Saturday, June 4, 2011

The Ghost of Ophelia

This turned into a long, complicated rambling post.  It started as a fitness post but migrated into self-concept and then into wider society issues.   Don't you hate that!   Then it got endlessly long, which is even more irritating.  And I could never quite pull it together into a unified whole, which is representative of life, but often rather unsatisfying in a casual read.

Luckily, it's a weekend in June, and you have your summer beach novels ready, so you can just skim through this quickly for the story parts or the review parts if you are interested in the topic and then move on to the next thing in your reader.    

I am reading a book I've heard of often, Reviving Ophelia:   Saving the Selves of Adolescent Girls.   I found it at a thrift store and couldn't resist.   I don't have an adolescent daughter anymore, and since she was homeschooled she missed almost all of the Lord of the Flies experiences recounted in the book, but it was interesting reading anyway.    The book is named after Ophelia, Hamlet's tragic betrothed, who becomes representative of the way that adolescent girls are pushed and pulled into compliance in often contradictory and anti-personalistic ways, leading to their psychic destruction.    The reviving part speaks to how we as parents and people of good will in general can keep this from happening.  

This is somewhat of a feminist message, yes, and there was a layer of Friedan and Beauvoir in the book that I did not entirely agree with, but the book as a whole turned out to fit into the pro-family, anti-toxic-peer-culture genre like Hold On To Your Kids,  and A Tribe Apart (which I talked about on my old blog).  So it was very interesting from that perspective.    The author, Mary Pipher, who came from a sheltered and loving home herself, firmly sets herself apart from Freud and others who see families as a seedbed of dysfunction and pathology.

And she sounds like an excellent counselor.  She tells many stories of her own life and the girls who come into her practice, and that was fascinating, if sometimes depressing in the case of the girls she worked with.  I'm going to go back through the book and pick out some of the methods she used to relate to and help the difficult, troubled girls who she saw in her practice.  They seemed like the sorts of things that could potentially be helpful in getting kids to engage in taking constructive responsibility for their own lives.  This is something that doesn't come naturally to me as a parent so I can use the tips. 

One factoid that stuck in my mind:

Miss America's have become taller and thinner over the years. In 1951, Miss Sweden was 5 feet 7 inches tall and weighed 151 pounds. In 1983, Miss Sweden was 5 feet 9 inches tall and weighed 109 pounds.
If these statistics are accurate, then the original Miss Sweden (who was the first Miss Sweden, and went on to became Miss World, the "prettiest girl in the word")  had a BMI of 23.6.   Still well within the healthy BMI ranges of 18.5 to 24.9, but towards the higher end.

As for the 1983 Miss Sweden?  Her BMI would be 16.1 according to the statistics given.  This is statistically well underweight.    She should be at least 125 pounds to reach the lower end of the healthy range.

There's actually a chart of the physical statistics of the Miss Americas.     The contrasts aren't as extreme as the difference between the 50's and 80's Miss Swedens.  There were some tall slender Miss Americas way back in the 40's (though tall and slender then meant 5' 10" and 135 pounds, which is still healthy range) and there was a 5'11" Miss America who weighed in at 145 just 13 years ago, as well as a petite 5'3" Miss America in recent years.   Still, it looks as though the trend has indeed been towards taller and slenderer.

The point in the book is that women measure themselves against an impossible physical standard.... emaciated models and actresses whose presentation is expertly tailored by masters of illusion.  Of course we all come up short.   What I did in junior high, since I didn't watch movies or TV or read star magazines,was to take the best physical feature of every other girls I saw and make an ideal composite in my mind, against which I compared myself.     So you don't really need the media to make yourself into a miserable young teenager, but no doubt the media confirms the tendency and makes the unrealistic seem realistic.  

Early adolescence is the stage when most girls get their fixed impression of their physical appearance.   I don't know if it's so much true of homeschooled girls --- I would have to ask my daughter.  But if you were tall  or developed early physically, or developed later than other girls, or had problems with your skin, or had some other physical attribute which set you apart from others, you may still, as a perfectly acceptable adult woman, carry around that sense of yourself like a phantom extension.     My guess  is that this is particularly the case of anorexics, who look in the mirror and see a fat person looking back at them, even if that fat person actually has a BMI of about 14.    Anorexics take the "thin" message and push it to the extreme.    It becomes self-perpetuating as the body responds to the starvation and changes.   Perceptions become even more distorted as the body fails to be controlled completely by the mind.  There is a dual destructive feedback which takes on a life of its own. 

In Sean's Algebra II book there is a formula they teach for statistics where you take the mean and subtract it from each data and then square it, and add them all together and divide.   OK, if you take that analogy for what it's worth, I think adolescents  do something like this, but not accurately, when they compare themselves on their absolute worst day with a composite of all the best in everybody else and then square the result of the comparison.   Distortion results but it's not recognized as distortion, because it's hard to have perspective when you don't have any yet.  The intellectual qualities and experience needed for true prudence are in the future.  So in junior highs all the differences are squared, just when physical, emotional and mental changes are greatest and everyone is most conscious of the differences of those around them, for better or for worse..

Mary Pipher thinks that these years are pivotal in the lives of American teens, especially girls.   We don't just carry a phantom physical body into adulthood, but a phantom self who is the composite of adolescent social experiences.  Since the majority of American children go to school, the majority go through the most volatile stage of their life surrounded by others going through the same things, basically away from adult intervention for most hours of the day, and in a wider cultural wasteland that sends damaging messages about ideal identity.   This is conventional wisdom nowadays, but partly because of her book, I think. which was one of the first to point it out in such resonant terms to the public.

She repeats several times that the experience of adolescents today is categorically different than that of teens in the past.  Because of the media culture, kids are exposed to, and inflict on their peers, a kind of violent sexual and verbal and physical harassment which most of us adults were not exposed to.  Pipher remarks that she could not use her own autobiographical stories much to relate to her patients, because they were from such a different world.  Parents today, she says, are in the same situation.   They realize that their kids live in a very different culture than even the one of the 70's.   This puts them in a helpless or defensive stance which diminishes their authority and further dilutes the influence they have on their growing children. 

Can homeschooling protect a girl from this situation?  Well, I don't think homeschooling can or should circumvent the developmental stage itself.    There is new ability to evaluate self and others and bring together an adult identity that is characteristic of these years and always has been. .   An adolescent always has had the imperative of developing a concept of herself and how she relates to the society she lives in.  Most  cultures have coming of age rites at this age, or at least acknowledge a transition by apprenticing, or marriage, or by some other social sign that acknowledges the adolescent as in some way a new person in his own right.

Our culture doesn't give clear transitional markers, or so some have said, so the kids have to design their own transition, and though it is often clumsily done,, like a tiger tripping over its paws, it is an inescapable part of personal development.   However, junior high is an explosive form of the transition rite; as if it had been designed expressly to test our kids in every way possible, with challenges that don't confront most adults unless they are inadvertently recreating the drama of that time in their lives.     Those young tigers are put in the equivalent of a confined cage, with no real responsibilities beyond the academics they tend to despise, and they try out their claws in an environment where everything is magnified.  

 Mary Pipher points out the way a confident, competent 11 year old girl, full of interests and enthusiasm, can become a peer-oriented, angry, risky-behaving teenager in just a few short seasons.  A girl raised to think independently and outside the status quo becomes boy-crazy and utterly compliant to her peers.  The girl has designed her own rite of passage, or her peers have designed a gauntlet for her to run through to prove herself, and she is radically shaken and battered and comes out with scars.    Pipher's perspective is somewhat different than mine;  she is dealing with the situation as it exists, seeing the girls who come in to her for help and trying to help them cope with the world they have to live in.   

Seeing it somewhat from outside, I think the heat is raised higher than many children can or should bear.   I don't know if tthere is one single solution.   Homeschooling brings some challenges of its own, of course..  And certainly homeschooled kids have to deal with that tug of their peer group in one way or another.   But the evidence shows that at least some homeschooled adolescent girls keep their 6th grade enthusiasm and competence into their teen years and beyond.   They have a different experience of adolescence than their schooled peers.

Unlike some feminists, Mary Pipher does strongly support families.   She thinks that most families, even less than perfect ones, are devoted to their daughters reaching their potential and are committed to love and respect for their daughter as an individual, whereas most of the time, the peer group and the institutional school and the media influence are more interested in conformity and judging by appearances.  Though Pipher does discuss misogynist dads, bitter divorces, abuse and neglect, she tends to think that families are a stabilizing force, but that girls are often swept away by the adolescent vortex and become distant from their families, and hostile, just at the time when their influence is most important.   Teachers aren't seen as much of a factor.  Some children are "saved" by a committed teacher, who takes an extra interest in them, but this is getting harder and harder as teachers have their own families, more paperwork to do and standards to meet, and personal involvement is so often perceived as risky in today's litigious, suspicious environment.  

In a strange way, adolescent girls sometimes don't WANT to be reminded that they are persons.  Fitting into the peer group requires that they be interchangeable, objectified, not unique beings with a past and visible origins.   This goes back to the media ideal of a female, which is often (Pipher thinks) conceived as passive, compliant, beautiful and giving, not a unique individual.   Consequently, a teenage girl is sometimes bitterly ashamed of her parents for the very reason that they are a reminder of her particular self, which she wants to keep hidden.   I can actually remember this.  I needed my parents, they were a stabilizing force, yet I was sometimes quite humiliated by their very familiarity and stability.

(I think this is somewhat a normal developmental stage in Western culture, too, given all the stories about girls who are princesses in disguise.  But it becomes a rawer issue when it's channeled through peer culture rather than through traditional stories, understanding and sympathy from a grandma or aunt, and meaningful work to do)

In the school setting, athletics and music and performance and academic-related clubs can help a girl maintain a unique and positive  identity in the face of crushing pressure to conform.   Outside the school, involvement in community activities and volunteer work can help.  So the extracurricular activities cooperate with family goals in keeping the individuality and stability of the adolescent girl.  Academics themselves don't work quite so positively because they are thought of negatively by the peer group.   Pipher thinks that girls' intelligence in particular can be a drawback in the social setting.   Many girls intentionally let their grades drop in order to seem more acceptable to their friends and particularly to boys. 

My strategy in the junior high and high school years was to keep my nose in a book and socially distance myself so I wouldn't have to be in the middle of things I was too emotionally young to deal with.   It didn't entirely work as I went through a rough time in my later years and I was certainly often lonely and alienated   I wasn't really a joiner and I wasn't inclined towards team sports like soccer and basketball, which were the only exracurricular activities offered in my high school.    I did join Youth for Christ and was involved in the church youth group but these were equivocal experiences.   They probably did help me stay afloat but this was during the 70's when most Christian youth organizations were doing some existential floundering of their own. 

 So it was challenging for me to find a niche identity that worked within the walls of the high school campus.  In the last couple of years I developed an eating disorder and some symptoms of chronic depression.   As the social scene got more painful, I cast myself as the "shadow student" who interacts with others as little as possible.    My reality was off-campus, and I was just marking time, trying to slip through as unobtrusively as possible.    Pipher points out that this withdrawalworks to some extent; it protects the child from pain and from getting in over her head into scrapes that a young person shouldn't have to handle.   It served that purpose for me.  But on the other hand, this strategy doesn't give the child a chance to practice communicative skills that will be valuable in adult life.  It forms coping habits which aren't necessarily very helpful  past immediate psychic survival.   Since school takes up so many hours of the day, and parents are often busy, the child can spend days basically not speaking to anyone beyond a few words.   I was fortunate that my parents remained a wholesome presence in my life, even if I sometimes resented that.  But it wasn't until I graduated and got into the "real world" (if only of a Christian young adult group and then college) that I got a chance to relate freely to my peers and others outside of my family.    

As a homeschooler, my daughter kept her interests and confidence through her teen years.   Homeschooling served for her somewhat as books and selective mutism served for me, providing insulation between her and the unleashed peer world.   But it was a healthier buffer, more like the athletics or extraocuuricular interests ones, because it allowed her to develop her persona rather than simply cope.   She participated in various activities, watched her peers with interest.   I think was probably aware of the tug of the pressure to conform but it was at a lower level of intensity, since she had lots of things going on outside the peer world.   So I think she went through the same developmental process but in a different way.     Unlike the "shadow student" who withdraws from the school scene within its walls, she was able to find ways to communicate with a range of people and develop a range of social skills. 

Again, I think some kids are able to find this insulation zone within the school building.  My daughter never went to school and she is very glad she didn't, but perhaps if she had she would have been all right.    Her younger brother attended our local high school  for 2 1/2 years.   Because he was primarily interested in football and other sports, and was willing to  follow the rules and succeed in his classes, this customized his experience within those walls.   He got the personal influence of adults (the coaches and other teachers involved in athletics) and he made friends through athletics who were generally motivated and relatively healthy. 

Like I did, and his father too during his high school years, knowing that the drama and idiosyncrasy of the "cool" world was too complex and potentially dangerous for our skill set, he simply kept himself away from all the things that struck him as too devouring of emotional energy.  He got a reputation for being cleancut and because of his athletic ability and hard work, he was accepted for what he was.   He made a lot of casual friends and some closer one who were his daily support system, and didn't bother to go to the school dances, so his experience did not seem that different from that of his dad growing up in the 70's (though the music is a little edgier and the kids swear more than they used to back then, I think). 

I think that the perception of having a choice might help somewhat.  My son knew that school was only one option.   We didn't put him in school, and when he wanted to leave and independent study, we were happy about it.    Perhaps some other kids, perhaps particularly girls, would have trouble "choosing" to opt out because they would feel the compulsion to keep trying to fit in.   They would perceive homeschooling or changing schools as a defeat and an admission of incompetence.

But from what I've seen, the homeschooling and charter schooling option has provided a vent on the perssure cooker situation of the school setting.    It's probably a very workable option for the kind of kids who are non-conformist, creative and idealistic, and possibly physically different in some way.  These are the kids who probably don't want to join the volleyball team or the float-making committee, who dislike the emotional enmeshment of the high school but in some ways are basically already young adults.   They are the kind of young person that Grace Llewellyn talks about in Real Lives.   Though they are strong determined kids who will probably survive their high school years, it seems pointless to force them to waste their time and possibly develop a slightly warped phantom image of themselves when they are basically ready to start apprenticing in real life.

So to get back to the book -- one practical strategy Mary Pipher often used with the damaged girls she saw in her practice was to ask them to write down three things a day they did that they were proud of.  This is simple, and I'm sure she had to build some kind of relationship with them before they would be that honest with her (I remember very carefully concealing anything I cared about from anyone who seemed to be in a position of authority), but if it was done it became a way for the girls to understand themselves better and I suppose, start constructing a self-perception more based on their own actions and feelings and perceptions than on those reflected back to them from their peers.  I think this might be a good type of topic to discuss with my boys when I sit down with them to talk about their goals and interests.  Since when I ask them outright they usually just say "I don't know!" and I realize I probably would have said exactly the same if my parents asked me a similar question!

Now I will glide offstage, in the noble tradition of literary phantoms!   My boys are outside and want me to see what they are doing out there -- the weather looks bleak but I guess they sense spring is here in spite of appearances!


  1. That was very interesting to read, Willa. I'm going to keep an eye on this book.
    I checked this one at the library some years ago, and I benefited from it much (Deadly Persuasion by Kilbourne).
    Like the author you speak about, Kilbourne is a feminist too. Some of her ideas I don't share, but her whole experience and analysis of the damage of publicity was truly interesting. She was a total model of the lost teen and adolescent, and even adult woman. She doesn't blame her conditions or see herself as a victim, but apart from her personal experiences she reveals, to me the book has value because of the analysis of myths, concepts, and bad influence of the media very cunningly and in a solid criticism.

    There is soooo much to read!

  2. What a fascinating, thoughtful post!! mulling it all over.

  3. Silvia, that looks like an interesting book. It looks like my library has it too.

    Thanks, Erin!

  4. I have wanted to read that book for years.

    I did the same thing with the best features of other girls when I was younger, Willa. It didn't occur to me until college that NO ONE has all the best features.

    "The intellectual qualities and experience needed for true prudence are in the future." Great point.

    I also kept my nose in a book in my teen years. You can't get chosen last if you aren't playing. ;o) I was good at music, so I had a niche, but even there I had to deal with some cruelty, as well as kindness, from other students. I remember being asked by another student what happened to my friends that didn't hang out with me any more (we had been inseparable the year before). When I explained that they had kicked me out of the group-- had in fact ignored me for months with no explanation-- he said, "No one should be treated like that." I was shocked that someone else realized it.

  5. Talking about this reminds me of the 'bad school' analogy in C.S. Lewis' Mere Christianity. That is something to remember when talking with kids from these environments. Often, they are so entrenched, they don't even realize how *wrong* it is.

  6. Katie, I remember reading Lewis's analogy to a bad school -- where what would seem like simple decency in a normal place seems almost impossible to us in our "bad school". Really mean and destructive behavior is taken as a norm. That is probably one reason why I loved discovering CS Lewis so much after I graduated! I could tell that my values were being pulled askew while in that environment, but I didn't have the words for it. Lewis is great! I'm glad you brought that up, Katie!


I would love to hear your thoughts on this!