Book Review: Reviving Ophelia by Mary Pipher & Sara Pipher Gilliam

Reviving Ophelia – Mary Pipher & Sara Pipher Gilliam (Riverhead Books, 2019)

When I first read Reviving Ophelia, I was about five years too late. Or twenty years too early, depending on your perspective. I was in my early twenties, out of the adolescent years that Pipher focuses on. Reviving Ophelia first came out in 1994, at which point I was only nine years old, but when I read it in the mid-2000s, it felt like I was hearing someone validate my own teenage experience for the first time.

Teenagehood is hard and the shift from girlhood into womanhood may be particularly difficult. In the original edition, Pipher explores how adults can aid the young girls around them (their daughters, particularly) through that transition period. Why is it that pre-teen girls who are smart and happy and well-rounded become depressed and withdrawn as teenagers? What causes them to become caught by drugs, sex, or violence? How do they grow out of adolescence as whole and complete people, equipped for adulthood?

Since I first read Reviving Ophelia, I’ve become the mother to two girls. They’re currently four and two so (hopefully) the adolescent struggle is many years away for us. But since becoming mom to these future women, I’ve thought of Pipher’s book and wished there was an updated version that I could read when the time comes. Lo and behold, my wish came true! This year, Pipher, together with her daughter, has revised and updated her work. The new edition contains the original text and interviews that were published in 1994 but has some new additions. There are sections where Pipher receives feedback from a current day focus group – teen girls now in 2019. She adds to her statistics and compares life for girls in 1994 and 2019.

Overall, the comparison is fascinating. The number one difference is, of course, social media and the internet. Something girls in 1994 were never concerned with and something that in my own teenage hood barely existed. I’ve been thankful before that I was an adult by the time Facebook became a thing and I’ve wondered how to eventually navigate those waters with my children. According to Pipher, today’s girls live more of their life online, often alone in their rooms. This means they experience less violence (Only 1 in 6 will be sexually assaulted, as compared to 1 in 3 in 1994. Yay?) and rates of drug and alcohol use are down. However, they are more depressed and more isolated. And, Pipher argues, when adulthood comes, they are less prepared.

Pipher’s work, both now and in 1994, relies heavily on her work as a therapist and both books are made up of many interviews with young girls. I would have been interested to see some updates of the teen girls Pipher interviewed in the 1990s, who would be women in their 40s now, perhaps parenting their own teenagers. Still, the interviews are interesting and eye-opening and Pipher always brings them back to connect to research, as well as practical ways that parents can stay connected and aid their daughters through their teenage years.

In the end, Pipher seems optimistic about the girls of today. She says girls in 2019 are closer to their parents and not afraid of appearing smart. They are among the first generation to be raised by fathers not afraid to call themselves feminists (and who were, in turn, raised by more involved fathers than previous generations). There are more doors open to them in the working world than ever before. At the same time, though, they are navigating an online world that no generation before has experienced. They are aware of the falsehood of it but often powerless to escape it. They have trouble turning off from the 24/7 media and social cycle and they are more aware of the tragedies of the world than teens in the past. This constant access to media and the lives of others has put more pressure on girls than ever before to look and act a certain way.

I wasn’t a teen in 1994 and I’m not the mother of teenagers in 2019. By the time my children are teens, the world will have changed again. It’s reassuring to read that things have somewhat improved yet there is still a long ways to go to keeping our girls safe. If you’re a parent of girls, I can definitely recommend Reviving Ophelia. And if you’re someone who survived teenage girlhood, I can recommend as well, even if simply to shine a light on those years and remind you that you are not the only one.

12 thoughts on “Book Review: Reviving Ophelia by Mary Pipher & Sara Pipher Gilliam”

  1. I remember discovering the wonder that was AOL IM and being so happy that I could finally reach out to other people. Granted, I’m an introvert who lived several miles outside of town (so there were no nearby playmates). On the other hand, we were also learning about what the internet even WAS in terms of a social device, and we had things like chat room parties, which is very different from Facebook and Twitter. I think I mentioned this to you, but I deleted my Facebook and Twitter a few months ago and have felt much happier as a result. I still have WordPress and Goodreads.

    1. I think there are lots of benefits to the internet but many, many drawbacks too. I never got into chat rooms or any of that when I was younger (ICQ was the big thing when I was in high school but my parents were very strict about computer usage and we had a spotty dial-up connection!) Back then, the internet mostly seemed like a scary place full of strangers who wanted to kill you! Now I appreciate Facebook as a way to keep in touch with friends much more easily than we could have two decades ago but I also recognize that it can create a false sense of connection. We look at each other’s lives but never really engage. What made you decide to delete Facebook and Twitter, if I can ask? Personally, I find they work best for me when I severely limit my time. Like, I’ll set a timer and that will be my social media time for the day!

    2. There was this weird trend of me writing something on a friend’s wall and then one of THEIR friends (whom I am not friends with) would say something shitty to me. I think the internet makes people both brave and salty, and as it’s a powerful resource, it’s important to be educated about civility, ethics, and communication before diving in a making a fool of oneself. As we all know, the internet is there for anyone to use, though.

      When I was first signed up circa 2003, I hated social media because people would be hanging out and sharing pictures of it, and they didn’t invite me! What the heck!? I know there are studies about how social media makes people feel back about themselves.

    3. Yeah, the internet can definitely bring out the worst. Something about being able to say what you want without having to actually look at the other person and experience their reaction. Social media definitely makes people feel inadequate and the book addresses that a bit. Young people just don’t have the perspective to look at this perfect version of other people’s lives and know it’s not the whole picture. I’m really careful about who I follow in Instagram, for example, because most “mommy bloggers” make me feel inadequate as a parent. I cut way back on who I was following when I realized this. Now I mostly follow people who talk about books because I feel ok about my reading life!

    4. That’s true – moms can be scary! I do think real-life communities tend to be healthier than on-line ones and so I’m very lucky to have a lot of mom friends in my real life.

  2. That’s so interesting that she same back and revised the subject through a modern gaze. It’s certainly true that the internet is both a blessing and a curse, and a sad reality that teenage girls are probably the ones it harms the most.

    1. In the intro she says she had teenage girls read the 1994 book and make notes on what should be added. Every single one said social media and the internet was the major issue. There’s so much good but it’s so hard for teenagers to filter out the bad and maintain real-life perspective. I think it can be hard for all of us but hopefully we learn a better balance as we get older.

  3. Hmm – well, obviously yes, yay to fewer sexual assaults, but if it’s because girls are spending their lives isolated in their bedrooms I’m not sure the trade-off is worth it. It’s as if just when parents have stopped locking up their daughters, the daughters have started locking up themselves. I must admit I’m very glad to neither be a teenager nor to be the mother of teenagers today – it was never an easy age but the whole social media thing has opened up so many more opportunities for bullying and peer pressure to follow kids even into their own homes. I’m glad the author thinks things have improved overall, though I’m not sure I’m entirely convinced of that…

    1. I think in general, the author would actually agree with you. That the trade-off might not be worth it because while girls in the 1990s were experiencing harder stuff, they could also come out of it with greater resilience, ready for adulthood. Whereas girls today are missing out on some of those life skills that they need to learn as teens. Pipher concludes that, ideally, parents can help girls have those real-life experiences in a safe way. But living so much of life online makes it harder and harder now.

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