like it or not, she was also my mom. As her “original Ophelia” (my sarcastic family nickname), I was a recognizable figure, too.

But drowning Ophelia? Not quite. What that caustic shopper didn’t realize was that my generation of girls wasn’t seeking her approval—at least not those in my social circle. The last thing we wanted was to grow up and be conventional. Instead, we were careening off the metaphorical high dive, exploring sexuality and activism and pushing back against previous generations’ stodgy rules and expectations. Nerdy was cool, conformity was verboten, and we loved Lilith Fair, Eddie Vedder, flannel shirts, and Virginia Woolf novels. We reclaimed sexist language and used it to express our burgeoning confidence and power. Even while maintaining our polite Nebraska sensibilities, we were a generation of rebels.
Let me provide some context. Named after Ophelia—Hamlet’s spurned lover who became so confused as she tried to please both her father and paramour that she eventually drowned in a stream—my mother’s book was a call to arms for parents and professionals working with adolescent girls. In the ’90s, she was seeing girls in her therapy practice who were experiencing a litany of problems: drug and alcohol abuse, self-harm, eating disorders, high rates of sexual assault, reckless behaviors, and school truancies. Her book was the first—many followed—to connect these behaviors with popular culture and its sexist and degrading messaging. She reframed the conversation about girls’ needs, and in many ways changed the way psychologists address adolescents’ mental health.

Parallel to this, as my mother was working on her book, I was a high school student experiencing my own adolescence, with all its turmoil and ennui. I reviewed her early drafts and suggested changes to dialogue (for “teen accuracy”) and celebrity references. For what it’s worth, I did plead my case that Madonna’s music and style were actually empowering and that rap music could be entertaining, but by and large, the themes the book addressed accurately mirrored the experiences my friends and I were having. Although we had a typical mother/daughter relationship—love and affection punctuated with a fair amount of conflict—I was proud of my mother and her groundbreaking work.

If risk-taking and rebellion defined my cadre of ’90s girls, today’s adolescents are, by comparison, risk-averse and cautious. Having spent the past 18 months conducting focus groups and interviews with girls, mothers, therapists, and teachers, my mother and I have rewritten and revised Reviving Ophelia for a new generation. (The 25th Anniversary Edition hit bookstore shelves in June.) What we discovered when we sat down and talked to modern young women surprised us both.

First, however, it’s worth underscoring the societal changes that have occurred since the original Reviving’s publication. The Columbine shooting happened in 1999, which means that most girls we interviewed have grown up as members of “Generation Lockdown,” and have been participating in active shooter drills since elementary school. It is impossible to overstate the effect this has had on their feelings of anxiety versus safety and security. The terrorist attacks of 9/11 and the subsequent U.S. involvement in two wars, along with the rise of Al Qaeda, and then ISIS, have unfolded across the lifespans of today’s teenagers.

 

“I am crushed when I see that my friends have more Instagram followers or likes than me.”

 

The typical American family today is also more financially insecure than their ’90s counterpart; salaries have not kept up with health and education costs, and more families are struggling to meet basic needs. We have seen a sharp rise in anti-Semitic, anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant, and anti-refugee rhetoric, and an increase in race-based hate crimes. And, most significantly, Americans have fully embraced the advent of smartphones and social media, and the creation of a second world and culture—online.

The complete cultural saturation of devices has enormous—and largely unstudied—implications for all of us, but especially for adolescent girls, who, as the largest users of social media, spend an average of six to nine hours a day online. This impacts all aspects of their development—cognitive, emotional, physical, sexual, and maturational. We are, I believe, experimenting with an entire generation, and we don’t yet know how this experiment will play out.

Ninety-five percent of teenagers have access to a smartphone. And while they may not seek out harmful content, it’s ubiquitous—in advertising, auto-loading videos, banner ads and pop-ups, spam emails, and unwanted communiques from peers. Many girls are exposed to pornography long before they hold hands on a date. Porn, with its graphic, aggressive, and decidedly un-tender expressions of sex, shapes teens’ expectations around the sex act and even dating relationships. It’s not surprising, then, that many of the girls we spoke with expressed disinterest or even fear about dating. Meanwhile, boys their age are discovering toxic and insensitive models of masculinity online that influence their own perceptions of sex, setting the stage for confusion or, in extreme cases, sexual harassment and assault.

Research also reveals that girls are utterly fixated on curating their online selves, who tend to be happier, prettier, and more vibrant than their real-life selves. This comes at a great cost. As one SXSW panel noted recently, there are people who have “10,000 followers and no friends.” Therapists told us the contemporary girls they are seeing are unspeakably lonely. They aren’t developing basic social skills and competencies, and instead spend their time creating the perfect online persona. Gone are the endless and angst-filled conversations with friends at sleepovers and parties—those emotion-charged talks about life, spirituality, love, and relationships that have for centuries been a hallmark of adolescence. Today’s typical teen girl spends her Saturday nights at home alone watching Netflix while texting friends and surfing Instagram.

Here’s where things get problematic. It is through human connection, challenge, failure, and exposure to new things that we develop our true selves—our identities. Social media encourages instead the development of a false self, or the impersonation of an ideal self; in the meantime, the authentic self diminishes or, even worse, does not develop at all.

Interestingly, girls themselves are aware of the drawbacks of social media—in fact, some seem almost wistful for the “olden days” before SnapChat and Tik Tok. In our focus groups, many girls could articulate that they struggle with social media but said, in the same breath, that they couldn’t live without it. “When you’re a kid, you’re not self-conscious about what you look like when you are doing things,” an interviewee named Aspen tells me. “But after you go online…look out!”

“Every post or selfie has to be an advertisement for myself,” a young woman named Jordan adds. “I mean, it’s gratifying to be told I’m pretty, but my self-esteem is totally tied to how people react to my online presentation.”

Aspen agrees. “I know,” she says. “I am crushed when I see that my friends have more Instagram followers or likes than me.”

A girl named Izzie chimes in to say, “After an evening online, I go to bed feeling unhappy with my day. I wonder, ‘What did I do all day long?’ Then I wake up and do the same things the next day.”

The 1980s and ’90s were the zenith of the “dysfunctional family” model of therapy, in which parents were blamed for any and all unhappiness their children experienced. Today’s girls still argue with their parents in middle school—and I would argue that’s developmentally appropriate—but by high school they report closeness with their fathers and often say their mothers are their best friends. Overall, we observed more harmony among families, in part because girls are pushing back less against limits such as curfews or dating rules; less to argue about means less arguing.

Finally, we’ve seen a meteoric rise in activism, including youth activism. Today’s teenagers are angry at policymakers who don’t speak for them, and are empowering themselves on issues ranging from global climate change to sexual violence (#MeToo) and gun violence (March for Our Lives). Interviews with activist girls appear as a new section in our revised edition of Reviving.

 

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“I have friends with debilitating problems like cutting and OCD. It’s frustrating because I can’t help them. I mean, I’m only 14 myself.”

 

In spite of these positive societal shifts, however, today’s girls are struggling. Interestingly, beginning in the mid-’90s, all indices of girls’ mental health were on an upward climb. I credit my mother and her colleagues for sparking these positive changes. Girls’ empowerment groups sprang up and parents learned new ways to support their daughters. Then, in 2007—the year the iPhone launched—all of these graphs took a steep downward turn. Without a doubt we believe these two phenomena are closely related.

Vanderbilt University has reported that teen visits to emergency rooms with suicidal thoughts and behaviors doubled between 2008 and 2015. In 2016, 3 times as many 12- to 14-year-old girls committed suicide as did in 2007. We heard heartbreaking stories from the girls we talked to. A 13-year-old girl in my hometown brought box cutters to school to share with friends who wanted to self-harm. Girls send photos of their cuts to each other and form suicide pacts and clubs.

“I have friends with debilitating problems like cutting and OCD,” says Jordan. “They are kind, sweet people who try to act like nothing is wrong. It’s frustrating because I can’t help them. I mean, I’m only 14 myself.”

“When my friends are depressed, I’m the person they call,” a girl named Olivia tells us. “It’s terrifying. I’ve put suicide prevention apps on so many people’s phones.”

It’s notable that the original Reviving Ophelia did not have a chapter on anxiety; our new edition does. The American College Health Association released research in 2016 that shows anxiety has overtaken depression as the most common problem reported by incoming college freshmen. Sixty-two percent of undergrads reported experiencing overwhelming anxiety or panic attacks.

Many people are now writing about social media or researching girls’ depression and anxiety; with this book we wanted to unpack how they are related and why. Ideally, as they negotiate their teens, girls become less narcissistic, more empathetic, more responsible, and increasingly independent and resilient. But time on social media and constant digital connectedness work against these basic goals of adolescence. For example, many girls in 2019 have highly involved and protective parents. They stay in constant contact with their daughters via phone and text. With GPS tracking, parents always know where kids are. Teenage girls can call or text their parents anytime for help. This gives them a sense of security, but it also costs them a sense of efficacy and independence.

If you’re a parent or guardian, however, there is hope. There are simple, positive things adults can do to help girls build their identities and develop basic competencies. The simplest answer is, of course, also the hardest: unplug and engage with the real world. This looks different for every family. Some commit to no devices at the dinner table, or phone-free Saturdays. We propose that as a baseline, girls leave their phones charging in the kitchen overnight; teenagers need sleep and there’s no need for girls to be alerted to overnight notifications.

I also strongly recommend that parents go online with their teens. It may feel awkward at first, but it’s important. We found in our focus groups that most mothers, while loving and well intentioned, truly have no idea what their daughters are doing online. Many said that they bought their children phones to know when to pick them up from events, but they all agreed that soon they lost control of their daughters’ social media use. One mom we spoke to had a rule that, at any time, she could look at her daughter’s phone and read her texts. 

“Have you ever looked?” I asked.

“No way,” she admitted. “It would freak her out.”

While they’re spending more time online, girls today are doing a number of things less than previous generations. Adolescents in 2019 are far less likely to get a driver’s license or to find part-time work than previous generations. They date less, socialize in-person less, and interact less with neighbors and community members. This comes at a cost. When they eventually leave home, they are ill-prepared to navigate the “real world” on their own.

Parents and teachers can help by encouraging what we call calibrated stress. We all grow through challenges, but too much too soon can be overwhelming and defeating. Encourage middle school girls to abandon group texts and, instead, invite their friends over for pizza. Have high schoolers schedule their own dentist appointments or arrange college visits or vacations. Encourage a driver’s license, or suggest that teenagers practice taking public transportation or go grocery shopping on their own.

Additionally, a great deal of identity is formed through family stories; invite relatives to visit or embark on ancestry research. Form mother-daughter book clubs; reading promotes empathy and a broader worldview. Start empowerment groups at school; great models exist, such as Girls on the Run, Girl Up, and Girls Inc.

If depression and anxiety stem, in part, from the loss of true connection, then the antidote for today’s girls—and, frankly, for all of us—is connection to that which is real and true. Across 25 years, our culture has changed, but the needs of adolescent girls have remained remarkably consistent. Girls in 2019 need unconditional love from close family members; meaning and purpose; intense conversations with friends about values, relationships, work, and the future; protection from the most harmful aspects of our culture; and exposure to life’s most beautiful experiences. It’s a tall order, but we owe it to our girls to try.

 

By Sara Gilliam
Illustrated By Dorota Liwacz

 

 

This article originally appeared in the September/October 2019 print edition of BUST Magazine. Subscribe today!

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